Although he’s spending the day at home in La Quinta, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich sports his trademark beret, a houndstooth jacket, and a tie whose abstract pattern suggests grapes. At the age of 85, the world-renowned winemaker recalls how he first came to own a beret in his native Croatia in 1949.
“When I went to University of Zagreb, I had no father, no mother. I had to support myself, and I came to Zagreb, which has lots of rain, like Seattle. So I bought an umbrella. I lived seven miles from university and going to the university and back I had only one choice, and that was streetcar,” he says. “One day, I left the umbrella on the streetcar. … I was walking down the street one day and I saw the French beret. I had no money to buy a new umbrella, but I had enough to buy a beret. I thought that will be to protect my head and I am never going to lose it because I could fold it up and keep it in my pocket. And since that moment on, this was my head.”
From such humble beginnings, Grgich climbed to the pinnacle of success in the world of wine. Last year, he celebrated his 50th harvest in Napa Valley and was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame. The cardboard suitcase filled with books that he carried when he emigrated from Croatia is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, which acknowledges him as the winemaker who produced the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay that won the seminal Paris tasting in 1976 that put California on the wine world’s map. Though Congress passed a resolution in 2006 recognizing Grgich’s role in the Paris tasting, that role was omitted from the 2008 film Bottle Shock after he turned down $10,000 to sign off on the script because of inaccuracies in the story.
Grgich’s own story starts much longer ago as the youngest of 11 children born to a Croatian winemaker. From the ages of 6 to 10, he tended a flock of 20 sheep, taking them up the mountain in the morning and bringing them down after he returned from school. “I have discovered a great belonging to the soil, to the trees, to the sheep,” he says. “I came to America with a lot of instinct, and civilization is getting away from instinct. Computers are replacing instinct, and I can claim definitely that part of my success was possessing this instinct.”
After studying enology and viticulture in Zagreb and while working at a paper mill on a Canadian visa in 1956, Grgich placed a position-wanted ad in a wine bulletin and landed a job at Souverain Cellars in Napa. From there, he went to Beaulieu Vineyard, Robert Mondavi Winery, and Chateau Montelena. After the Paris tasting, Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. Coffee family approached him about creating a winery on vineyards Hills owned in Rutherford. The first vintages of Grgich Hills in the late 1970s were served at dinners attended by Spanish King Juan Carlos, President Ronald Reagan, French President Francois Mitterrand, and Queen Elizabeth II.
Rightfully proud of his accomplishments and awards (which include the Roots of Peace 2007 Global Citizen Award for his efforts in landmine awareness), Grgich seems most pleased with his contribution to winemaking in his homeland.
“After fall of communism, I came back to Croatia and brought the Napa Valley knowledge about red wines,” he says of a trip he made in 1993 when Croatian vintners were still aging wine in cement tanks. “My hope was to go to Croatia not to open a winery, but rather to give my country as present the knowledge they needed to have better wines than made during communism.”
Grgich, however, did open a winery in Croatia after purchasing and restoring a former fortress on the Adriatic dating back to 1947. The same year the Smithsonian commemorated his role in American wine history (1996), Grgich opened Grgic Vina (he added an “h” to his name in the United States to help Americans pronounce it correctly). The winery, on the steep hillsides of Trstenik, produces plavac mali, as well as a white wine called posip. And this is where Grgich’s story circles back to his arrival in Napa.