Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, a longtime Napa Valley winemaker who was best known for crafting the famed 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting of 1976, died on Dec. 13. He was 100.
Over his decades in wine, Grgich worked at several trailblazing California wineries. He also helped perfect several winemaking techniques in California, including cold sterilization and controlled malolactic fermentation. He also spearheaded research with U.C. Davis professor Carole Meredith into the roots of California Zinfandel, eventually tracing it back to his native Croatia.
Born April 1, 1923, in a small village on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, Grgich grew up stomping grapes in the family winery where his great-grandfather, grandfather and father had all made wine. With hopes of becoming a winemaker himself, Grgich studied chemistry, enology, microbiology and soil biology at the University of Zagreb.
Croatia was then part of Yugoslavia, ruled by a Communist dictatorship that converted wineries into large, state-run companies. In 1954, Grgich left, navigating through Germany and Canada before arriving in Napa Valley in 1958 with almost nothing. He got to work straight away in the cellars of Souverain Winery, working alongside Napa pioneer Leland “Lee” Stewart.
Grgich gained experience working in the cellars of several notable wineries, including at Christian Brothers and then Beaulieu Vineyard, where he spent nine years working with another Napa emigré and pioneer, André Tchelistcheff. Eager to move up the ladder in the wine industry, Grgich took on the role of chief enologist at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1968. But his dream was to own his own winery, and Mondavi was a family affair.
In 1972, Grgich became head winemaker for Chateau Montelena, where he was given an ownership percentage. Four years later, his Chardonnay earned the top prize for a white wine at the Paris Tasting, grabbing attention for both California and himself. “For years, everybody in the world believed that only French soils could produce great wines,” Grgich said in his autobiography. “We shattered that myth.”
The following year, Grgich parlayed his success into his own winery, teaming up with Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. Coffee Family to create Grgich Hills Cellar in Rutherford. His Chardonnay continued to receive acclaim.
Grgich had an artistic and intuitive touch to his winemaking, crafting in an Old World style. As Grgich explained in his book, “There is no sure-proof scientific formula for making great wines. Over the years I have learned to communicate with the wines and how to nurture them. I realized that you don’t make wine only with your head and your senses. You make wine with your heart.”
In 1995, Grgich returned part-time to his native Croatia, purchasing a small resort on the island of Korcula, located off the coast of Croatia in the Adriatic Sea. He built a winery there, buying the grapes that he uses from around the area. And in 1999, he partnered with fellow California vintners and the organization Roots of Peace to raise money to remove land mines in Croatia and plant vineyards on the land.
In 2003, three former employees filed a lawsuit against Grgich and the winery. Two sisters who had worked there claimed he sexually harassed them when they were 17 and 19, and a bookkeeper said she was fired for asking Grgich to cease. Grgich denied the claims. The parties settled out of court in 2004.
In 2018, Grigch was named Outstanding Wine Professional at the James Beard Awards. A bottle of Grgich’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 and one of his trademark berets have been displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. He is survived by his daughter, Violet, who oversees the winery, and grandson Noel Grgich-Shipman.
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