“André Tchelistcheff took a slow drag from his cigarette and looked thoughtfully into the intelligent eyes of the equally diminutive man seated before him. Wine was not the only thing these two globetrotters had in common. Both had backgrounds in agriculture, and both were highly educated and equally gifted. Much like Tchelistcheff, the man across the table from him had come to California ‘the long way’ en route from his home in Croatia. Tchelistcheff had spent time in Zagreb, and both men had fled Europe as refugees in search of a better life in America. Miljenko Grgić, who early on changed his name to Mike Grgich, was self-conscious about his English and studied hard to improve it. Tchelistcheff sensed this and, switching languages without warning began speaking to Grgich in his native Croatian. Grgich smiled widely across the table at this strikingly kindred spirit. Tchelistcheff, it seemed, was a Godsend.”
– Excerpted from The Rise of Napa Valley Wineries:
How the Judgment of Paris put California Wine on the Map
Some names and words are as deeply rooted in the history of Napa Valley as the vines themselves. Wappo words, such as Mayacamas, and Spanish words, such as Vacas. Later came names like Yount and Beringer, followed by names like Tchelistcheff and Mondavi. One name that Napa residents and wine lovers around the world will not soon forget is that of Mike Grgich, who, on April 1, 2023, celebrated his hundredth year of life.
Upon his arrival in the then-little-known Napa Valley, Grgich took a job with Lee Stewart at Souverain before working at Christian Brothers with Brother Timothy, at Beaulieu alongside André Tchelistcheff, and later at Robert Mondavi, replacing Warren Winiarski, where his ’69 Cabernet Sauvignon made skeptics wonder if world-class wine really could be produced in California. After Mondavi, Grgich became the first winemaker at Chateau Montelena, working for Jim Barret and his partners.
Montelena was destined to be a Cabernet house, but Grgich suggested white wines to keep the books in the black while the red wines matured. Montelena’s 1972 Chardonnay was widely appreciated, but it was the 1973 vintage that, three years later, won the Judgment of Paris, a tasting put on by English wine merchant Steven Spurrier. The 1973 went head-to-head with the best Chardonnays of France, tasted blind in Paris by French judges—and it won. An hour later, Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon won the red category in equally dramatic fashion. A journalist named George Taber wrote the story in TIME Magazine, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Or is it? Grgich left Chateau Montelena shortly after, partnering with the Hills siblings from Hills Brothers Coffee to open Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford. Grgich Hills’ first Chardonnay won a gold medal at the Orange County Fair (where Winiarski was a judge), and while that was a nice accolade, it paled in comparison to what came next. In 1980, the Chicago Tribune staged the Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown, pitting 221 expressions of the Burgundian white varietal against one another in a fermented battle royale. Montelena, Simi, and Heitz landed in the top five, but Grgich Hills’ 1977 took top honors.
Much is owed to Mike Grgich, who helped transform Napa from a sleepy agrarian valley to the world’s premier winegrowing region alongside his contemporaries. As he turns a hundred years old, many whose lives he impacted have been reflecting upon his legacy and their time together.
“He is another American success story, an immigrant success story, as was my grandfather,” reflected Tim Mondavi, son of Robert. “That’s something we forget about today, but the contributions of immigrants should be front and center because they are something we all benefit from.” Tim credits much of his early learning to what Grgich taught him during their time together.
Michael Mondavi, Tim’s brother and Robert’s son, remembers how hard they worked on sanitation, the experiments they conducted, and the fun they had. “It was a pleasure working with Mike on testing, new ideas, yeasts, and techniques to improve the quality of the wines,” reflected Michael.
“When his biography was produced, I was asked to write the introduction,” recalled Industry icon Zelma Long. “I was struck with the fact that Mike has had two full lives: before Napa and after. His story of his family, his life as a young man, his training [in] Croatia, his need to escape.” Long admires Grgich greatly and visited her old mentor late in 2022. “What André Tchelistcheff was to Bob Mondavi and Louis Martini, Mike was to me,” she said fondly.
“He was a different type of leader than I had ever experienced,” said Bo Barret, son of Jim, who was working for Grgich at Montelena when the 1973 was produced. “The first year at Chateau Montelena, it was just Mike. I was a low-level cellar intern. So he had to bring us up to speed really quick,” remembered Bo. “In 1973 there were only three of us in the cellar. I just went back over the records not long ago, and in a two-week period, I worked 160 hours. Two weeks. We worked hard for that guy,” he chuckled, concluding, “That year, we won the pennant. Mike was our MVP.”
Gustavo Brambilla’s father had worked with Grgich and Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu, where the latter two encouraged Brambilla to find a way to send one of his children to college. After completing his degree, Gustavo worked briefly at Chateau Montelena before working at Grgich Hills. “When I was working with Mike, I studied his palate and made wines he liked. In doing that, I developed the ability to make wines for certain tastes. Since then, I’ve continued to study consumer palates—ever-changing—and incorporate that into my winemaking,” recalled Brambilla, who today makes sought-after wines and can often be found in his Oxbow tasting room.
Grgich remained active even as he aged. He opened a winery, Grgić Vina, in his native Croatia to support the economy as the Balkan nation recovered from war. He helped raise money for Roots of Peace, a charity that seeks to rid the world of landmines, including in his homeland. Most of all, he has left a legacy. His daughter, Violet, and nephew, Ivo, still operate the winery with a devotion to the land and a tradition of producing world-class wines.
The story of Mike Grigich is that of an American dream realized, an immigrant who sought a better life in America and then made one for himself and every generation to follow. His contributions to the wine industry cannot be overstated. So much is owed to the man who made the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that, alongside the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, opened the eyes of consumers to the endless possibilities of winemaking around the world. Asked about Grgich recently, Warren Winiarski smiled fondly, and sent this message:
Happy birthday and keep in your memory Paris in 1976.
Let it keep you well into the future.