31 Jan Wining, Dining & Inspiring
On January 20th, I attended a Wine Dinner at my Country Club here in California – it was a beautiful six course meal featuring the wines of Napa Valley’s Grgich Hills Estate and presenting the entertaining 89- year-old owner and winemaker, Mr. Miljenko “Mike” Grgich.
Grgich Hills makes some lovely wines and they are particularly known for their Chardonnay. I stumbled (OK, so not a good word under the circumstances) upon it one day after my long Chardonnay drought was over. You see, in my 20’s, I used to go out every Friday night (to the patio at Bridges on Vancouver’s Granville Island in the summer) and drink utterly too many glasses of cheap Australian Chard, so laced with oak essence it makes my tongue curl to even think about it.
At the age of 18, I had attended a Greek Easter party in Johannesburg and drank copious quantities of Gin and Tonic. Needless to say, to this day, even the mere aroma of Gin sends me into a tail spin…and so it was with Chardonnay. I lumped them all into the ‘cheap, oaked to hell and back’ category and stayed away for years.
Thankfully, when my economic circumstances changed, I was introduced to really delicious, premium quality, un-oaked or lightly oaked appley chardonnays primarily from California’s Napa Valley.
I am a fan of Grgich Hills Chardonnay and a few years ago I watched a movie called Bottle Shock starring Alan Rickman and Bull Pulham. I never realized the connection between the two until now… (Mr. Grgich would say that this is because the movie was “Hollywoodized” and largely inaccurate!) The movie does however tell an important story in his life and indeed in Napa’s history.
Mike was born in the former Yugoslavia and studied Enology and Viticulture at the University of Zagreb. One of his professors went on sabbatical to California and told his students that it was paradise. Mike said, “That activated my mind. I started to dream and thought, ‘Could I one day leave communism and be in California, in freedom, owning a little vineyard and a winery?’ What a dream!”
Finally, in 1958, Mike made it to California (fittingly by way of Canada actually, and specifically British Columbia.) After many years of working for a number of cellars in the Napa, Mike was offered a job with Chateau Montelena in 1972. It was here that a 1973 Chardonnay that Mike crafted was chosen by an Englishman who owned a Parisian wine shop, to be included in a blind tasting with the 10 best Chardonnays of France and California. They were to be judged by 9 French judges in Paris on May 24, 1976.
Mike’s little wine from the Napa caused a sensation among the horrified French winemakers by being judged the BEST! And so the California wines slowly began to gain the respect of the “Old World” that they so deserved.
In 1977, Mike and his partners opened Grgich Hills Cellar. Today Grgich Hills owns 366 acres of vineyards throught the Napa Valley and produces 70,000 cases of award-winning estate grown wines. In 2006 the winery switched to solar power and their commitment to making wine as naturally as possible has resulted in all 5 vineyards being certified organic and Biodynamic. How great is that? Kudos to them!
Mike is a legend in the Napa Valley and a 2008 inductee to the Vinters Hall of Fame.
He likes to say that luck is when preparation meets opportunity and his life story embodies this phrase. He has lived his life on purpose, followed his passion and success followed. It all began with a dream.
I can honestly say that he is an inspiration and a character of some note and I feel honored to have met him.