YOUNTVILLE — Amid the high school marching bands, baton twirlers and war veterans parading through downtown Yountville on Sunday, one wizened and beret-topped man led the way — a man whose life work has helped shape the Upvalley into the tourism mecca it has become.
Leading the way for the hourlong procession was Mike Grgich, the grand marshal for the 36th annual Yountville Days Parade & Festival. From the back seat of a 1970s Chevrolet Caprice convertible, the founder of the Grgich Hills winery in St. Helena greeted hundreds of locals and tourists lining Washington Street with waves on a parade route stretching from the Veterans Home of California to an afternoon festival at Yountville Community Park, the culmination of the vineyard town’s three-day Yountville Days autumn bash.
The awarding of the grand marshal title to Grgich is the latest honor for the Croatian immigrant turned Napa Valley winemaker, who turned 90 in April. Since his birthday, Grgich has received a surprise birthday cake from Trefethen Family Vineyards, a Fourth of July serenading from Croatian singers and the showcasing of Grgich Hills wines at a September winemakers dinner at the Meritage Napa resort.
The chance to thank the man whose chardonnay (made for Chateau Montelena) bested French rivals in the 1976 Paris Tasting — a set of victories that established the Napa Valley’s international winemaking reputation and helped pave the way for the tourist-grabbing wine industry that developed — was on the minds of town officials as planning for the yearly celebration began in June, according to Samantha Holland, Yountville’s parks and recreation director.
“We were thinking if there’s anyone we’d like to acknowledge, it should be him, especially with his 90th birthday,” said Holland, whose department organizes the Yountville Days. “Everything he’s done in the wine industry has been really substantial, (and) we felt it would be a great time to acknowledge him while we still could.”
Trailing Grgich on the path through Yountville were participants more in line with the popular images of small-town parades: veterans in restored military jeeps, Napa Pepperettes baton twirlers, Mexican horsemen, and the Napa and Vintage high school marching bands.
“It’s just something extra to do in this town and it’s fun,” said Dorothy Schneider, who took up a spot near the Yount Street fork with two other women who live at her retirement home in town. “That something extra is the different things that are represented, the groups and businesses. And then there’s the candy — and I also love the bands!”
Sunday’s procession and festival, which the town said attracted some 1,500 people, were a new experience even for townspeople like Sarah Zozaya, who took in the parade with a friend outside the Bistro Jeanty restaurant.
“This is actually my first year, because I was usually working on Sundays,” said Zozaya, 30, who missed previous parades while working at the Ad Hoc restaurant farther down Washington Street. “I have a neighbor whose grandson’s in the parade, so I’ll be looking for him. And I’ll be happy to catch some candy — if they throw it at adults!” she added, laughing.
Yountville’s typical flocks of tourists frequenting Bouchon, the Bardessono resort and other hot spots gave the parade an audience much larger than typical for a town of barely 3,000 residents, and some downtown visitors, like Tommie Logan of Dothan, Ala., happily let themselves be sucked into the atmosphere.
“I didn’t know what kind of parade it was,” Logan said from a bench outside the Yountville Community Center. “But it’s a beautiful day, everyone’s come out here today, and I felt I should, too,” she said, smiling.