Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, of Calistoga, clearly one of America’s greatest living wine makers, turned 90 on April 1, and, despite some nagging back problems, he is still working his craft.
He is still sampling his wines, worrying about the weather, and pondering this year’s vintage. While other winemakers, many years younger, now work their vintage around their golf, Mike still works the tables, still answers his own phone, and still proudly vouches for his remarkable wines.
At 90, with a seat in the Vintners Hall of Fame, a place in the Smithsonian, and a Global Citizen Award for his selfless work in rehabilitating his war-torn native country of land mines, Mike still continues to push the envelope.
Such was the case at a recent tasting and celebration, where he reintroduced to the media some of his classics. Not only did Grgich show a lovely 1987 zinfandel which still retained its clean elegant style, from robe, to fruit, to tannins, even though it was 25 years old; he presented his 1972 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. This was his first creation as winemaker at the then-restored winery, and the precursor to the legendary 1973 that unseated the French and opened the vault to winemakers throughout the world.
A 1972 white wine, 41 years old. Do you know what that is in white-wine-years? One might expect a brown slag, cloudy, with loads of sediment. Not these bottles. While a bit dry and boney by today’s standards for a Napa Valley chardonnay, the clear, golden hues were still there, so, too, the flavors and bouquet. Its acidity still kept the wine crisp. More a dry Chablis, without the flint, than a plump Meursault, but a remarkably well-preserved, well-balanced white wine.
While this wine, because of its age, and style frame, may not compete with the youth of today, one can only imagine how a 2012 chardonnay would stack up 40 years from now. “Í like to think I am like that wine,” Grgich said. “Not as fine as in its youth, but well-made, and still alive and useful enough to be appreciated.”
Indeed, Mike’s life has been one of exceptional “use.” If all people could work to overcome their shortcomings, and serve the world, and, thereby, themselves and their families, in the way Mike has, the possibilities would be mind-boggling.
In a follow-up interview, when asked of his unusual success, Mike pondered: “Perhaps one lucky thing was, I accepted in life there is some suffering; and, so, I accepted suffering as part of my life. But I didn’t suffer in suffering. I always knew that after every rain must come sunshine.”
And Mike saw a lot of rain: Grgich was born in Yugoslavia in 1923, into a Croatian family of already 10 children. He was then saddled with living under a Serbian king, under whom Croats were treated as a despised minority. This was followed by the Nazi-fascist terror of World War II. Victory was followed by the Communist dictatorship of Marshal (Josip Broz) Tito.
In 1954, Grgich fled to Germany, as a farmworker. This was followed by an arduous trip to Canada. It was a cold February journey. Nine days, by ship, from Hamburg across the rough North Atlantic to Nova Scotia; and then five more days by train to British Columbia. First a dishwasher, then factory worker, and then to California as a cellar rat cum-winery assistant, Miljenko paid his dues, as most immigrants have who come only with the shirts on their back, and a few spare coins in their shoe.
Despite his own singular determination to succeed, he still expresses his appreciation for the generous help he has received from others. Grateful, he says, to his father, who told him he must always do his best, and learn something new each day. He adds that he cannot ever overlook the help he received from whom he calls his California mentors — icons like Robert Mondavi, Lee Steward, Andre Tchelistcheff, and Brother Timothy, for whom he worked.
“Robert Mondavi supported me when I started my winery 36 years ago,” he said. “He offered to process my grapes if my winery was not completed by harvest. And Margrit helped me with my wine label. Andre was an immigrant, like myself. He was a firm boss, but I learned much being by his side. I cannot forget this.”
He said he is very appreciative of the responsibility given to him by the late Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena. “In 1972 we were a new winery, and Jim gave me a great opportunity to try my own ideas, which helped me much in the future.”
Grgich said another part of his secret was to keep a journal. “I always tried to learn something from my work. Many people come to work without realizing it can be a place to learn, too. Each day I would write down the best of everything I’d learned that day. Most people never pay attention to what they do each day, and that is a mistake.”
For more than 100 years, the origin of California’s zinfandel was unknown; but Grgich believed the grape was Croatian. From his contact with two professors in Croatia, and DNA expert and former U.C. Davis professor Carole Meredith, we know zinfandel is really Crljenik Kasteljanski, an old Croatian variety.
Grgich has become a grand old vine. He has shown what American know-how, determination, and focus are all about. For more than 35 years, Grgich Hills has worked and still does. From its beginnings, a loyal staff has evolved with a focus on sustainability.
Through Mike’s daughter, Violet, his nephew, Ivo, and Austin Hills’ son, Justin, the winery continues to remain tight-knit, family-owned and operated; with quality and consistency still the inherent themes.
“SRETAN RODENDAN, Miljenko Grgich” — Happy Birthday, Mike.
(John Intardonato is a Calistoga resident, freelance writer and amateur winemaker.)