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Each year as harvest begins, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich greets old friends and new as he hosts a most meaningful “Blessing of the Grapes” lead spiritually for many years by Father David Jenuwine. Mike is joined in the celebration of the new harvest by his co-founder and long-time partner Austin Hills, his daughter and winery president Violet Grgich and nephew, winemaker and Vice President Vineyards & Production Ivo Jeramaz.

I have been fortunate to attend several of these spiritual and celebratory events at the winery where gratitude is expressed for the harvest’s bounty and Mike’s lifelong contribution to the world of wine. During the ceremony, Ivo mentioned that this year’s event celebrated not only the winery’s 42nd harvest, but his 33rd and Mike’s 93rd.

Perhaps surprising but true, because at the age of only 3, Mike began stomping grapes at his family’s vineyard and winery in the village of Desne on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. Quite a beginning for Mike’s illustrious career and the passion he’s shared while impacting the lives of so many people in so many ways.

Mike’s vinous journey began in his family’s vineyard and winery and continued at the University of Zagreb in 1949 where he studied enology and related scientific disciplines. After graduation, Mike fled from Yugoslavia’s Communist rule in 1954, emigrating to West Germany. From there he traveled to Canada en route to experiencing his ultimate dream of settling in the U.S. and Napa Valley in particular.

His travels were very difficult and marked by many challenges. Yet Mike, through his wisdom and deep sense of purpose persevered. In 1958, with very little money and one suitcase (now on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History), he landed in Napa Valley to begin the next phase of his life. Once settled in the Valley, Mike continued honing his winemaking expertise under the tutelage of such luminaries as Lee Stewart (Souverain), Andre Tchelistcheff (Beaulieu Vineyards) and Robert Mondavi.

He later joined Jim Barrett in the early days of Chateau Montelena’s rebirth and received universal critical acclaim as winemaker of the legendary 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won “Best White Wine” against the standard bearers of Burgundy at the infamous Judgment of Paris in 1976. That same year, Mike partnered with Austin Hills in the founding and ground breaking of Grgich Hills Cellar (now Grgich Hills Estate) with their introductory release of the 1977 Chardonnay coming just a couple years later.

My personal friendship with Mike began in spring 1979 during my first visit to Napa Valley. The day after enjoying a bottle of the famed 1973 award winning Chardonnay on a private island at Chateau Montelena (as guests of our good friends and Gemstone founders Suzie and Paul Frank), we had lunch at Domaine Chandon and savored a bottle of the newly released 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay. The wine was delightful, and after Paul related its beautiful story, we decided to venture up the valley to the winery with hopes of meeting Mike.

That was the beginning of our 40-year friendship and the first of many great memories I’ve shared with Mike and by opening countless bottles of Grgich Hills to enjoy with friends.

This year’s 42nd annual Blessing of the Grapes began under a cloudy morning sky. But as Violet pointed out, “this event is always marked by a day of sunshine.” In just moments, the clouds began to clear and Violet (on the accordion) accompanied by her husband Colin Shipman (on bass) led the crowd in a sing-along to one of Mike’s most memorable favorites, “You Are My Sunshine” followed by another of Mike’s favorites, “Que Será, Será.”

At this year’s celebration, Ivo spoke about the growing season and harvest, updating the guests on the goings-on in the vineyard and winery. Austin reflected upon the history of the winery and extended a warm welcome to all in attendance as we sipped the delightful 2015 Fumé Blanc. Violet began her welcome remarks asking for a show of hands by all who attended the 1976 ground- breaking celebration. Many hands shot up throughout the crowd reflecting the loyal following the Grgich Hills family has cultivated through the years.

Following the program, we were invited to the Ranch House for a garden reception highlighted by the traditional “stomping of the grapes” for all those interested in participating. More Fumé Blanc flowed along with the 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, both complementing a delectable salad and variety of wood burning oven pizzas prepared by St. Helena’s Tre Posti.

And all the while, Gordon Lustig (talented music director for Napa’s Congregation Beth Shalom) entertained us with a lively guitar program that set the mood for a beautiful gathering.

Since first meeting Mike in 1979, I’ve always listened closely to what he has to say about wine and life. I often recall that in answering a question on oak and Chardonnay during that first visit he casually replied (with a smile), “if you want to taste oak, chew on a toothpick.” I clearly understood what he meant.

Mike’s memoir, “A Glass Full of Miracles” magnificently expresses his life and pride in achieving so much through both adversity and in the very best of times. Among his many honors and accolades earned, Mike’s contributions to the wine industry were again acknowledged by his induction to the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2008.

I think Mike’s view on wine’s role in our lives is best summed up by his observation: “I realized that you don’t make wine only with your head and your senses. You make wine with your heart.”

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Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at napavalleyregister.com/wine-exchange or email me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.

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