When Croatia-born winemaker Mike Grgich came to work at Christian Brothers in 1958, he was intrigued by the number of good wines he tasted.

But there was one wine that puzzled him. He couldn’t get over the fact that California zinfandel reminded him of a wine he’d consumed at home, plavac mali (plah-VAACH MAHL-ee). Zinfandel had the color, the distinct aroma and the spice of this hardy Croatian wine.

Grgich can’t tell you how many times he told others of his suspicions, that zinfandel and the grape from his homeland were somehow related. He regaled anyone who’d listen with his enological contention — the most important of whom were experts in viticulture and enology.

Trips to vineyards along the Dalmatian coast were organized and leaf samples were gathered, first for ampelographic study and, eventually, DNA analysis.

While a DNA study showed Croatia’s plavac mali was not the parent of zinfandel, it revealed the workhorse grape is a kissing cousin. Former UC Davis researcher Carole Meredith — now a Mount Veeder vintner — said it best when she told Grgich, “We’re in the right church but the wrong pew.”

A subsequent scouring of the Croatian countryside for vines similar to plavac mali turned up an ancient variety that had nearly died out, crljenak kastelanski (tsirl-YEN-nock kash-teh-LAHN-skee). Geneticists at Zagreb University were elated — their tests showed zinfandel and this ancient Croatian vine were indeed one and the same. Not only that, so was Italian primitivo. Meredith and fellow UC Davis scientists confirmed the find.

And you-know-who in the Napa Valley was all smiles.

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But he didn’t gloat. Instead, he returned to his native country and, at the suggestion of its president, opened a winery and provided the wine industry there with suggestions for improving wine quality.

“Yugoslavia was known for its bulk wines,” Grgich said recently, “and now (the region) is known for quality wines.” Stainless steel fermentation and oak aging, introduced by Grgich, helped Croatian winemakers improve wine production and quality.

Grgich is acknowledged for launching a new era of winemaking in democratic Croatia. And the wines he produces in Croatia (as well as in the Napa Valley) with the help of nephew Ivo Jeramaz are now available at Grgich Hills Estate winery in St. Helena.

Production is limited to one white wine, posip (poe-ship), and one red, plavac mali. The white grape variety has been grown for centuries in Croatia on several islands and along the Dalmatian coast where the cool waters and attendant winds of the Adriatic Sea provide the ideal climate. Grgich’s posip grapes come from a steep vineyard near the sea on the island of Korcula.

As Grgich likes to say, the crisp, dry 2010 posip “offers a trip to the Mediterranean in a glass,” with the aroma of wildflowers and the refreshing taste of citrus and melon. It sells for $28.

The plavac mali grapes come from the prestigious Dingac appellation, a small, steep area of organically farmed vineyards perched above the sea on the south-facing slopes of the mountainous Peljesac Peninsula. The 2008 bottling offers lovely, ripe brambly fruit with soft tannins — a delicious mouthful of spicy red for $38.

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