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Celebrated Napa winemaker Miljenko ‘Mike’ Grgich dies at 100

From a small village in Croatia to one of the giants who established the global reputation of Napa Valley wine. Mike Grgich left an indelible mark on the region and American wine in general.

Grgich was born the youngest of 11 children to Nicola and Ivka Grgić on 1 April, 1923, in the village of Desne, Croatia. His father made wine, and some of his earliest memories were of stomping grapes at harvest. His mother wanted him to get an education and so he left home aged 10, when his schooling in Desne ended, to go and live with a sister and continue his studies.

Grgich had designs on being a shopkeeper. Yet, after living through harrowing experiences during World War II, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a winemaker. Communism came to eastern Europe, and Croatia became part of Yugoslavia, and Mike went to the University of Zagreb to study oenology and viticulture.

He would flee communist Yugoslavia via an agricultural exchange programme with Germany and, via Canada’s British Columbia, would find his way to Napa Valley in 1958. Having arrived in St. Helena, Grgich would work for Chateau Souverain, and he would eventually meet another immigrant winemaker, André Tchelistcheff. The two would work together at Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford.

Eventually, Grgich was hired by a man named Robert Mondavi, who had built the first new wine facility in Napa since Prohibition. In his first vintage, 1969, Grgich crafted a legendary Cabernet Sauvignon at Mondavi. From there, he would go to Chateau Montelena, where he would make history.

The 1976 Judgement of Paris winning white wine, Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay, was made by Grgich in just his second vintage at Montelena. A moment that lifted American wine to its greatest heights and one that resonates to this day in the vine rows in Napa, as well as every wine region in the country.

His success would allow him to build his own Grgich Hills brand, founded in 1977. The American dream fully realised.

Following the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, Grgich returned to Croatia, where he finally received his university diploma. He established the Croatian winery Grgić Vina with a focus on indigenous varieties.

Grgich leaves behind a massive legacy, built over a century of rich experiences, relationships and commitments to teaching and learning, always.

His name is synonymous with both Napa Valley and the rebirth of the Croatian wine industry. The suitcase that he fled Yugoslavia with sits in the Smithsonian Institute of American History along with wines from that famed Paris judging, part of an exhibit called 101 Objects that Made America.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Community Health Foundation Napa Valley — formerly Collabria — and to Roots of Peace.

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