A renowned and beloved figure in the Napa Valley, Mijenko “Mike” Grgich, died Wednesday at age 100, reportedly passing in his sleep with family members at his side at home in Calistoga.
"A man of many dreams, he had reached his final goal of living to be 100," said Grgich's winery, in a memorial statement.
Born into a winemaking family in 1923 in Desne, a village on the Dalmatian coast of what's now Croatia, in the former Republic of Yugoslavia, Grgich emigrated first to West Germany for college in 1954, and then to Canada before landing his first job at a winery in California, Christian Brothers.
Early in his career, Grgich worked at multiple wineries including Robert Mondavi, and Souverain, before he became the winemaker and limited partner at Chateau Montelena. It was there that he made his name making world-class Chardonnay — including the 1973 vintage that beat out all of its French counterparts in a blind tasting, the legendary 1976 Judgement of Paris depicted in the 2008 film Bottle Shock. The win earned Grgich the moniker "King of Chardonnay," and it helped to launch California Chardonnay into the venerated place it holds in the world to this day.
By 1977, Grgich was launching his own eponymous winery, Grgich Hills Estate, which still operates on Highway 29 in Rutherford.
The Chronicle's obit notes that Grgich always had wine in his blood, and was stomping grapes at his family's winery by age 3. Grgich also kept his winery small and family-run through the years, while many of his competitors sold out to conglomerates. Grgich's daughter, Violet Grgich, has run daily operations there since 1988 (though she officially took over from her father in 2018), and his nephew Ivo Jeramaz, who immigrated from Croatia, ultimately became the winemaker.
As the Chronicle also notes, Grgich was the subject of sexual harassment claims by three female employees in 2003 — two sisters who were 17 and 19 at the time, and a bookkeeper who said she was fired in retaliation for trying to refuse his advances. Grgich told the Chronicle in an interview that this was just a matter of "old-world customs," and the parties settled out of court in 2004.
Grgich will also be remembered for contributing to a project spearheaded at UC Davis two decades ago to trace the lineage of California Zinfandel. The grape was thought to be native to California until the 2001 study showed its genetic link to Italy's Primitivo, and originally to a grape native to Croatia called "Tribidrag" or "Crljenak Kaštelanski."
“Saddened to learn of the passing of Mike Grgich," said U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) in a statement. “Mike was a trailblazing winemaker and developed many of the techniques that have helped make Napa Valley wine the best in the world… Mike’s legacy will be remembered for generations to come and his efforts have helped pave the way for future innovations in winemaking. He made immeasurable contributions to the winemaking community and to our Valley, and he will be sorely missed."
In a preface to his 2016 autobiography, A Glass Full of Miracles, his winemaking colleague Zelma Long wrote of Grgich,"With many unexpected and wonderful consequences of his open thinking, warm and loyal heart, bright mind and clear sense of values, his is the story of a life well and fully lived."
Photo courtesy of Grgich Hills Estate