What put California wine on the map was the infamous “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, in which a blind tasting panel awarded top honors to a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the Golden State. The winning Chardonnay came from Chateau Montelena, where it had been produced by Mike Grgich, a Croatian immigrant who worked with Robert Mondavi and would go on to establish the highly regarded Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford, Calif.
“When preparation meets opportunity, that is luck,” said Grgich’s daughter, Violet, quoting her 93-year-old father during a discussion with Napa Valley Register features editor Sasha Paulsen at the Commonwealth Club last week. His other nugget of wisdom? “Every day, do your best, learn something new, and make a friend.”
(That last part may have come from the need to have somewhere to sleep in every village when you’re fleeing the fascists.)
Born into a winemaking family near the Dalmatian coast, Mike Grgich — born Miljenko Grgić — left Croatia with $32 sewn into the sole of his shoe, finding his way to Napa only after stints in an internment camp in Nuremberg and in Canada washing dishes.
California Wine Country in the immediate postwar period was moribund, Violet Grgich said. But her father “worked with really great people of the Napa Valley who at the time were determined to reawaken the wine industry that had been shut down by Prohibition. In the 1950s, it was ghost wineries.”
He helped create the 1969 Cabernet that established Robert Mondavi’s reputation, founding his own winery eight years later largely on his knack for creating a consistent style year after year, eventually becoming famous in his native country. A documentary on him airs on Croatian television every six months.
“Everyone considers him a national hero,” Violet said.
Describing herself as painfully shy, she recalled incidents of driving her gregarious father to industry events, where he would force her out of her shell. At one point her speech consisted of four words: “Fume Blanc, nice. Questions?” At another, she spilled Zinfandel in a “spiral formation” down her cream-colored turtleneck.
Years later, she became vice president for sales and marketing, refusing to sell as so many second-generation winemakers who grew up seeing their parents’ sweat equity do. Her father’s hardscrabble upbringing likely had something to do with it.
“I’m a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House stories,” Violet said. “Here was a way of life that was preserved in literature that grownups and kids could appreciate and enjoy. In my mind, even though my father was a famous winemaker who made Napa famous, I need to hear those stories about how you as a human being overcame poverty, war, and distress to persevere with hope and joy and actually succeed. That humanistic story was so much greater than the story of wine.”