“Mike Grgich is the embodiment of the American dream.”
W. Blake Grey, San Francisco Chronicle
I want you to imagine something. It’s 1958. You’re a 34 Yugoslav immigrant, fresh off spending 18 months in a West German internment camp before escaping to Canada. You own a few sets of clothes, a single plate, and the smallest knife you could buy. And all you want to do is make wine.
Your nephew, a priest in Washington State, puts you in contact with one of the only wineries going in Napa Valley. You finagle a work visa and make your way south from Vancouver. You arrive, penniless, in a sleepy farm community whose wine production is still decimated by the effects of prohibition. Robert Mondavi won’t found his eponymous winery for another 8 years. Joe & Alice Heitz won’t arrive for another 5.
That was Miljenko “Mike” Grgich 60 years ago. It’s an immigrant’s story, a tale which might be in danger of becoming a cliché if it wasn’t so compelling. Mike Grgich would go on to make Robert Mondavi’s 1969 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the original benchmarks for the new Napa. With Andrew Tchelistcheff, he invented induced maloactic fermentation and cold stabilization. He was the winemaker behind the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, the wine which won the famed Judgement of Paris, beating out the best White Burgundy and putting Napa Valley in the international spotlight. He made old vine Zinfandel 20 years before Larry Turley would open up shop. In 2007, at the age of 84, he fully converted his estate to biodynamics.
Mike Grgich practically invented Napa Chardonnay. Mike Grgich revolutionized how wine was made. Mike Grgich made two of the most iconic and important wines ever made in California. And this was all before he established his own winery in 1977. He is one of the most important figures in the history of Napa Valley and, at the age of 95, still spends his days in the winery he built.
Now imagine you’re a young Miljekno Grgich. You’re the youngest of 11 children born to illiterate parents, working your family’s hard scrabble farm. You take a moment, wipe the sweat from your face and look to the horizon. Somewhere towards the setting sun waits a future you can’t even articulate, dreams you don’t yet have the words to understand. Can you even conceive nearly a century later a wine shop in New York City would be writing about your life story?
I imagine you can, which is exactly why you start walking west.