In the Company of Miljenko Grgich

It is a well-known occasion among knowledgeable wine consumers that the beginning of the California wine revolution began with an extraordinary blind wine tasting of French and California wines in Paris in 1976, known as the Paris Tasting.

In it Napa Valley wines were invited to participate against their most endearing and best counterparts in France.  The California winners: a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap, and a 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena made by Miljenko (Mike) Grgich, which scored the most points of the competition. Contrary to the movie about the event, the bottle was perfect and never brown or discolored.

Grgich went on to open his own winery one year later with Austin Hills and his sister Mary Lee Strebl. The winery started out as as Grgich Hills Cellar, but was later changed to Grgich Hills Estate.

Not as well known is the fact that Grgich was, in that victorious year of 1976, 53 years old and had 50 years of preparation in wine for that moment. He came to Napa Valley from what was formerly Yugoslavia (now Croatia) in 1958, virtually penniless but with knowledge of winemaking and words from his father “to do better each day.”

He is now 91, and, as of April 1, is still enjoying great recognition as America’s winemaker.

In 2008 he was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame.  In 2012, he was honored by the Smithsonian Institute of American History in Washington, D.C. when it focused on American wine, displaying the Paris Tasting winning 1973 Chardonnay and other Grgich historical keepsakes.

The famous Chardonnay is now shown in an official book, “The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects,” along with the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit.

My latest visit with Miljenko was at Mitch’s, his favorite restaurant in Palm Desert. Taste Of Wine had an opportunity to enjoy his company and to ask him some personal, probing questions.

It’s been said grapes are like children in a family.  There is always one favorite.  What is your favorite grape?

Chardonnay is my favorite. ($42.) I drink more because it goes so well with Mediterranean food, a lighter food that is better for you. I have been disappointed that Chardonnay became bigger flavored, but it is now going back to its earlier elegant days. It needs to be naturally presented with food so it doesn’t become a cocktail.

What is left in your “bucket list” that you want to do in your life?

It seems every year there is something special that comes to me.  I do want to author a book about my life in Croatia as a young winemaker then in Napa Valley showing wine as art.  Art comes from the heart.  It is the highest form of creation.

Is Merlot dead?  Will it ever recover from the beating it took in the movie “Sideways”?

Merlot will gradually take back its place.  Merlot, you know, is still one of the most expensive wines in France, on the right bank in Bordeaux.  The 2011 Chateau Le Pin from Pomerol is priced at $1,455. California is moving away from the fruit bombs to more mellow wines like Merlot.  It’s much more acceptable as a food wine that doesn’t overpower the menu.

What moment in your life are you most proud of?

The Smithsonian Institute exhibit and recent book honor with Julia Child’s kitchen and my exhibit with my wine, beret and travel suitcase when I first arrived in America, is my most proud moment.

Grgich also has been the subject of a Croation TV documentary of his life, “Like the Old Vine,” which premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival in November 2112.  For this and other information about Grgich Hills Estate, visit

Wine Bytes

Callaway Vineyard and Winery in Temecula has a Budbreak Celebration April 5 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. with a special winemaker dinner featuring vintner Craig Larson.  Meritage Executive Chef Michael Henry will prepare a five-course meal.  Cost is $95. RSVP at (951) 676-4001.

Eagles composer turned winemaker Jack Tempchin will appear at Whole Foods Market downtown Encinitas April 5 from 4 to 6 p.m. with a free wine tasting of his Peaceful Easy Feeling Cabernet Sauvignon as a courtesy from South Coast Winery.  He will play a short set of his hit songs.  For more information call (760) 274-1580.

Falkner Winery in Temecula will have free concerts on Sundays from noon to 3 p.m., starting April 6. See

 Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine

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