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Mike Grgich Dies at 100; His Wine Stunned the French by Besting Theirs

Mike Grgich, the winemaker at Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, and his staff were taken aback on May 25, 1976, after they received a surprising telegram. It read in part, “STUNNING SUCCESS IN PARIS TASTING.”

What tasting? What success?

Without their knowledge, Montelena’s 1973 chardonnay had been entered in a blind tasting held in Paris the day before. The tasting pitted American wines against some of France’s most famous, hallowed bottles. Nine French judges, including some of the leading names in the French food and wine establishment, had selected the Montelena chardonnay as their top white.

This result was indeed shocking. American wines back then were considered simple and rustic at best, and no match for the majestic French wines. While the French judges shrank in embarrassed bewilderment, the Americans celebrated.

“Not bad for kids from the sticks,” said Jim Barrett, the owner of Montelena. But it was Mr. Grgich, who died on Wednesday at 100, who had made the wine.

Even with this unforeseen success, few expected the tasting to have lasting impact. Only one reporter, George M. Taber of Time magazine, was there. But he wrote an article that drew a flood of attention. Its ripples have been felt for decades.

For American wines, Montelena’s triumph provided instant credibility and a shot of confidence. For Mr. Grgich (pronounced GURR-gitch), a Croatian immigrant who had struggled for years to establish himself in Napa Valley, it permitted him to realize his dream of owning his own Napa winery. Grgich Hills Estate issued its first wines the next year and is still going strong today.

The tasting also won Mr. Grgich lasting respect and renown. In 1981, Terry Robards, a wine columnist then for The New York Times, wrote, “He may be the best maker of white wine in the United States.”

Mr. Grgich took a bit of issue with that phraseology.

“I’m not calling myself a winemaker anymore,” he told Mr. Robards. “I’m a wine sitter. I sit with the wine and see what it needs.”

His winery said he died at his home in Calistoga, Calif.

Mr. Grgich at his winery in 1981. “I know how to be a wine chemist, a wine microbiologist, a wine doctor, but I don’t want to be a wine doctor,” he said. “I give more attention to the art of winemaking than to the science.”Credit…Terry Robards/The New York Times

Mr. Grgich’s century-long journey took him to places he might scarcely have imagined as a child. He was born Miljenko Grgic on April 1, 1923, the youngest of 11 children, in Desne, Yugoslavia, a small town near the Adriatic Sea in what is now Croatia.

His parents, Nikola and Ivka (Batinovic) Grgic, were subsistence farmers. They grew grains and vegetables, raised cows and sheep for milk and cheese, and tended vines, from which they made wine.

The wine was not merely for pleasure. The local water supply was not considered safe to drink, so the custom was to blend it with wine for wine’s antiseptic properties. Mr. Grgich’s earliest memories, as he told it, were of crushing grapes for wine with his feet.

Young Miljenko left school at 14 to work at a cousin’s store, but in 1939, with the beginning of World War II, the region was occupied by the Italians, then the Germans and finally a communist faction. Mr. Grgich recalled seeing the communists as liberators until they began seizing people’s property.

Mr. Grgich was continually drawn to wine, which had become scarce and valuable during the war. After the war, in 1949, he began studying viticulture and enology at the University of Zagreb. Several years later, he joined a demonstration protesting the firing of a popular professor. This drew the attention of the secret police, and Mr. Grgich resolved to leave Yugoslavia for California, which he had heard described as an agricultural paradise.

His departure, however, would have to wait until 1954, when he received a student visa for an internship in West Germany. So began a four-year trek that took him from West Germany to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he anglicized his name to Mike Grgich, and finally, in August 1958, to Napa Valley, where he arrived by bus with two cardboard suitcases.

The trip was possible only because Mr. Grgich had placed a “winemaker position wanted” in a wine trade journal. He was offered a job by Lee Stewart of Souverain Cellars, then a leading Napa winery, who also procured a permanent resident visa for him.

In 1958, Napa Valley was hardly the wine Disneyland it is today. It was, rather, a sleepy agricultural region where scattered wineries coexisted with plum orchards and walnut groves. Mr. Stewart was rigorous and said to be difficult to work with, and Mr. Grgich lasted less than a year there.

He moved on to Christian Brothers, another top winery of the time, where he learned to make sparkling wine. Then began a formative period when he worked closely with Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards, a seminal figure of midcentury American wine, and Robert Mondavi, who galvanized the rapid growth of Napa Valley in the late 20th century.

Mr. Grgich in 2008. His life’s journey took him from Croatia to West Germany, then to British Columbia and finally to California’s Napa Valley, where he found winemaking success.Credit…Eric Risberg/Associated Press

In 1972, despairing of ever running his own place, he was offered the winemaker’s job at Montelena, which Mr. Barrett was just starting. Mr. Barrett, a Los Angeles lawyer, envisioned making a world-class cabernet sauvignon but was discouraged when Mr. Grgich explained to him that in planting a new vineyard, waiting for it to yield fruit and then aging a red wine, five years would pass before he would have any to sell.

To provide cash flow, Mr. Grgich suggested making a white. They would purchase grapes, make the wine and sell it after eight months’ aging or so. The heralded 1973 chardonnay was Montelena’s second vintage.

Despite his years in California, Mr. Grgich always considered his wine European in style.

“I know how to be a wine chemist, a wine microbiologist, a wine doctor, but I don’t want to be a wine doctor,” he said in 1977. “I give more attention to the art of winemaking than to the science.”

As part of his deal at Montelena, Mr. Grgich had signed a five-year contract and received a small piece of the ownership and some stock. As his contract ended, he sold his shares to raise money to create his own estate. It still wasn’t enough, so he entered what turned out to be an amiable and lasting partnership with Austin Hills, a vineyard owner and member of the Hills Brothers Coffee family, and Mr. Hills’s sister, Mary Lee Strebl. Grgich Hills was born.

Today, Grgich Hills farms more than 350 acres in Napa Valley and makes roughly 80,000 cases of wine a year. Mr. Grgich’s daughter, Violet Grgich, is now president, and a nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, is in charge of vineyards and winemaking.

He is survived by his daughter and nephew along with a grandchild.

Mr. Grgich did not go back to his homeland until decades later, after Croatia declared independence in 1990. Then, in 1995, he returned to Croatia to build a winery, calling it Grgic Vina, using his birth name. In 2004, on a visit to Croatia, R.W. Apple Jr. of The Times drank Grgic wines, calling the white crisp, chalky and flowery and the red dense and chewy.

Reflecting on his life, Mr. Grgich over the years credited his success to a piece of advice he received from his father before he left home: “Every day, do something just a little better.”

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