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Pop the Cork! A Grgich Hills Estate Wine Legend Turns 100

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Pop the Cork! A Grgich Hills Estate Wine Legend Turns 100

Photography courtesy of Grgich Hills Estate

Grgich Hills Estate celebrates as wine icon hits the century mark.

In the wine world, a great vintage only gets better with age, as do legends in the wine world. This year, Napa’s Grgich Hills Estate is celebrating the 100th birthday of founder Mike Grgich.

Grgich became an ICON in wine when—as the then winemaker for Chateau Montelena—his 1973 Chardonnay stunned the world by winning the 1976 Judgement of Paris. In this blind tasting by the most renowned French wine judges, Grgich’s Chardonnay beat out the famed white Burgundies. The shocking victory put California on the serious oenophile map for the first time and rocketed Grgich’s reputation in the wine world. 

Grgich Hills Estate is marking Mike’s 100th birthday with a big birthday bash on July 1 at the winery and with the release of two extraordinary celebration wines. The 2020 Paris Tasting Commemorative Chardonnay, which pays homage to Grgich’s legendary win, and the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Yountville Old Vine, where the grapes were grown on one of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in Napa. 

FROM YUGOSLAVIA TO CALIFORNIA

Born in 1923 in Desne, a small village in Yugoslavia (now Croatia) Grgich seemed destined for a life in wine. His father was a winemaker, and as the youngest of 11 children, Grgich was already stomping grapes as a toddler. While winemaking was in his blood, his mom wanted more for him and sent him to live with an older sister because his village school ended at fourth grade. 

He returned home at age 14 to help a cousin run a local shop. At this time Grgich thought he’d become an accountant, but World War II altered those plans. Twice taken prisoner, he realized a life spent doing the books wasn’t for him and decided to return to his wine roots.

According to Grgich the only good thing about communism was the fact that he could get a university education for free. At college he met a professor who told him that he had been to paradise and her name was California.

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Grgich decided to pursue his own American dream and applied for asylum, but quickly learned the process took years, whereas Canada would welcome refugees immediately if they could fill needed jobs. Wine would have to wait, Grgich decided. It was time to become a lumberjack.

Perhaps luckily for Grgich no one from the lumberjack company arrived to meet him in British Columbia, but it also meant he spent two years washing dishes for a restaurant while he tried to network from a distance with winemakers to get himself to California.

In 1958 Lee Stewart of Chateau Souverain in Napa took a flyer on him and offered him $100 a month to work harvest. Grgich was finally coming to America. 

POST PARIS JUDGEMENT

Fast forward to Grgich’s improbable win in Paris, and after returning to California, the time was right for him to make his move. In 1977 he teamed up with Austin Hills and his sister Mary Lee Strebl and fittingly launched Grgich Hills in the Rutherford region of Napa on Independence Day 1977.

Grgich continued his prowess as a Chardonnay wizard. His first vintage beat out 221 other Chardonnay bottles in a blind tasting in Chicago. The 1978 Chardonnay was served to Queen Elizabeth II while she was in the country, and the 1979 Chardonnay was featured at a dinner at the White House for King Juan Carlos of Spain. 

The 1980s saw big expansion of the winery with new vineyards in Yountville focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Los Caneros for more Chardonnay. In Calistoga Grgich Hills began producing stellar Zinfandel, a grape that Grgich always believed originated in Croatia and science proved in the 1990s. The winery’s 1984 Zinfandel was named Best in America and its 1989 vintage won Best Zinfandel in the World at a 1994 competition in London. 

GIVING BACK

While Grgich was busy growing the winery and accumulating worldwide accolades, he never lost sight of what really mattered—the people.

“If you ask my dad what he’s most proud of, he’ll tell you it’s the fact that we are able to provide employment to more than 50 people,” Violet Grgich, his daughter who became president of the winery in 2019, says.

In 1996 at the request of the president of Croatia, Grgich worked with his daughter and his grandnephew Ivo to create Grgic Vina, a winery just a short distance from where he was born. 

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The winery also made a commitment to sustainability when it planted its first organic vineyard in 2000 and certified all its vineyards organic by 2006. Today Grgich Hills is a Regenerative Organic Certified winery. This stringent certification focuses on rehabilitating the soil, animal welfare, and improving the lives of those who work the land by paying a living wage. 

“Not only does it fit our values, but our crops are also healthier, our profits are higher and we’re helping combat climate change,” Violet Grgich says.  

GRGICH HILLS TODAY

Today, visitors are still likely to see Grgich in the tasting room—signing bottles and sharing his passion for wine with guests, but he’s passed the day-to-day business of running the winery to the next generation.

While winemaking runs in the family, Violet Grgich wasn’t always convinced that she wanted to make it her career. Despite a childhood learning about the different type of grapes with her dad in the vineyards of Chateau Montelena, and working in various roles at Grgich Hills Estate, Violet also had a passion for music, which she pursued in college earning both a bachelor and master’s degree.

“My dad always told me I’d be a winemaker, but I was a stubborn Croatian. It wasn’t until he stopped insisting on it that I decided I’d rather have music as a passion and wine as a career,” she says. 

 

Inspired by her dad’s constant focus on improvement, Violet is excited to continue to expand and elevate the brand. While some in the wine industry are concerned that younger generations aren’t drinking wine like the Boomers, Grgich sees opportunity.

“There are still a lot of younger people who enjoy wine and our brand with its focus on sustainability, diversity, friendship and being down to earth perfectly aligns with the values Millennials hold dear too,” Grgich says. 

While Grgich is known for the winemaking prowess of Mike Grgich, Violet says that many people are surprised to taste their portfolio and hear the other stories that make up this ICONIC winery. 

“We haven’t done a good job telling our own story. We’ve been too quiet. That is going to change,” she says.

As the winery celebrates Mike’s centennial birthday, we can’t wait to see what comes next.

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