Famed Napa winemaker recognized by Smithsonian

September 6, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
The man who first helped put Napa Valley wines on the map is getting new recognition from the Smithsonian. Mike Grgich stunned the wine world in the 1970s, when his Napa Valley chardonnay beat French wines in a blind tasting.

It was the blessing of the grapes Thursday as the harvest begins at Grgich's winery. But it was in 1976 when the 1973 chardonnay he made at Chateau Montelena beat French burgundies in what is known as the Judgement In Paris. It changed everything.

"We were No. 1 and that is very important to America," Grgich said.

But relations were strained at Chateau Montelena. Grgich wanted his own place.

"I wanted to make chateau quality wines," he said.

In 1977, Grgich, along with Austin Hills, opened Grgich Hills Winery.

"He's not only a genius at wine making, but a genius in promotion of the wine," Hills said.

How Grgich got to Napa is remarkable. Growing up poor in Croatia, he wanted to make wine. Then a professor made his path apparent.

"That was my dream that was born when that professor said California was a paradise," Grgich said.

Escaping communist Croatia, it would take him four years to get to Napa.

"I came with $32 in my shoe," Grgich said.

Determined, learning, working at wineries, finally creating this place where he meets people. At age 89, his eyes still sparkle.

"It's amazing to have someone who is legendary and a pioneer, and he is so accessible to so many people," his daughter Violet Grgich said.

Success has been fulfilling, but he gives back. He returned to Croatia to build a winery.

A humanitarian, he supports Roots for Peace, which replaces landmines with grapes vines. Pennies from the fountain at the winery go to the organization.

With his passion and dedication, it is no surprise Grgich has been indicted into the Vintners Hall of Fame. And now he will be enshrined in America's greatest museum, the Smithsonian Institution.

"They took my suitcase I brought from Croatia to America,' Grgich said. "My beret and 10 books in Croatian I studied."

Grgich says he sees every day as an opportunity and so there is still one special goal.

"Nobody yet makes perfect wine, but we hope we will be one someday," he said.

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