Celebrating the Remarkable Life and Legacy of

 Miljenko “Mike” Grgich: Pioneer of Napa Valley Wine

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, who helped establish Napa Valley as one of the world’s premier wine regions, died on December 13, 2023. He was 100 years old. A man of many dreams, he had reached his final goal of living to be 100.

Mike gained international fame as the winemaker who crafted the Chardonnay that won the 1976 Judgment of Paris, an event in which two Napa Valley wines won top honors over legendary French wines in a blind tasting conducted by French wine critics. He was fond of saying that his life had been shaped by miracles, but one cannot ignore his relentless hard-work and determination, and the part they have played in the miracles he was afforded.

Miljenko was born the youngest of 11 children to Nikola and Ivka Grgić on April 1, 1923, in the village of Desne, Croatia. His father made wine, and some of Mike’s earliest memories were of stomping grapes at harvest. His mother wanted him to get an education, and he left home at age 10 when his schooling in Desne ended and lived with a sister to continue his studies.

He kept with him, all his life, his father’s parting advice: Every day do your best, learn something new, and make a new friend. “If you have friend in every village,” his father told him, “You will always have a place to sleep.”

Although he had planned to be a shopkeeper, after living through harrowing experiences in World War II, he decided to follow his father’s footsteps and become a winemaker. With the advent of communism, Croatia became part of Yugoslavia, and Mike went to the University of Zagreb to study enology and viticulture.

There he learned, in whispered conversations with a professor, of a faraway place the man described as “paradise” — California. As life under communist rule became increasingly oppressive, Mike decided he would venture to California. With a few American dollars hidden in his shoe and a suitcase filled with his winemaking books, he engineered an escape through a United Nations agricultural exchange program with Germany. He had not finished his degree, he said, or he should never have been allowed to leave the country. He left doubting he would ever see his homeland again.

While in Germany, he was granted asylum in Canada by agreeing to be a lumberjack in British Columbia. He traveled by ship and train to take a job that ultimately would not materialize. Instead, he worked as a dishwasher, dreaming of “paradise” and how he might find his way.

A response to an ad resulted in a job offer from Lee Stewart, founder of Chateau Souverain and one of the pioneers of Napa Valley’s post-Prohibition wine renaissance. In 1958, four long, lonely years after he had left Croatia, Mike arrived in St. Helena, California, where he would begin his impressive career as a Napa Valley winemaker.

While working for Stewart, Mike met another immigrant from Europe, André Tchelistcheff, who also studied winemaking before escaping from the Soviet Union. Mike subsequently went to work with Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards in Rutherford. During his time at Beaulieu, Mike married Tatjana Čizmić, whom he had long known from his his days in Croatia. They became the parents of a beloved daughter, Violet.

From Beaulieu, he was hired away by a man who had just built the first new winery in Napa Valley since Prohibition, Robert Mondavi. Mike’s first vintage at Robert Mondavi Winery, a 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon, was entered into a blind tasting of California cabs and was ranked #1. James Laube, wine critic for The Wine Spectator magazine, called it “possibly the best cab ever made in California.”

Mike left with Robert Mondavi’s blessings when he accepted his next job offer. Jim Barrett, a lawyer from Southern California, had purchased a ghost winery, Chateau Montelena, in Calistoga, and he offered Mike shares in ownership to help him restore it and its winemaking program. Because it would take longer for a red wine to be able to go to market, Mike suggested they make a white wine. It was his second vintage of Chardonnay that was chosen to go to Paris for a blind tasting organized by Steven Spurrier and Patricia Gallagher in celebration of the U.S. bicentennial. 

The results shocked the world when Mike’s Chardonnay, along with a Cabernet Sauvignon made by Mike’s Napa neighbor, Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, were named the top wines. “It taught the world that fine wines could be made somewhere other than France,” Winiarski said.

This success enabled Mike to finally realize his dream of owning his own winery. In partnership with Austin Hills in 1977, he founded Grgich Hills Winery (now Grgich Hills Estate Winery) in Rutherford.

The suitcase he carried to the U.S. is now at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., along with two bottles of the famous red and white wines, which were included in the Smithsonian’s 2013 book, 101 Objects that Made America.

Accolades continued to arrive for Mike. In 1980, in a grand tasting in Chicago, Mike’s wine again was judged number one of the 221 best Chardonnays in the world, and he was titled “The King of Chardonnay.”

He however began to look for ways to give back, both to the Napa Valley community and to his homeland, which he had celebrated every year at a Croatian-American party at Grgich Hills. In 1986, he helped his grand-nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, come to California, and after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, he was able to return to Croatia, where he finally received his university diploma.

He decided to help Croatia rebuild its wine industry, and opened a winery, Grgić Vina, making red and white wines from indigenous vines. In addition to providing scholarships for Croatian youth to become students of winemaking in the U.S., Mike also became an ardent supporter of Roots of Peace, an organization that removes landmines and restores agriculture in war-torn countries, including Croatia.

Mike guided Grgich Hills until 2018, when at age 95, he handed the leadership over to his daughter Violet, who now serves as president, and to Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker and vice-president.  The two have led efforts to establish the winery in the vanguard of organic, sustainable farming.

He continued to participate in events at the winery, which remains a family-owned enterprise, including his joyful 100th birthday celebrations. In March of 2023, Mike saw his winery receive its Regenerative Organic Certification, solidifying its global leadership in environmentally friendly farming practices.

“With many unexpected and wonderful consequences of his open thinking, warm and loyal heart, bright mind and clear sense of values, his is the story of a life well and fully lived,” his winemaking colleague Zelma Long wrote in a preface to Mike’s 2016 autobiography, A Glass Full of Miracles.

Mike’s own parting observation in his book was this: “In my life, I have had real miracles. They were between God and me, and when I was offered one, I accepted it with all of my heart and soul, with gratitude. Be on the watch for miracles in your own life.”

All Content © 2015 Croatian Film Institute, All Rights Reserved