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The American Dream of Napa Wines

A lunch with the daughter of the founder of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa

Grgich Hills Estate Napa
Born in 1923 in an obscure village, called Desne, in Croatia, the youngest of eleven children, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich came to California for the chance to see “paradise”. In Napa, he became a part of American winemaking history: his wine received the highest score in the 1976 Judgment of Paris

I can understand what it is like to have a dream of another land, another place that promised a possible better future. In 1993, at the age of 18, I decided to leave New Orleans with only a suitcase and a backpack to come to New York City – I was not looking for fame or fortune, I was looking for my home – for a place where I belonged. But as harrowing as my initial experiences were in New York, I could never imagine coming to America without speaking the language or running from war or anything that Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, the founder of Grgich Hills Estate in Napa, went through to travel to California just for the chance to see “paradise”.

Heaven on Earth

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a lunch with Mike Grgich’s daughter, to taste some of their current releases and to hear her father’s story.

Violet Grgich with the author, Cathrine Todd

Violet Grgich with the author, Cathrine Todd

Mike Grgich was born in 1923 in an obscure village, called Desne, in Croatia. He was the youngest of eleven children, had grown up among Croatian vineyards, survived World War II and then traveled to California.  Despite many obstacles, such as not speaking English and only having $32 dollars hidden in his shoe, he became a part of American winemaking history. He was driven by the dream that California was heaven on earth.

Grgich worked with such American wine legends as André Tchelistcheff, America’s most influential post-Prohibition winemaker, and icon Robert Mondavi to eventually become the winemaker for the winning white wine, 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, which received the highest score in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. This exquisite wine was placed in the Smithsonian as one of 101 Objects that Made America.

The American Dream

In 1977, Mike Grgich was able to start his own winery – Grgich Hills Estate – and they are a legendary, iconic producer that has not only become a standard for elegant, fine wines but also a symbol of being able to know our potential if we follow our dreams. As I have been reading the book, A Glass Full of Miracles, a biography of Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, I thought about how lonely it was for him in the beginning to come to California. But he said when he was initially working in the vineyards, he saw grapes that reminded him of the ones he picked in Croatia, Plavac Mali, a relative of Zinfandel. When he saw the Zinfandel vine he didn’t feel alone anymore – it was he and Zinfandel – both of them from Croatia.

mike-bench-390-x-450-390x450

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich

At the end of the lunch, I expressed to Violet Grgich that I thought it was an incredible story and that I looked forward to reading the book about her father. She then told me how much of her life she devoted to self publishing this book but she felt she had to tell the story of her father while he was still, remarkably so, involved with the winery at the age of 93. It is a story of a man who was grateful for every kindness, for every opportunity to work, who strived for the best, and he then was given the chance to own his own business and shape his adopted country into a better place. It is a story that reminds all of us of the American Dream.

Cathrine’s Recommendations

Everyday Drinking Wine (less than $15)

2011 Lirica Plavac Mali, Coastal Region, Croatia ($13): I wanted to honor Mr. Grgich’s Croatian heritage by recommending a wine made from Plavac Mali, a child of Zinfandel, that is available in the USA. This wine has an old world charm with flavors of ripe blueberry pie and dusty earthy with a hint of fresh mint on the finish. A big, robust wine with firm tannins that is comforting with a nice stew as the days get shorter.

Special Occasion Wine (from $15 to $50)

2014 Grgich Hill Estate, Fumé Blanc Dry Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California ($28): 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Fumé Blanc is a Sauvignon Blanc that has been fermented and aged in oak and it is synonymous with Napa Valley. This is an ideal wine for those who love Sauvignon Blanc but want one with a more textural body that can be paired with richer dishes. Delicious flavors of melon and honeysuckle with an outstanding purity. Also, all of their five estate vineyards are farmed organically.

Fantasy Wine (over $50)

2012 Grgich Hills Estate, Yountville Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California ($185): 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. One day Mr. Grgich was driving by this property in the town of Yountville, in Napa, and noticed that they were ripping out beautiful old vines of Cabernet Sauvignon. He was able to buy a portion of the property and save, what is known today, as some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Napa. This wine, which comes from vines that are over a half century old, has a sensational opulence with kirsch and black raspberries and a whisper of spring flower and graphite. A full-bodied Cab that is seductive in its generosity.

Grgich Hills Estate Napa2013 Grgich Hills Estate, Violetta Late Harvest, Napa Valley, California ($76 for half bottle): A field blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and some Gewürztraminer. These grapes are planted on the lowest section of their American Canyon vineyard and hence there is occasional fog that creates botrytis on the grapes, which makes concentrated and complex wines. A sweet wine that has a luscious body with flavors of sweet spice, orange marmalade and truffle that is beautifully balanced with bright acidity. A stunning dessert wine!

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