A Glass Full of Miracles
By Miljenko “MIKE” Grgich
It was the summer of 1954. Although the day was warm, I felt ice cold as I sat on the train that was charging toward the border of Yugoslavia. When it slowed to a halt, my heart was pounding as loud as the engines.
The guards appeared: stern-faced men with guns, watching people who got off to pass through the border controls. The inspectors would check everyone trying to leave Yugoslavia; one false step and you would not be getting back on the train.
My papers were in order, stating that I, Miljenko Grgich, was a student from the University of Zagreb in Croatia, which was then a part of communist Yugoslavia. I had been granted a four-month passport to take part in a United Nations student exchange.
I was being allowed to leave Yugoslavia to work the harvest in Germany.
The guards inspected the things I was carrying. A little cardboard suitcase held all I owned in the world; most important to me were my fifteen textbooks on winemaking.
I wondered if they were going to ask me why I was wearing a French beret. Would they believe me if I told the truth: I had lost my umbrella and this was the cheapest covering for my head that I, a poor student, had been able to afford? Let them ask me about my hat, I thought, as long as they don’t look too closely at my shoes. There I had hidden another treasure, thirty-two American dollars. To carry foreign currency out of Yugoslavia was forbidden, as were many things under the rule of Communism. If they found it, the guards would not only confiscate my money but they would take my passport as well. Even if I didn’t end up in prison, I would never get another passport, another chance to escape.
That is what I meant to do. If I got past the border, I was never coming back to this country, my homeland, dominated now by fear and oppression — where you never knew when the secret police might be following you; where people disappeared and you never saw them again; where you didn’t know if you would be alive or dead the next day; where you had no chance to work for your dreams.
I had carefully collected my thirty-two American dollars, and somehow I was going to get to America, to a place I had only heard of in whispers: California. I wanted to own a piece of land I could call my own. I wanted to make wine. But most of all,
I wanted to be free.
God was with me that day, as He often has been in my life. The inspector stamped my passport, I got back on the train, and then I began to breathe again.
Today, more than half a century later, when I think about that young man and his crazy plans I know that, as big as his dreams were, he never could have imagined what lay ahead.
— Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, Calistoga, California, 2015
And Now, for the Rest of the Story…
By Jana Soelder Danger
With the Cold War over for almost three decades, it can be difficult to remember what those days were like. But when Miljenko “Mike” Grgich successfully crossed the Yugoslavian border, he was one of 12 million refugees from Eastern Europe trying to escape Communism. Because he had relatives in Canada, he was allowed to go to Vancouver. “The son of my sister helped me get a job as an assistant dishwasher,” he recalled. “Eventually, I got a job at a paper mill where I used my background in chemistry to monitor quality control.”
But Mike wanted to make wine, which he had loved for literally most of his life. His mother breastfed him until he was 2, and then switched him to “bevanda,” the Croatian term for a mixture of half water and half wine. “I have liked wine ever since,” he said. “I cannot imagine my life without wine.”
Pursuing the Dream
It wasn’t just that he wanted to make wine, however. He wanted to make it in California. While he was still a student in Croatia, one of his professors returned from a sabbatical there. “We were bursting with questions, but Professor Sherman was clearly afraid to talk to us for fear that the Communists would hear him,” Mike said. “Finally a few of us found him alone, and we asked him, ‘What was it like, this place, California?’ He looked around to see if the secret police were listening. When he was sure it was safe, he whispered, ‘California is paradise!’ I started thinking, why should I wait until I die to go to paradise?”
Trying to break into the industry, Mike ran an ad in the Wine Institute Bulletin seeking employment. It worked. The owner of Souverain Cellars gave him the job guarantee he needed to get a visa.
Although Mike worked with several iconic winemakers, one of the most memorable was Robert Mondavi, who had studied the techniques of the great chateaux of France. “I learned that energy and passion, as well as science, are necessary to make good wines,” Mike said. “Robert was always go! go! go! I admired his great energy and his belief in what he was doing. He also believed the answer to raising the quality of our wines was scientific progress.”
It was 1976, when a Paris wine shop owner was searching for ideas to promote his business. Why not, he thought, stage a blind tasting in Paris to coincide with the bicentennial of the United States?
He gathered a group of renowned French judges, as well as some of the finest French wines. In honor of America’s 200th anniversary, he added a few vintages from California, including a 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay crafted by Mike.
To everyone’s amazement, the chardonnay won the highest point total of any wine, white or red, in the entire tasting. The third and fourth place winners were also California whites. A California cabernet sauvignon took first place in the red competition, topping some of the best Bordeaux.
A few of the shocked judges tried to suppress the results, but to no avail. “With the 1976 Paris Tasting, we in Napa proved we could make wines even better than the French!” Mike said.
Mike’s Bucket List
But he still hadn’t achieved his heart’s desire. “My American Dream was to own my own winery,” he said. “That was impossible in Yugoslavia under Communist rule, but in America, it didn’t matter who your parents were or your politics.”
In January 1977, Mike purchased 20 acres of property for the new winery. “I was so proud,” he recalled. “I finally had a parcel that I could step on and say, “‘the land is mine!’”
Mike and his business partner, Austin Hills, broke ground on their winery, Grgich Hills Estate, on July 4, 1977, but construction was painfully slow. Alarmed, he was sure the winery wouldn’t be ready to crush the 60 tons of chardonnay grapes he had already purchased. “I was so tense and nervous I went to my old mentor, Robert Mondavi,” he recalled.
His friend reassured him that it was indeed possible to meet the timeline, but told him that if the winery wasn’t finished, he, Robert, would crush the grapes for him. “I knew he wouldn’t have enough tank space for extra grapes, but still he gave me this promise,”
Happily, Mike’s fledgling winery was able to crush the grapes after all. “The equipment was in place, but the roof wasn’t finished, so we put a plastic sheet over the rafters,” he recalled.
Mike’s first foray into red wines was with zinfandel, which is nearly identical to plavac mali wine in Croatia. Today at age 93, he still calls it his favorite. “At home, what I enjoy most is zinfandel,” he said. “It reminds me of my homeland.”
All in the Family
Over the years, the wine industry has changed and grown more competitive, said Mike’s daughter Violet. “There are so many different wines now from so many different countries,” she said. “The quality of wine making has improved, and even everyday wines are much better than they were.
“But my father’s style has stayed the same,” she continued. “It’s a balance between elegance and food-friendliness. The nature of a great wine pairing is that it makes both the food and the wine taste better.”