Grgich (pronounced “Guhr-gich”) came to North America with $32 in his pocket and a dream. Today, at age 89, Grgich is the owner of a wine empire, Grgich Hills Estate, headquartered in the heart of Napa.
Grgich is a rock star among winemakers. He made the 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay that took top honors in the white wine category in the now famous 1976 Paris tasting. This singular event authenticated not only Grgich, but California wines in general.
I never cease to be amazed how wine brings people together. As Grgich says, “Oceans separate the continents, but wine brings them together.”
Nor am I less in awe of the power of the Internet that allows someone of Grgich’s stature to read in California what I have written in Alabama.
I was awestruck when I received word that Grgich wanted to speak with me. He called to thank me for acknowledging in an earlier column that he was the winemaker for the winning 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay.
Throughout a joyous phone conservation, Grgich shared his remarkable life story.
Born in what is now Croatia, he was the youngest of 11 children in a farm family that grew everything they ate, including grapes. They made wine, keeping some for themselves and selling the rest. By age 3, Grgich was stomping grapes.
He completed four grades in his village school, but his parents, recognizing his brightness, tearfully sent him away to a neighboring village for additional schooling.
Further education was interrupted by work and political unrest, ending in the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia. As a consequence, Grgich was 22 when he entered the University of Zagreb, securing a coveted slot to study enology — wine.
One of his professors visited California to study the wine industry. Upon his return, students were anxious to hear the professor’s assessment. The professor guardedly whispered, “Paradise. It is like paradise.”
That was the moment, Grgich then 31 years old, started making plans to reach California.
He escaped communist Yugoslavia by securing a student visa to study in Germany. From there, he tried unsuccessfully to emigrate to America. Frustrated, he went instead to Canada, settling in Vancouver, the closest Canadian location he could secure to the American wine industry.
Grgich finally secured a work permit and the sponsorship of Leland Stewart, owner of Souverain Cellars, and immigrated to America in 1958. He was 35 years old.
He lived frugally, and slowly worked his way up from a series of menial jobs to increasingly complex ones, through employment with Christian Brothers, Beaulieu Vineyards, Robert Mondavi – until finally he became Montelena’s winemaker. But his goal was always to own a winery.
When Grgich’s 1973 Montelena chardonnay won the Paris tasting, James Barrett, founding partner in Montelena, was traveling Europe. Barrett sent Grgich a copy of the telegram announcing their win. Grgich had no idea what the telegram meant until the next day, when various members of the press started calling for his comments.
In 1977, when Grgich was 54, with the proceeds from the end of his five-year contract with Montelena and through a partnership with Austin E. Hills and his sister, Mary Lee Strebl, of the Hills Brothers Coffee family, Grgich Hills was born. The winery has now grown to 366 acres.
Grgich still follows the advice his father gave him, when he was leaving home after completing the fourth grade: “Do your best at all times, learn something new every day, and make life better for other people.”
Grgich is currently overseeing his 54th harvest. He predicted 2012’s harvest will be outstanding, due to ideal growing conditions. Harvest had begun, and the next day the local priest was scheduled to bless the harvest, as is tradition.
Grgich has not forgotten his father’s advice to help others. To that end, in 1996 he established Grgic Vina, a winery in Croatia to provide employment for his fellow countrymen.
Grgich is annoyed by those who say one can no longer get ahead in America. It is still the best country in the world, he said, and those who work hard and persevere can achieve success.
Grgich lives the American dream. Grgich Hills is a fixture in the heart of the Napa Valley. Presidents have served his wines to princes and potentates. Grgich was inducted into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
The cardboard suitcase he brought to America from Yugoslavia, along with the wine books the case contained and his signature beret, are now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.
And yet, despite international acclaim and regularly dispensed accolades, Grgich took time to thank this Alabama wine writer.
Grgich wines are distributed in Alabama by International Wines of Birmingham and may be secured by special order through your favorite wine store.
Contact Pat Kettles at email@example.com