Mike Grgich turned 90 years old yesterday. For the 167nd time.
Mike, who’s one of the founding fathers of America’s wine industry, actually turned 90 April 1, but Napa Valley is celebrating the winemaker’s birthday as many times as possible throughout the course of the year.
Last night was the 167th night since his actual birthday – a good occasion for another celebration.
This one was held at one of my favorite hotels in Napa Valley, Bardessono, in Yountville.
Mike doesn’t seem old for 90 but I suspect that after blowing out a 90-candle cake so many times at so many celebratory birthday dinners across the valley this year, the guy must be pooped.
If Mike’s last name, which looks like a typo, doesn’t ring a bell, then it’s possible that you have been living in a cave, or have been on life support, for 37 years. Because Mike became a favorite Napa Valley son in 1976 when the Chardonnay he made for Chateau Montelena outscored France’s best white Burgundies at the now famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting.
This victory transformed the status of Napa Valley wines forever. America knocked the French off their fancy schmancy wine pedestal - on their home turf! And Mike had made the killer Chardonnay that changed history.
So important was Mike Grgich’s contribution to American culture, in fact, that the winning bottle of Chardonnay is now displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History along with one of Mike’s famous berets, his suitcase, and his wine textbooks.
Mike is actually a shortened version of Miljenko, his real name, bestowed upon him by his parents in communist Yugoslavia.
Mike grew up in the village of Desne on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, where generations of his family had grown grapes and made wine.
Last night at dinner, Mike told me that, for the first 30 years of his life in Yugoslavia, under communist rule, he never once was able to celebrate his birthday. (It looks like he’s making up for lost time this year...)
“We only ever celebrated one person’s birthday each year in Croatia – Jesus’.... on December 25th. For the rest of us, no one celebrated a birthday,” he said.
Looking for a better life in North America, Mike fled Yugoslavia, first settling in Germany for 18 months, then in Canada for two-and-a-half years.
In 1958, Mike landed in Napa Valley, with one suitcase (now at the Smithsonian), some wine textbooks, and $32 hidden in his shoes.
The rest is pretty much the story of which dreams – and Hollywood movies – are made.
People reverentially speak of Mike in the same breath in which they speak of pioneering vintners here like Robert Mondavi, Brother Timothy from Christian Brothers, and André Tchelistcheff from Beaulieu Vineyards.
After crafting the prize-winning 1973 Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena, Mike teamed up with Austin Hills (of Hills Bros. coffee) to establish his own eponymous winery.
In July 1977, ground was broken in Rutherford to create Grgich Hills Cellar. In 2006, the name was changed to Grgich Hills Estate once Mike opted to produce all his wines from estate-grown fruit.
Today, Grgich Hills Estate owns five properties in the three temperature zones, which run the length of Napa Valley.
The winery earns many international awards for its balanced, elegant wines and is recognized as a leader in sustainable vineyard practices. And did I mention, the wines are sensational...?
I always send visitors to Mike’s winery because his Chardonnay is such a gorgeous, refreshing, beverage. Even if it hadn’t won the 1976 Paris tasting, Mike’s Chardonnay would deserve a special niche at the Smithsonian - for its finesse.
Last night was proof again that, years later, Mike hasn’t lost his Chardonnay touch.
The 2010 Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay served at dinner was, to my mind, the single best glass of Chardonnay that I have had all year. And this includes many bottles of over-priced white Burgundy, which more often disappoint than inspire.
Mike’s Chardonnays are balanced, harmonious, elegant, and exhibit a great deal of finesse.
They are juicy, yet focused, and are never buttery, as Mike does not let his Chardonnay go through malolactic fermentation. This is a common winemaking stage - a secondary fermentation in which naturally occurring malic acid is converted to lactic acid.
Chardonnays that have gone through “ML,” as it’s called, tend to pick up buttery, or dairy, notes. When “malo’d,” Chardonnay may even exhibit hints of butterscotch.
Mike also goes against the grain (so to speak) with oak, fighting the trend to over-oak white wines. Mike only gives his Chardonnay a soupcon of oak letting it age six months in a combination of Limousin and Nevers French barrels - one-third new oak, one-third once-used oak, one-third twice used oak.
If I were asked to sum up Mike’s style of winemaking, I would say that he is a Master of Restraint. His wines are well balanced, they are NOT oak monsters, they are NOT alcoholic, they are NOT fruit-bombs.
Mike’s wines display a restraint that is rare in Napa Valley.
Last night, to celebrate Mike’s 90th birthday (again), the Bardessono Hotel hosted a dinner for 20 special friends and clients. Executive Chef Victor Scargle looked after the menu.
I have followed Victor’s career since he appeared on my food radar screen at Julia’s Kitchen, at COPIA, in Napa. I dined regularly at COPIA, always excited to taste Victor’s dishes.
I was happy for Victor when he moved on, accepting a teaching position at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), in St. Helena, but I felt that Napa Valley had lost one of its best practicing chefs. At night, when we’d head out to dine, it was like there was one less twinkling star in the restaurant firmament.
And then Victor left academia and turned up at Bardessono to run Lucy, the hotel’s fine dining room. Happy were we. Happy were our palates.
So what a night last night! The dynamic duo were both on hand – Mike Grgich with many wines to complement Victor Scargle’s sensational fare.
Here’s the menu of the four-course dinner.
Diver scallops, rau rum (AKA Vietnamese cilantro), and garden melon
2011 Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc
Kampachi Paillard - Lucy greens, padron peppers, sweet corn, basil
2010 Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay
Liberty Duck Breast - Forbidden rice cake, garden choi
Don Watson Lamb Sweetbreads - Romesco sauce, wrinkled cress
2009 Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel
2008 Grgich Vina Plavac Mali
Dry-aged Beef Striploin - Lucy strawberry spinach, Little Farms potatoes
2009 Grgich Hills Estate, Yountville Selection, Cabernet Sauvignon
K&J Peach Galette - Almond cream, crème fraiche sherbet
2009 Grgich Hills Estate Violetta
A couple of notes about the wines served at dinner
The pairing of Mike’s Napa Valley Zin and his Croatian-made Plavac Mali has historic and ampelographic importance:
Plavac Mali is a cross between Zinfandel (called Crljenak Kaštelanski in Croatia) and Dobričić grapes. It is the primary red grape grown along the Dalmatian coast.
The name refers to the small blue grapes which the vines produce. In Croatian, plavo means blue; mali means small.
Plavac Mali produces rich wines that resonate with the flavors of blackberries, dark cherries, pepper, and spice. Not unlike our domesticated Zinfandel.
In the 1980s, Plavac Mali was initially thought to be an ancestor of Zinfandel. In 1998, with urging from Mike Grgich, Carole Meredith from UC Davis and researchers from the University of Zagreb, researched the origins of Zinfandel through DNA fingerprinting. They discovered that Zinfandel is actually one parent of Plavac Mali. The other parent is an ancient variety known as Dobričić.
Of the two wines paired at dinner – the 2008 Plavac Mali and the 2009 Grgich Hills Estate Zin, I actually scored the Plavac Mali one point higher. It has many of the same ripe red and black fruit flavors of the Zinfandel, but it also has a softer, medium-bodied weight in the mouth, is more sensual, more ethereal – if that’s a word that can be applied to a wine containing 15.4% alcohol!
In sum, the evening was a grand success. As they say in Mike’s native Croatia - Hvala, Mike and Victor, for a wonderful evening – Thanks!