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Mike Grgich Honored at CIA in Napa

by Monty & Sara Preiser

By now, nearly everyone familiar with wine knows about the 1976 Paris wine tasting, when noted French judges, befuddled as they realized they could not always distinguish between their beloved white Burgundies and the upstart Chardonnays of California, awarded first place to a younger country’s entry. Thirty years later, there is no dispute that this event, uncelebrated as it was before the results shocked the wine drinking world, elevated American wines to center stage, where they have not only remained, but arguably have become the leading player.

Last week I had the pleasure (Sara was not in town) of joining a number of luminaries at the Culinary Institute of America to honor the life and times of the very man who made the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that copped that high honor in Paris – Miljenko “Mike” Grgich.  And what an evening it was. Master sommelier and writer Andrea Immer Robinson served as mistress of ceremonies, while awards and recognition were showered on Mike from Governor Schwarzenegger, members of Congress, the California State Legislature, Margrit Mondavi, and the Croatian government. Reflecting how Mike himself describes his immigration to this country and his ascendancy to success, “The Impossible Dream” was crooned by Tony Butala of “The Letterman.”   

Surrounded by long time friends and family, including daughter and director of operations Violet Grgich, Mike looked jaunty in his trademark beret, and was clearly humbled to be the center of attention at such an august gathering. I thought the best pictures found him posing with delighted guests next to a display of his 1973 Chardonnay and Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. Again, almost all wine lovers know that the red also won its category in Paris, setting the stage for the emergence of great California Cabs, just as the Montelena did for Chards.

Dinner, outstanding though it was, was enhanced by what was perhaps the best array of Grgich Hills wines I have sampled for some years. Sausages and lobster bisque at the reception were accompanied by the 2005 Napa Valley Estate Fume Blanc ($25), which was earmarked by classic (yet pleasingly light) grapefruit flavors, and a long finish following a rich mouth feel.

The wine of the evening, not only in my opinion but that of the prestigious Sunset Magazine, was the 2003 Carneros Estate Grown Paris Tasting Commemorative Chardonnay ($73). Sara Schneider, senior wine editor, presented a letter congratulating Mike Grgich for making the wine of the year, as chosen during a blind tasting by the magazine’s panel. And I have to say that the selection is well warranted. Rarely does one Chardonnay embody the best characteristics of Europe and America and combine them into a genre that truly needs a name. California Burgundy sounds too sixties. Burgundian Chardonnay is too banal. But we are working on it.

Our loin of lamb entrée was accompanied by two reds, the 2002 Napa Valley Estate Grown Merlot ($38), and a 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon ($65). There was a general consensus as to the beauty of the cherry and plum flavors complexly followed by wood and chocolate in the Merlot, but a split of opinion on the Cabernet Sauvignon. I found the latter to be too light for the lamb, and generally too short on the finish, while some of my table partners thought it was well paired.

Not usually a dessert eater, I couldn’t resist the honey ice cream and pistachio tuile, especially in conjunction with the newly released 2003 Grgich Hills Violetta ($75 for 350 ml.), a rich combination of botrytis-affected Chardonnay (60%) and Riesling (40%). This wonderful wine exhibited apples and pears, and was kissed by some clove, which lasted far into the next bite of pastry.

As do many of these affairs in wine country, the evening ended with a live auction. Here, however, something was on the block that you just don’t see very often – a case of the 1973 Chardonnay that was honored in Paris, with each bottle having been individually signed by Mike Grgich himself. In an effort, I suppose, to allow as many people as possible to own a bit of history, the bottles were auctioned off individually. Folks, you are reading the column of a proud owner of one of those bottles.

Legend is an overused word, as is, come to think of it, that overworked phrase. Yet what better describes one of the men who was unquestionably in the forefront of an American industry that is just now climbing the crest of popularity to become the world’s leader in consumption? As Mike says, “It is a miracle. We did in 30 years what it took the French 300 years to accomplish.” Well, Mr. Grgich, you helped that miracle come to pass.  


Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

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