University of California Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office University of California
The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California
The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
A CROATIAN -AMERICAN WINEMAKER IN THE NAPA VALLEY
With an Introduction by
Interviews Conducted by
Copyright 1992 by The Regents of the University of California
Miljenko Grgich, 1992
Photograph courtesy of The Wine Spectator
Since 1954 the Regional Oral History Office has been interviewing leading
participants in or well -placed witnesses to major events in the development of
Northern California, the West, and the Nation. Oral history is a modern research
technique involving an interviewee and an informed interviewer in spontaneous
conversation. The taped record is transcribed, lightly edited for continuity
and clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee. The resulting manuscript is typed
in final form, indexed, bound with photographs and illustrative materials, and
placed in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and
other research collections for scholarly use. Because it is primary material,
oral history is not intended to present the final, verified, or complete
narrative of events. It is a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in
response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved,
All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement
between The Regents of the University of California and Miljenko
Grgich dated April 14, 1992. The manuscript is thereby made
available for research purposes. All literary rights in the
manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to The
Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. No part
of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written
permission of the Director of The Bancroft Library of the University
of California, Berkeley.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be
addressed to the Regional Oral History Office, 486 Library,
University of California, Berkeley 94720, and should include
identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated
use of the passages, and identification of the user. The legal
agreement with Miljenko Grgich requires that he be notified of the
request and allowed thirty days in which to respond.
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Miljenko Grgich, "A Croatian- American
Winemaker in the Napa Valley," an oral
history conducted in 1992 by Ruth Teiser,
Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft
Library, University of California,
GRGICH, Miljenko (b. 1923) Winemaker
A Croatian- American Winemaker in the Napa Vallev. 1992, ix, 60 pp.
Childhood in Croatia; working at California wineries: Souverain, Christian
Bros., Beaulieu, Robert Mondavi, Chateau Montelena; Grgich Hills Cellar:
startup, ideals, people, business methods, vineyards; changes in California
wine industry since 1958.
Introduction by Zelma Long, President and CEO, Simi Winery.
Interviewed in 1992 by Ruth Teiser for the Wine Spectator California
Winemen Oral History Series, The Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft
Library, University of California, Berkeley.
TABLE OF CONTENTS-- Mi Ijenko (Mike) Grgich
INTRODUCTION- -by Zelma Long vi
INTERVIEW HISTORY viii
BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION ix
EARLY YEARS IN CROATIA, 1923-1954 1
STUDYING ENOLOGY AND VITICULTURE, 1949-1954 4
WEST GERMANY, 1954-1956 7
CANADA, 1956-1958 8
LEARNING ABOUT CALIFORNIA 9
TO CALIFORNIA, 1958-1977 11
Working for Lee Stewart, 1958 11
Christian Brothers, 1959 13
Beaulieu Vineyard, 1959-1968 15
Advances in Frost Protection 16
Improvements in White Wines 17
Sterile Bottling 17
Induced Malolactic Fermentation 18
Quality Control 18
Robert Mondavi Winery, 1968-1972 19
Chateau Montelena, 1972-1977 23
The 1976 Paris Tasting 26
GRGICH HILLS CELLAR, 1977 -DATE 28
Making a Beginning 28
Ideals and Implementation 31
"One Cannot Mention Care Too Often" 35
Winery Personnel 38
Business Goals and Methods 39
Pre -Release Club 41
Labels and Vineyard Blends 43
White Riesling 45
More on Improvements in White Wines 47
Financing the Winery 48
Grgich Hills Vineyards 52
CHANGES IN THE CALIFORNIA WINE INDUSTRY SINCE 1958 55
TAPE GUIDE 58
The California wine industry oral history series, a project of the
Regional Oral History Office, was initiated in 1969 through the action
and with the financing of the Vine Advisory Board, a state marketing
order organization which ceased operation in 1975. In 1983 it was
reinstituted as The Wine Spectator California Winemen Oral History Series
with donations from The Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation. The
selection of those to be interviewed is made by a committee consisting of
the director of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley;
John A. De Luca, president of the Wine Institute, the statewide winery
organization; Maynard A. Amerine, Emeritus Professor of Viticulture and
Enology, University of California, Davis; the current chairman of the
board of directors of the Wine Institute; Ruth Teiser, series project
director; and Marvin R. Shanken, trustee of The Wine Spectator
The purpose of the series is to record and preserve information on
California grape growing and winemaking that has existed only in the
memories of wine men. In some cases their recollections go back to the
early years of this century, before Prohibition. These recollections are
of particular value because the Prohibition period saw the disruption of
not only the industry itself but also the orderly recording and
preservation of records of its activities. Little has been written about
the industry from late in the last century until Repeal. There is a real
paucity of information on the Prohibition years (1920-1933), although
some commercial winemaking did continue under supervision of the
Prohibition Department. The material in this series on that period, as
well as the discussion of the remarkable development of the wine industry
in subsequent years (as yet treated analytically in few writings) will be
of aid to historians. Of particular value is the fact that frequently
several individuals have discussed the same subjects and events or
expressed opinions on the same ideas, each from his own point of view.
Research underlying the interviews has been conducted principally in
the University libraries at Berkeley and Davis, the California State
Library, and in the library of the Wine Institute, which has made its
collection of in many cases unique materials readily available for the
The Regional Oral History Office was established to tape record
autobiographical interviews with persons who have contributed
significantly to recent California history. The office is headed by
Willa K. Baum and is under the administrative supervision of The Bancroft
The Wine Spectator California Winemen
Oral History Series
CALIFORNIA WINE INDUSTRY INTERVIEWS
Interviews Completed July 1992
Leon D. Adams, Revitalizing the California Wine Industry. 1974
Leon D. Adams, California Wine Industry Affairs: Recollections and Opinions.
Maynard A. Amerine, The University of California and the State's Wine
Maynard A. Amerine, Wine Bibliographies and Taste Perception Studies.
Philo Biane, Wine Making in Southern California and Recollections of Fruit
Industries. Inc. . 1972
John B. Cella, The Cella Family in the California Wine Industry. 1986
Charles Crawford, Recollections of a Career with the Gallo Winery and the
Development of the California Wine Industry. 1942-1989. 1990
Burke H. Critchfield, Carl F. Wente, and Andrew G. Frericks, The California
Wine Industry During the Depression. 1972
William V. Cruess, A Half Century of Food and Wine Technology. 1967
Jack and Jamie Peterman Davies, Rebuilding Schramsberg: The Creation of a
California Champagne House. 1990
William A. Dieppe, Almaden is Mv Life. 1985
Making California Port Wine: Ficklin Vineyards from 1948 to 1992. interviews
with David, Jean, Peter, and Steven Ficklin, 1992
Alfred Fromm, Marketing California Wine and Brandy . 1984
Louis Gomberg, Analytical Perspectives on the California Wine Industry. 1935-
Miljenko Grgich, A Croatian- American Winemaker in the Naoa Valley. 1992
Joseph E. Heitz, Creating a Winery in the Naoa Vallev. 1986
Maynard A. Joslyn, A Technologist Views the California Wine Industry.
Amandus N. Kasimatis, A Career in California Viticulture. 1988
Morris Katz, Paul Masson Winery Operations and Management. 1944-1988. 1990
Legh F. Knowles, Jr., Beaulieu Vineyards from Family to Corporate Ownership.
Horace 0. Lanza and Harry Baccigaluppi, California Grape Products and Other
Wine Enterprises. 1971
Zelma R. Long, The Past is the Beginning of the Future: Simi Winery in its
Second Century. 1992
Richard Maher, California Winery Management and Marketing. 1992
Louis M. Martini and Louis P. Martini, Wine Making in the Napa Vallev.
Louis P. Martini, A Family Winery and the California Wine Industry. 1984
Eleanor McCrea, Stony Hill Vineyards: The Creation of a Napa Vallev Estate
Otto E. Meyer, California Premium Wines and Brandy. 1973
Norbert C. Mirassou and Edmund A. Mirassou, The Evolution of a Santa Clara
Vallev Winery. 1986
Peter Mondavi, Advances in Technology and Production at Charles Krug Winery.
Robert Mondavi, Creativity in the Wine Industry. 1985
Michael Moone, Management and Marketing at Beringer Vineyards and Wine World.
Inc. . 1990
Myron S. Nightingale, Making Wine in California. 1944-1987. 1988
Harold P. Olmo, Plant Genetics and New Grape Varieties. 1976
Cornelius Ough, Researches of an Enologist. University of California. Davis.
John A. Parducci, Six Decades of Making Wine in Mendocino County. California.
Antonio Perelli-Minetti, A Life in Wine Making. 1975
Louis A. Petri, The Petri Family in the Wine Industry. 1971
Jefferson E. Peyser, The Lav and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Lucius Powers, The Fresno Area and the California Wine Industry. 1974
Victor Repetto and Sydney J. Block, Perspectives on California Wines. 1976
Edmund A. Rossi, Italian Swiss Colony and the Wine Industry. 1971
Edmund A. Rossi, Jr., Italian Swiss Colony. 1949-1989: Recollections of a
Third- Generation California Winemaker. 1990
Arpaxat Setrakian, A. Setrakian. a Leader of the San Joaquin Valley Grape
Elie Skofis, California Wine and Brandv Maker. 1988
Andre Tchellstcheff , Grapes. Wine, and Ecology. 1983
Brother Timothy, The Christian Brothers as Wine Makers. 1974
Louis (Bob) Trinchero, California Zinfandels. a Success Story. 1992
The Wente Family and the California Wine Industry, interviews with Jean,
Carolyn, Philip, and Eric Wente, 1992.
Ernest A. Wente, Wine Making in the Livermore Vallev. 1971
Albert J. Winkler, Viticultural Research at UC Davis (1921-1971). 1973
John H. Wright, Domaine Chandon: The First French- owned California Sparkling
Wine Cellar, includes an interview with Edmond Maudiere, 1992
INTRODUCTION --by Zelma Long
Mike Grgich is truly an American success story. A Croatian
immigrant, his California wine work in the 1950s and 1960s built upon his
youthful experience and education in winemaking to create a solid
foundation for his technical and business success. During the 1970s and
1980s, he grew into one of California's top winemakers, achieving great
professional recognition and the personal success of his winery, Grgich
Hills. Mike, at 54, was not a young man when he started Grgich Hills, in
partnership with Austin Hills, and his success illustrates the American
dream of rewards for perseverance, dedication to a goal, and plain hard
When I came to work for Mike at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1970,
Robert Mondavi was a small winery crushing 1,700 tons of grapes. Mike's
own domain, the laboratory, was a tiny room in the winery's renowned
tower. At my first meeting with Mike, I found him tasting wine in
barrels, stacked in the winery barrel room, a small room that is
currently the Oakville facility's office! I worked with Mike in 1970,
1971, and 1972 as an apprentice winemaker and have since followed, with
respect and admiration, his career. As I look back, Mike was a special
and unusual combination of artist and scientist. He had done pioneer
work with malolactic fermentation while working with Andre Tchelistcheff
at Beaulieu Vineyard and was at home with a microscope, whether he was
tracking the behavior of yeast or bacteria. I was fresh out of the
University of California, Davis, after several years of studying the
various aspects of technical winemaking and found Mike was easy to talk
to about technical wine issues such as wine stability and wine
composition, although he didn't express himself in the same way a
scientist would. Mike always retained his European way of communicating
about wine. He seemed to understand wine, not only from an analytical,
technical sense but also from an intuitive sense.
Mike was a good teacher. He treated the grapes from each vineyard,
and each wine, individually. As we would taste the fermenting wines and
then the young wines, Mike would discuss their evolution from the
perspective of the whole life of the wine: what he thought the
particular personality of the wine was, its strengths and weaknesses,
likely behavior, and the approaches to create or coax out a complex and
At that time, California winemaking, in the modern sense, was just
beginning. When I first came to Robert Mondavi, Mike was supervising the
bottling of the 1969 Cabernet that became so famous when it won the Los
Angeles Times tasting of California wines. Mike had laid his
professional imprint strongly upon this wine. Malolactic fermentation
was a new concept in winemaking. The use of stainless steel tanks with
temperature control was still a tool that was appreciated and not yet
taken for granted. Neither skin contact nor barrel fermentation were
part of the winemaking process for Chardonnay; and the use of French oak
barrels in the aging of the wine had just begun. In this regard, Mike
was a perfect complement to Robert Mondavi, bringing to the winery his
own vision of oak aging as essential for fine wines.
As I look back on Mike's winemaking skills in the early 1970s, it's
easy to see now that he had an unusually strong base on which to build
the success he has achieved. At a time when most winemakers in the
business were young and inexperienced, when there were very few older
winemakers knowledgeable about fine European winemaking techniques, Mike
had acquired through years of education and experience the technical
skill and understanding and the artistic approach to winemaking that
enabled him to produce refined, balanced, and expressive wines.
In the intervening twenty years, the California wine industry has
boomed, expanded. A wine public capable of evaluating and appreciating
California's efforts has emerged. California's international reputation
for wine had changed. In the 1970s, Europeans viewed California wines as
rustic; now they see them as fine, sophisticated, quality wines,
important competitors in the world market. Mike's decisions to leave
Robert Mondavi Vinery for a lead winemaker position at Chateau Montelena,
and ultimately to open Grgich Hills Winery in 1977, were timed to take
advantage of this growth and development and reflected Mike's
determination and personal evolution.
Since the birth of Grgich Hills Winery, Mike has not attempted to
cast his net widely in activities; he has focused his time and effort on
his wines and winery. His greatest reputation rests with his Chardonnay,
a wine widely respected by both the wine trade and the consumer. It is
one of the most popular Chardonnays of California, despite a relatively
high bottle price for this varietal. His winery is solid, thoughtfully
designed, well located, but not flashy. His vineyards surround his home
and the home of this partner, Austin Hills. A prominent wine
publication, The Wine Spectator, recently acknowledged Mike as one of
California's premier winemakers, appreciated not only for his Chardonnay
but his Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Sauvignon Blanc. He has a
master's touch, and his success has been well earned and well deserved.
President, SImi Winery
INTERVIEW HISTORY--Miljenko (Mike) Grgich
The interview with Miljenko (Mike) Grgich was held in two sessions,
the first the afternoon of March 3, 1992, the second the following
morning, March 4, both at his home near Yountville. The gracious house,
built in 1885, with high ceilings and tall windows, is flanked by vines
and an attractively landscaped garden where he often entertains.
The interviewer, who knew Mr. Grgich by reputation and through
articles in the press, had met him earlier in 1992 on a shuttle bus ride
en route to a preview of the Opus One winery in Oakville. Cheerful and
outgoing, he responded to my inquiries, giving in effect a brief preview
of his interview. As the interview itself attests, he proved to be an
informative narrator, cooperative in speaking about the subjects
suggested in advance, and in adding relevant information.
He was similarly responsive in reading over the interview
transcript. Both he and his daughter, Violet Grgich, made some changes.
Although he speaks English very expressively, Mr. Grgich' s conversation
is still renminiscent of the fact that his native language is Croatian.
Some of his untraditional English expressions were reworded by his
daughter, still retaining their meaning. He himself clarified other
statements by replacing words and phrases with more exact ones. There
were no extensive changes.
The frontispiece photograph of Mr. Grgich is through the courtesy of
The Wine Spectator. The rest of the photographs were chosen from an
assortment very kindly supplied by Violet Grgich.
Thanks are due to Zelma Long, who contributed the informative and
appreciative introduction to this interview with her fellow winemaker.
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
Regional Oral History Office i x University of California
Room 486 The Bancroft Library Berkeley, California 94720
(Please write clearly. Use black ink.)
Your full name Miljenko Grgich _
Date of birth April 1, 1923 _ Birthplace Desne, Croatia
Father's full name Nikola Grgich _
Occupation Winerraker _ Birthplace Desne, Croatia
Mother's full name Ivka Batinovic _ _ _ ^
Occupation _ Housewife _ Birthplace Desne, Croatia _
Your spouse _ single _ ^
Your children _ Violet Grgich _
Where did you grow U p? Desne, Croatia _
Education University of Zagreb, Yugloslavia
Occupation (s) . Winemaker
Areas of expertise Wine Chemist, Wine Microbiologist , Vineyardist, Winemaker,
Marketing, Specializing in Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Fume
Other interests or activities Bocce Ball, Bowling, Fishing, Walking
Organizations in which you are active American Enologists, Knights of the Vine
EARLY YEARS IN CROATIA, 1923-1954
[Interview 1: March 3, 1992 J//// 1
Teiser: When were you were born?
Grgich: April 1, 1923.
Teiser: And you were born at Desne in Croatia?
Grgich: Yes, it's a village of about a thousand people. My father was a
farmer and was growing grapes and making wine. He was growing
wheat, corn, and lots of vegetables, and he had sheep and cows.
It was a little farm.
Teiser: You grew up on the farm?
Grgich: Yes, very luckily, because as a child I started to learn about
life, working on the farm. I was a shepherd when I was six years
old, taking care of sheep, and I was stomping grapes when I was
two or three years old. I remember that stomping grapes was the
first job I had. When it was the harvest, everybody works, even
children, and the children learn skills little by little every
year. When you start at two or three years old, by ten years old
you know everything your father knows; not that you have physical
power, but you have experience.
Unfortunately, in the towns in civilized countries, children
go to school and go to school, and they have no experience. They
study something, but they don't have a real touch with Mother
Nature or with real facts, with life, or with the climate --rain,
1 This symbol (//#) indicates that a tape or a segment of a tape has
begun or ended. For a guide to the tapes refer to the page following this
wind, snow- -the horses, the cows, the sheep, vegetables, the river
and the floods, the mountains, lakes, fish. So I was fortunate to
live among these things. It was a great experience.
What kind of area was it?
It was a coastal region, about five miles from the coast. At the
same time, there was a river and a lake pretty close. My house
was about five hundred yards above the lake, where we fished. And
there was a river we fished in, and we fished in the ocean.
Fishing, fishing, fishing! [laughs]
Did you have any special interests as a kid?
I was always interested in doing a good job. Even if I was a kid
of six years old, I had an interest in my sheep coming home full.
Every day I would find someplace where I could fill their tummies,
so when I got them home I knew they had the best that I could give
them. So from the very beginning, it was my urge to do the best.
Did your father make you think that way?
Yes, ray father always said, "Don't worry if you're not rich, and
don't worry if you have no college degree. As long as you do what
you are doing today better than yesterday and a little better
tomorrow and every day forward in one year, in 365 days you will
acquire a noticeable amount of improvement, knowledge which will
keep you going toward success."
How did your father make a living?
the open market?
Did he sell his products on
He made a living mainly by producing food that he needed and then
selling wine. He would drink half and sell half --drink the best
and sell the rest. He was very smart. In our country, you give
the best product to your family and friends, and then you sell the
rest. When I came abroad, I found the opposite; they sell the
best, and they eat the rest. What a different philosophy between
the countries. [laughs]
The political climate in Croatia when you were young- -
It was Yugoslavia then.
When you were growing up there, was it an open, free market?
It was a semi -free market. It was still a kind of dictatorship by
the Serbian king. We did suffer under the dictatorship of the
Serbian king. Yugoslavia was established in 1918 as the Kingdom
of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. These were to be equal, but when
the country was established, only Serbs were at the top, and the
others were below. That lasted until some Croatian politicians
started to complain, and in 1928 in parliament in Belgrade, the
Yugoslavian capital, they killed Stjepan Radid , a Croatian leader,
and three other Croatian representatives who were asking for
equality and democracy. On his dying bed he gave recommendation
to other Croatian leaders: "Never to Belgrade again!"
But the Serbian king, instead of giving equality, established
a dictatorship in January 1929, and he transferred the Kingdom of
Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes into YugoslaviaYugoslavia did not
exist until 1929 --and it was even more dictatorial than before.
That situation never has been improved until about 1938, when war
was roaming around; everybody knew there would be a war. Then
Croatia was given a partial independence. Policemen could then be
Croatian, whereas they were mainly Serbian before. Policemen and
local officers could be Croats, and the country really started to
bloom emotionally, because we finally felt we were human beings
with the rights of human beings.
But that didn't last long, because the war started, and there
were five years of war. Italy occupied Dalmatia, Germany occupied
the rest of Yugoslavia, and it was five years of guerilla war all
around Yugoslavia. At the end, the Communists won, with the
support of the West and the Russian army. You see, they never
would have won without the support of the West. Churchill sent
his own son to Yugoslavia to organize these partisans, but when he
came back to London, he said, "Pa, all those people over there in
Yugoslavia are Communists; they are Red." Churchill told him,
"Are you going to live there?" In other words, who cares what
Yugoslavia will become, as long as Britain is being helped by it.
That's how small countries have always been treated, not for human
rights but just to be of some use.
Teiser: You went to the University of Zagreb?
Grgich: Yes, I graduated from the business college first. After the war
there was a need for bookkeepers, and they were well paid. I went
to business school and was a bookkeeper for one year.
Teiser: What year was that?
Grgich: It was long ago. [thinking] From 1948 to 1949 I was a
Six-year-old Miljenko Grgich photographed at his family
farm at Desne, Yugoslavia, 1929.
STUDYING ENOLOGY AND VITICULTURE, 1949-1954
Grgich: In 1949 I entered the University of Zagreb and graduated in 1954.
I was studying enology and viticulture.
Teiser: When you were working on your family farm, did you make wine?
Grgich: Yes. I stomped the grapes. I don't think I would have been born
if my father didn't need my feet to stomp the grapes, because they
didn't have machinery in those days. I remember that, ever since
I was three or four years old, every year never missed harvest.
Teiser: Did you particularly like winemaking?
Grgich: Yes. I liked the wine. My mama kept me on breast milk until age
two and a half, because I was the last kid- -the eleventh. One day
I misbehaved, and I knew she would punish me. She said, "No more
milk," and I thought I was going to die. She said, "No, you are
not going to die. I'll switch you from milk to wine." So I
always had diluted wine at the table --half water, half wine--
because in those days they didn't have chlorine to sanitize water.
But they knew that if they mixed wine into the water, the wine
would sanitize it and kids wouldn't have a stomach ache. So I
started to drink wine as early as I can remember. I liked it, and
I still like it.
Teiser: Wasn't it unusual for someone from a family like yours to go to
Grgich: It was unusual because none of my ten brothers and sisters went to
the university. I was the only one, but I think I had something
in my genes to improve every day and do something better every
day. I'm not stopping yet; I'm still learning.
Teiser: Was it expensive to go to the university?
Grgich: It wasn't expensive because I ate very little; I worked and
studied. I had no mother or father [to help support me] when I
was at the university. I worked. I worked at an institute in
genetics. 1 was learning about genetics, and at the same time I
was making some money. My room was built a hundred years ago for
the maids. It was a little room, maybe three yards wide and ten
yards long. So my expenses were very small. I didn't have a car
or a bike. Nowadays even people on welfare have a car, everybody
has a bike. I was not on welfare; I was making my own living. If
you have to, you can live with little money.
Teiser: I suppose you were willing to.
Grgich: I knew that I had to suffer. The only lucky thing I have in my
life is that I know that in life one has to suffer, and I accepted
suffering as a part of life. One poet says, "The spoon of the
honey asks for the spoon of the bitter," and the mixture of bitter
and sweet is best to drink. Fortunately, I accepted that, and I'm
still accepting suffering. When I make my wines and have to get
up at three o'clock in the morning, I get up. Many people say,
"Oh, it's cold outside," but not for me ; I am used to suffering,
and I don't suffer in suffering. I knew that after rain must come
the sunshine .
Teiser: What did you study at the university?
Grgich: General agricultural subjects for two years; organic, inorganic,
analytical chemistry; physics, mathematics, biology, genetics,
botany, biology, microbiology, soil microbiology- -lots of subjects
which are helpful to me now. One day I was at a doctor's office
in San Francisco, and he noticed that I understood microbiology.
He asked me if I had studied to be a doctor, and I said, "No, I
studied agriculture." There are bugs wherever you are, which are
an important part of life.
Teiser: Were there any outstanding teachers you had who influenced you?
Grgich: One of them was a chemistry professor, Marko Mohacek. He was a
guy who had enormous energy. He was teaching us chemistry, but he
had his own experimental farm where he was selecting the different
kinds of potatoes, tomatoes, wine selections. He was an expert in
wine. We had Professor Stefanich in enology, but if we needed
something really serious, we would go to Marko Mohacek. He had
such good taste. I remember one time I brought him some wine, and
he tasted it and said, "Mike, it seems good to me. I can't find
anything wrong with it." Ten minutes later he came back to me and
said, "Mike, I have an aftertaste of something. Did you ever put
sugar in the wine?" I said yes, and he said, "I feel it on my
tongue . "
And he loved students. At that time there were no books
published in the subjects; the professors would just teach you,
and you would catch as much as you could. But he had a book for
all his subjects, written by him- -in organic chemistry, inorganic
chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry. He was also
knowledgeable in pedology and microbiology. He was a tremendous
person, with a sharp, energetic mind. He could take anything; he
was well educated.
And, you know, the Communists laid him off two months before
retirement just so he wouldn't get full retirement. That may be
the reason why I came to America, because I was one of those
students who went to the dean to ask that he be kept on until we
passed our examination with him. Five of us students went to the
dean, asking that they let him stay another six months so that we,
who were learning from him, could pass our examinations. After
that the secret police started to follow me around. I was very
much in danger, and I was scared to death. So I got out of the
country to West Germany.
WEST GERMANY, 1954-1956
Teiser: What year did you leave college?
Grgich: In 1954.
Teiser: What did you do next?
Grgich: I went to West Germany.
Teiser: What did you do there?
Grgich: I went to West Germany to get to America. I was an exchange
student for two months, but I never came back to Yugoslavia from
Teiser: What did you study then?
Grgich: I was on a farm in Germany. I studied mainly genetics- -production
of new varieties.
Teiser: Andre Tchelistcheff was involved in a somewhat similar
international education program.
Grgich: We have been involved in many of the same things, because we did
not have a home; we have been just shuffled with the wind. You
can only be in one place at a time.
Teiser: How long did you stay in Germany?
Grgich: Eighteen months. I found out that getting a visa for the United
States was very hard in those days. There was a very small quota
for Yugoslavia, so you had to wait until your quota opened up. I
thought it might take a long time, and somebody suggested that I
go to Canada.
The Canadian consulate gave me a visa immediately, so I went to
What did you do there?
Oh, anything to make my living. I had some connection with
Vancouver College. They gave me a job as a dishwasher and waiter,
[laughs] I apologized, saying, "I didn't study to be dishwasher
or a waiter," because in Europe you have to study for six years to
be trained to be a waiter. They said, "Never mind. Show up
tomorrow morning," and gave me an apron.
Did you like Vancouver?
Yes, it is a very nice climate. It's on the ocean and is very
interesting. It's more American than any other Canadian town.
Did you feel free?
Was it a place where there was freedom for
I knew it was not the last destination for me; I knew it was
temporary. But I had found freedom, and I had found progress. In
the evening I would go up in the hills and look down at all the
lights in the business district. In the old country there were no
lights, and how many lights you see in Vancouver by night. And
nobody is there working; it's just the lights.
I noted that productivity in Canada was much better than in
the old country. When I started to dry a glass, I would take the
glass and a rag, and I would look at the glass, dry it, look at
it. While I dried one glass, the other waiter dried twelve. He
would just take the glass and wipe it [demonstrates a quick swipe,
taking another glass, a quick swipe, etc.]. I remember I wrote a
letter to my friend in the old country and said, "People are paid
here much more than in our country, but they produce much more."
LEARNING ABOUT CALIFORNIA
Teiser: Were you hoping to get to California?
Grgich: Oh, yes.
Teiser: How did you know about California in connection with wine?
Grgich: We read geography a great deal in our country, and we learned
about the whole world. You ask some American student who is
graduating from high school, "Where is Czechoslovakia?" They
might not know whether it is in Asia or Europe. But in Europe,
geography was a very important subject, and you learned about
every country in the world. So I knew about California, and many
of my countrymen had a connection with California. The professor
who was teaching us fruit growing was in California three months
before I graduated. When he came back, we all gathered around him
and asked, "How is California?"
Teiser: So you know something about the conditions here?
Grgich: Oh, yes, and I knew there was wine here.
Grgich: I knew there was wine in California, that the soil was fertile,
and that there was drought once in a while. This professor told
us, "You have in California a garden of Eden where there is water;
where there is no water, everything is yellow. So water is a very
important factor in California."
Teiser: What made you think that California was good for making wine?
Grgich: I have to come back to the fact that I had relatives in the United
States; my mother had three brothers here in the United States, my
father had a brother and their relatives here, and my older sister
was in Washington State. So America to us was the hope and beacon
of freedom. Every year they would send us for Christmas and
Easter a few dollars; there were always a few dollars dripping
from America into our homes. So America was a place where I
believed I could utilize my natural ability- -my genes --and besides
Freedom is something that attracted me here. Because when I
was in Yugoslavia we had two dictatorships on our backs, Serbian
and Communist. If you were not a Communist or a Serb, you were
out of luck; you never could become a professor or have a job as a
director of something. I couldn't see that ever, in my life, it
would change, because Communism was still progressing at that
time. They were telling us that they were taking over the whole
world, and they did so until [Ronald] Reagan came into power as
president of the U.S.A. Since he came to power, no country fell
under Communism. Bush is now glorifying himself that he broke the
back of Communism, but it was Reagan who did it. We all paid for
it, but I like to give credit where credit belongs. He started to
arm the U.S.A., so Russia has had to arm, putting them on thin
ice; they had to spend money they didn't have for arms. So they
were spending money for arms and didn't have bread. That's what
broke down Communism. Whether anybody likes Reagan or not, I give
him credit for eliminating Communism as a menace in the world.
Teiser: When you left Yugoslavia, were you hoping to head for California?
Grgich: Yes, in my mind I was heading for California.
TO CALIFORNIA. 1958-1977
Working for Lee Stewart. 1958
Teiser: And were you thinking of being in the wine industry?
Grgich: Yes. Not necessarily in the Napa Valley, but while I was in
Canada I heard that the Napa Valley was the place. So I came from
Vancouver straight to Napa Valley to work for Mr. Lee [J. Leland]
Stewart at the old Souverain up near Angwin; now it is Burgess
How did you make that connection?
How did you know about Lee
I placed an ad in the Wine Institute [bulletin] , looking for work,
and he answered my ad. So we connected, and I came straight to
work for him.
You were lucky, weren't you? That was a good--
I've been lucky all my life. If I look at my brothers and
sisters, my father, and my mother, I was the luckiest in my
Stewart was a big influence in California winemaking, as I
understand it. Why was that?
Yes. He was a man who had drive; probably no matter what he did,
he would have drive, but when he started to make wine he had a
strong drive to make the best that he could. He was very similar
to me: "Do your best." There was no second in him, just the best.
Because his methods were the best, he became the best. You don't
become best by accident; you have to work hard to be the best.
Teiser: Quite a number of people worked for him and were influenced by
him. Did you know some of the others?
Grgich: Yes, Warren Winiarski started with him. Winiarski and Mike Grgich
are the two that I know of who have succeeded in winemaking.
Winiarski 's Cabernet and my Chardonnay came in first place at the
Paris tasting of 1976, the so-called Spurier tasting, so we have
something in common; we have both worked for Lee Stewart, Andre
Tchelistcheff , and Robert Mondavi. We worked for all these guys,
and the result was the fruit; if you work, you get some fruit out
Teiser: Was Stewart hard to work for?
Grgich: Oh, very hard. He asked for perfection- -and perfection in
cleanliness and performance. When I came to America I found out
that European and American winemaking were different. I was lucky
to find him and not somebody who was sloppy. He was so precise in
everything; everything had to be done in a particular waynot a
second way, only one way, the best way, and that's the way you had
to do it.
Teiser: How did Stewart learn to make wine?
Grgich: From Andre Tchelistcheff, and he made wine better than Andre
Tchelistcheff, because Tchelistcheff had a bigger place and more
people were involved. But Stewart had only himself and one
assistant, so he would do the job the best he knew how, whereas
Andr6 would not do the job; he would just tell somebody else how
to do it. How that somebody else did it was how it got done, so
Lee had the advantage of Andre Tchelistcheff.
Teiser: I hear people refer to Stewart so often, and we haven't recorded
much about him.
Grgich: He was a very special man. If you judge him to be a good human
being, I will tell you a joke. One friend of mine said that Lee
Stewart had ulcers --always problems with his stomach. My friend
was talking to him and asked, "Lee, do you have any problem with
your heart?" He said, "No, I have no problem with my heart." My
friend said, "I know you have no problem with your heart because
you have no heart." [laughs] For Stewart his winemaking was more
important than he was or his health. He was totally devoted to
what he was doing.
Teiser: Did he have any particular style of winemaking?
Grgich: He learned from Andr6 Tchelistcheff, and he would go by that every
year, year after year. He would do everything the same so that he
didn't make a mistake, because his knowledge wasn't like that of
Andr6 Tchelistcheff , where he could move to the left or the right.
He would stick to the known path, and that way he developed his
style; he always made wine the same way. Robert Mondavi every
year makes something different, so Robert Mondavi has no style.
But Lee Stewart did have a style, because he would make
Johannisberg Riesling, which he was known for, exactly in that
style, year after year- -his Cabernet and Chardonnay, every wine
had special style. He didn't have big machinery to help him, but
he developed his style, by which he would make every year wine of
Teiser: Is that good?
Grgich: Yes. Wineries have to have a style. If we all dressed the same,
like in China, life wouldn't be interesting, and if every
winemaker made the same wine, it wouldn't be interesting. Every
winery has to have its own style.
Teiser: How long were you with Lee Stewart?
Grgich: Not longabout four months.
Teiser: Did you learn a lot in that short a time?
Grgich: Oh, yes, a great deal, because it was a crush time. You learn
most at the crush. I would pick the grapes by day, crush them in
the evening, and cool the juice by night.
Teiser: Why did you leave him?
Grgich: I had a kind of obligation to the Christian Brothers, because they
had something to do with my coming here, the same as Lee Stewart
did. I was living in very poor conditions up on the hill near
Souverain winery. I got in touch immediately with the Christian
Brothers when I arrived in Napa Valley, and they actually
suggested to my nephew in Seattle that he place an ad in the Wine
Institute bulletin. So I felt that they had something to do with
my finding a position with Lee Stewart. I didn't have a car and
couldn't shop, so it was very hard for me to live up on the hill
Christian Brothers. 1959
Grgich: So I moved down to St. Helena, and I could walk to Greys tone
Winery. I walked there and back, one or two miles every day; it
was good exercise.
Teiser: Whom did you work under there?
Grgich: It was Brother Timothy [Diener] , who was the main winemaker, and
Auguste Pirio, who was the immediate manager. He is retired now.
My job was to help on the champagne bottling line, anything that
was necessary to do around, making champagne, bottling champagne,
shipping champagne. I was working in the champagne department on
the third floor of Greys tone winery at St. Helena.
Teiser: Was it interesting?
Grgich: It was interesting, but I still didn't see that it was my place.
On one of my days off I went to see Andre Tchelistcheff , because I
knew he was an immigrant, like me. You know, you try to find
somebody who is like you, who understands you. I told him that I
was working for Christian Brothers. They had one chemist and one
winemaker, who would stay there forever; there are no openings, as
there might be many other places where somebody stays for two or
three years and moves. At Christian Brothers, people stay there
forever, and I didn't see that I would ever have a chance to
become either a wine chemist or a winemaker.
I told Andre I was looking for a better job, and he took my
name. In about a month he called me and said his wine chemist was
sick, and if I wanted to come to work in the lab for him, there
was an opening. So I came in, but I didn't have any experience in
using the lab equipment.
Teiser: Before you get onto Beaulieu, let me take you back to the
Christian Brothers. How long were you there?
Grgich: About a year.
Teiser: Did their wines have a special style, and can you characterize it?
Grgich: At that time, yes. The red wine especially was the best buy on
the market. It was well aged and well styled. If they had a wine
tasting, there would always be lots of people there to taste their
wines at that time, when Brother Timothy was young and the winery
Teiser: Brother Timothy didn't believe in vintage dating, did he?
Grgich: Yes and no. He switched back and forth. He liked good wine, so
whichever way it came--. He had very strict German blood, was
very honest, and a hard worker. He would expect everybody to work
Tetser: Was he easy to work for?
Grgich: Oh, medium.
Beaulieu Vineyard. 1959-1968
Teiser: So then you went to Andr6, and he said to come.
Grgich: He said, "Come and work." I said, "How can I work? I did these
tests in the laboratory in my country, but all the equipment was
different and the tests were different." I said, "Andr6, can you
do one test for me, and I'll watch how you do it. Then I will be
able to do it myself." Andr6 said, "I have no time." They
brought me twenty- five samples of the red wine to analyze, total
analysis- -sugar , alcohol, acid, tannins. I couldn't figure out
how to do even one analysis, so he gave me the book, and I started
one by one --reading the book, do the test once, do it a second
time, do it a third time. If I could repeat it, I knew I was
doing okay. I looked in the book to see what their results were
the last time the wine was analyzed, what their reading was, and
see how it compared to my analysis.
So I learned from scratch each of those analyses. In a week
I analyzed all of those twenty-five bottles. I would come by bus
in the morning from St. Helena at six o'clock instead of eight,
and I would work until six o'clock in the evening. Andre told me,
"I know that you are not experienced, but I'll give you two
months. If you make it in two months, you'll stay. If you don't
make it, don't blame me." After two months I was very anxious to
see what Andre would say. He said, "You will get a raise." I
asked how much, and he said, "Twenty-five cents an hour." I asked
if I would stay, and he said, "Yes, you will stay here." That
twenty- five cents was the most remembered raise in my life. If I
stayed there I knew I had a good job, and if I didn't, who knows
where I might have gone.
Teiser: I should ask you to pronounce your first name, Miljenko.
Grgich: "Meelyenko." I shortened it to Mike, because my language is
phonetic. Everybody knows "Mike." Now finally I'm coming back
with Miljenko, and most people don't ask me how to spell it.
Teiser: Before you went to Beaulieu you had experienced two wineries which
must have been different from each other.
Milienko Grgich in the laboratory at Beaulieu
Vineyard, circa 1965.
Teiser: Was Stewart's Souverain highly mechanized?
Grgich: Very simple, but very organized and very precise.
Teiser: How about the Christian Brothers?
Grgich: It was a larger place, where you saw more mechanization but less
care and personal involvement.
Teiser: How did Beaulieu compare to them?
Grgich: Beaulieu was a unique winery because it was founded by the French.
Through the decades it developed the French style of winemaking.
It was something different, something unique.
Teiser: It was closer to the European tradition?
Grgich: Yes, and a stable place. If you found a job there, you were there
forever. The relationships among the people were good and its
productivity was average, but everybody knew that if you did your
job you would not be laid off, because they had a vineyard and a
winery, and they needed so many people. During the slowness of
the year they would find something for everyone to do. So once
you were there and did decent work, you could retire there; you
had no worry about being fired or laid off. It was a stable
place, like in Europe; you worked there, and your son worked
Teiser: What year did you go there?
Grgich: In 1959 I joined Beaulieu Vineyard. I came to Napa Valley in
August 1958 and stayed with Stewart about four months and then
stayed with the Christian Brothers until late in the year of '59.
After the harvest I joined Beaulieu Vineyard and was there for
nine years, until 1968.
Teiser: In 1959, was Andre still experimenting?
Grgich: He was still experimenting.
Advances in Frost Protection
Grgich: While I was there we always had some project going on. For
instance, in 1960 and '61 we started to protect vineyards from the
frost. That was the beginning of these wind machines, smudge
pots, and sprinklers in Napa Valley. We started with old rubber
tires and burned them in the vineyard, and then we tried bales of
straw. Finally we got wind machines and smudge pots. We never
got sprinklers for Beaulieu Vineyard, but conditions were
progressively being improved so that the grapes wouldn't freeze
and we could have a crop every year. If you have a developed
market, you have to have so many cases of Cabernet, for example,
to supply your market. If you don't make the wine, somebody will
take you off of their wine list. So it was very important to have
a constant supply for your customers.
That was one project that I was a part of. I was working by
day in the winery and by night in the vineyard, running around
like a rabbit from thermometer to thermometer, measuring
temperature in order to know when to light smudge pots- -put them
down, start with the machines, put them down. Many times I would
work by day in the winery and by night in the vineyard.
Improvements in White Wines
Grgich: At that time white wines were mainly dry sauterne and chablis--
very poor quality. Those wines would be good for six months on
the shelf, and then they would oxidize and be worthless. I
started, and Andre started at the same time, to improve white
wines by using different methods of caring for those wines and
establishing a better way to make them and to protect them. And
we made a miracle; in '61 we already had a good wine, so that when
his son [Dimitri] came from Gallo to visit, he was impressed with
how we had improved the white wines. We were using cool
fermentation for white wines and settling them to eliminate
sediment; if they don't have a sediment during fermentation they
are much fruitier.
Teiser: What were you using then?
Grgich: We settled wine in the tanks overnight, and then in the morning we
would rack clear juice into another tank and would add specially
selected yeast for white wine. That was another significant
improvement which was done while I was there.
Grgich: We also started with sterile bottling. When you bottle wine, some
bacteria or yeast might go through the filter. At that time the
millipore filter had been developed, the filter that no yeast or
no bacteria would go through; every pore is calibrated, and the
pores are smaller than any bacteria or yeast,
I was part of developing use of millipore sterile filtration.
We were doing that first in the wine industry. Gallo tried and
couldn't do it immediately. Italian Swiss Colony tried and
couldn't make it, but we succeeded right away. Millipore [the
manufacturer] was very happy that they were established someplace,
from whence they spread to the whole wine industry and to the beer
industry, too. We learned how to do it because we were being as
precise as Lee Stewart in our approach. Both of us were
microbiologists, and we knew what we were doing.
At Beaulieu you were doing the opposite of what Lee Stewart had
been doing. He kept doing the same thing, and at Beaulieu you
were trying new things.
Induced Malolactic Fermentation
That's right. We were the first in California to induce
malolactic fermentation in all red wines at will. It was usually
going by itself- -going or not going- -but we learned how to
propagate the starter and add to wine proper amounts of starter at
optimum temperature. Use of paper chromatography helped to obseve
malolactic fermentation. I had been working six months in the lab
with twelve French cultures, and finally we chose one that was
from UC California at Davis, ML 34. We started it and fermented
all the red wines in two months by our will, by inducing with the
starter produced in the laboratory. That was an achievement!
Before that some wineries had been doing this in their labs on a
small scale, but this was the first time it was done in an
industrial way in a California winery- -in 1962.
These were things that didn't exist when you were studying,
got in on a changing period.
Grgich: Growing. That's what life is about. Life is not for sitting
down. Life is moving and getting better, improving. At Beaulieu
Vineyard Andr6 and I established quality control; I was the first
quality control person in the Napa Valley. Quality control means
to control the grapes in the vineyard, to control when to pick
them and when to crush them, when they are fermenting, when they
are being fined, racked, bottled- -all the way through. That gave
me a chance to observe the wine from the beginning to the end of
the winemaking process. Many winemakers stay in the winery and
never see the vineyard, but I was associated with the vineyard and
everything that was connected with the wine. Even if somebody
returned a bottle to us , I had to analyze it under a microscope to
see whether there was any spoilage. So I controlled the whole
circle, and that gave me experience for nine years that I used
since then to make better wines year after year.
Teiser: I think quality control is something that Zelma Long has been
working on at Simi winery.
Grgich: Yes, I hired her when I was at Robert Mondavi and trained her.
Teiser: Andre himself was always interested in everything from the
vineyard on, wasn't he?
Grgich: Yes. He was more a viticulturist than a winemaker. But, you
know, Andre worked at a time when there were not many other
quality winemakers. Andre Tchelistcheff made superior wines in
those days because nobody else knew how to do it better. If you
had Andre Tchelistcheff make wines today, those wines would be on
a par with the wines of today because we have progressed so much.
Robert Mondavi Winery. 1968-1972
Grgich: When I moved from Ande Tchelistcheff to Robert Mondavi, Professor
[Harold] Berg came to Mondavi and tasted some of the white wines
which I had made there. He said, "Andre, you have to go over
there and taste those wines." I brought from Andre Tchelistcheff
the French technique, particularly for red wine. Robert Mondavi
was much more experimenting, whereas at Beaulieu Vineyard most
things were done repetitious ly. At Robert Mondavi you just moved;
you didn't see your tail, because your tail was disappearing as
you were charging forward.
I used my experience from Beaulieu Vineyard working for
Robert Mondavi. The first Cabernet that I made for Robert
Mondavi, '69, was tasted by the fifteen California winemakers
under Robert Balzer from the Los Angeles Times. That Cabernet was
proclaimed to be the best Cabernet in California. I introduced
malolactic fermentation and some other methods from Beaulieu
Vineyard to Robert Mondavi. Since I had more freedom there than I
had at Beaulieu Vineyard, I really bloomed there.
Teiser: You said you were lucky, and I'm sure you were, but I'm also sure
you were a very willing worker and a very willing learner all
through this. A lot of people could have gone through those jobs
and just gone straight ahead without broadening.
Grgich: Yes, I was enjoying living, and by living I mean moving, learning
every day something, doing something better. People ask me why I
work at sixty-eight years old. All my colleagues who started with
me retired ten years ago. I say that I haven't made the perfect
wine yet, and I'm shooting for that. I'm just joking, because I
know I will never make the perfect wine; there is no such thing.
Nothing is perfect; only God is perfect.
Teiser: Could you have gone on forever at Beaulieu if you had wanted to?
Grgich: I had no choice, because Andre Tchelistcheff had a son, Dimitri.
Whether it was true or not, I understood that his son applied for
his job. When I heard that, I understood; if it were my son, I
would give him my job. I didn't complain about it, but I knew
that I could not stay there and have a chance for the winemaker's
So I went to Robert Mondavi's, where he had two sons
[laughs], and there wasn't much chance there, either.
Teiser: How did you get in touch with Robert Mondavi?
Grgich: I was very much charmed by his new building. It was something
new. It was the first winery built after Prohibition, very nice,
very clean, very stylish. Since he was my neighbor there, when I
knew that I had no room to go forward at Beaulieu Vineyard, my
choice was to go to a place like that which had something new to
offer. He had stainless steel tanks, French barrels, and very
interesting new things that he started in the winery.
I asked him for a job, and he didn't hesitate. He said, "I'm
going to make out of you a little Andre Tchelistcheff." So we
started to work together, and we did a great job. After that
Cabernet '69, which was judged to be the best Cabernet in
California, his image and his sales just jumped skyward. He
believes that that pushed him ten years ahead from where he had
been. I was proud that I came to the place where my energy was
meeting his energy. He's much more energetic than I am. I did
well there until he started to grow too big. After four years he
Teiser: When you went there first in '68, what did the winery consist of?
Grgich: Just the original little building, and many tanks were outside. I
remember one day a Wine Institute safety inspector came to visit
us. I told all my people that the Wine Institute safety inspector
was coming, "Watch out that he doesn't catch you." My foreman
went up to the tank outside- -just a twenty -thousand- gallon tank--
on the portable ladder, and he was so scared that he fell down
from the top of the tank with the ladder and everything. I
thought, "Why now?" [laughs] "Why didn't this happen to you
Mondavi had lots of tanks outside for a while- -roto tanks and
other stainless steel tanks.
He made wine without a building?
He had some tanks inside a building and many outside. It was very
hard to work that way. He was budding out, even though he didn't
have a building over all tanks. In four years he was so
successful that I as a precision winemaker could not take care of
all his wines; it was just too much wine for me. I asked him to
hire another winemaker who would take care of the inferior wine; I
would just take care of Cabernet and Chardonnay and let somebody
else take the rest. But he didn't want to do that. He said,
"Mike, I know you can handle it." I said, "I know I cannot,
because I am not happy if some mistake comes and I cannot control
it. I want to have total control and perfect wines." I was a
At that time the two men from Los Angeles, [Ernest W. ] Hahn
and [James L. ] Barrett, bought Chateau Montelena and were looking
for a winemaker. Mr. [Leland J.] Paschich knew me, and he came
down so I could give him some yeast starter for his wine that he
was making up at the winery. He said, "Mike, I have partners, and
they would like to talk to you." I asked about what, and he said,
"We have a winery, but we have no winemaker." With Andre
Tchelistcheff 's son in front of me and Robert Mondavi's two sons
in front of me, it wasn't hard for me to make the appointment. I
found the place empty, neglected for fifty years, no winemaker in
sight. Mr. Barrett said, "You can have all of this, and you will
be the winemaker and vineyardist, all on your own, and you will be
a limited partner."
Let me go back to the Robert Mondavi Winery,
They started in '66.
So they had made several vintages?
Were they doing well?
When were they
I wouldn't consider it so from those two vintages. But after the
'69 Cabernet was proclaimed the best Cabernet in California- -and
the Johannisberg Riesling '69 was supposed to be the best in
California- -suddenly his name climbed up, and he deserved it.
So he really needed you?
Oh, definitely. He wouldn't have hired me if he didn't need me.
But in a few years he needed more than me. I hired Zelma about
two years after I started working there, and she was my assistant,
first part time and then full time. Both of us worked very hard.
We had three shifts working during crush, and I had to control all
of them. In my dreams I knew what they were doing over there. It
was very hard.
Were your aims the same as Robert Mondavi's aims?
upon the kind of wines you should make?
Did you agree
We were friendly about it.
We did not differ much in what we had
Exp e r imen t ing
Teiser: There again there were lots of experiments, weren't there?
Grgich: Oh, yes.
Teiser: Did you carry them out to their ends, or did you just start some
things and then give them up?
Grgich: When I came to Robert Mondavi I was more shaped by the Beaulieu
Vineyard way of experimenting, which was to do them one at a time
in an organized fashion. At Robert Mondavi's, many experiments
were going at the same time, just rushing around, and nobody had
total control. That was not my style, and I didn't enjoy them as
much as I enjoyed the experiments at Beaulieu Vineyard, because at
Beaulieu Vineyard we did one experiment at a time. You started
it, you improved it, and you made it work. You had total control.
However, Robert Mondavi had roto tanks, something new that nobody
had. The first year he said, "My wines are so good because of
roto tanks." The next year he bought centrifuge and said, "Now my
wines are good because of the centrifuge . " Then he bought a
filter and said, "Now my wines are so good because of the filter"
and forgot about the roto tanks and centrifuge. He was just
charging forward. For me it was a little faster than I would do
Teiser: That's what happens with someone who has a million ideas, isn't
Grgich: He had twice as many ideas as I did. I did have some, but not as
many as he did. But I did benefit from those experiments which we
did there. People ask me, "Mike, how do you know these things?"
I say, "I have benefited from working for Lee Stewart, who was at
that time the best winemaker in the Napa Valley; I have benefited
from working with Andre Tchelistcheff , because he was the best
winemaker in the Napa Valley; and I worked at Robert Mondavi, the
best experimental winery in the Napa Valley." I am so lucky that
I have touched all these people myself, and some of these things I
learned with them I took with me, and they are a part of me. All
these things, together with my experiments as a villager, as a
farmer, as a fisherman, and all the other things I have done
contributed to my success. I walk to the top of Mt. St. Helena
whenever I have the chance. Walking in the fresh air, seeing
birds and flowers, probably makes my life richer than many other
Teiser: I should think so. And all in the Napa Valley.
Grgich: Yes. I had many offers in other places for a wage that would be
at least twice as much as here, and I couldn't leave. There was
something that kept me here in this valley for thirty- three years.
I always thought in my mind that one day I would have my own
winery in Napa Valley.
Chateau Montelena. 1972-1977
Chateau Montelena, where you went in 1972
was started by two
Two Los Angeles people, Ernie Hahn and Jim Barrett. Jim Barrett
was the lawyer of Mr. Hahn, and Mr. Hahn was a mall builder. At
one time he had fourteen of them being built in different states.
A very active person. He started with zero, and retired at age
sixty with $252,000,000 when he sold his business. He was always
a very honest man.
How did they happen to buy Chateau Montelena?
They liked wine. Barrett and Hahn had everything but a winery.
Teiser: Before you met them, had they bought only vineyards?
Grgich: No, they came to Calls toga and bought the vineyard and the winery
with the idea of making wine- -Cabernet ; they liked Cabernet.
Teiser: Had it been a winery that was operating before?
Grgich: Commercially, about fifty years before. Mr. [Lee] Paschich made
homemade wine in it from 1968 on, but it was a small amount, not
commercial; no commercial wine had been produced in it for about
I came to work for Chateau Montelena in May 1972. They
didn't have tanks, they didn't have a crusher, they didn't have a
bottling line; they didn't have anything. He said, "Mike sit
down. Here is paper. Design the winery. You have just the walls
and nothing in them. You fill them in." We had to crush in
September, and I came in about the first of May- -three months to
crushing. It takes you three months just to design something, not
counting how long it takes to build and place equipment. I
struggled with how to do it, and I did it; in September I had
everything ready to go. I had a crusher, a hopper, tanks, a
press, and we started making wine in September '72.
I started with them on a small scale. The first wine is
still considered the best Chardonnay ever produced in
California- -vintage '72. It scored ninety-nine in the last
tasting of James Laube a few years ago. I put all my body and
soul into it- -my own wine. We had the first public tasting in San
Diego two years later by members of Physicians Friends of Wine.
They compared it with the Batard Montrachet, same vintage, which
was $17.50 a bottle, and ours was $6.00. It was a blind tasting,
and only one -fourth of the tasters preferred the French wine;
three -fourths preferred that first Chardonnay I made at Chateau
Montelena in '72.
Then the '73 Chardonnay was tasted in the Paris tasting [of
1976] and came in first among the best French and California
Teiser: You have made several notable wines, haven't you, that received a
great deal of acclaim. Weren't there some before that?
Grgich: Well, the most amazing one was that Robert Mondavi Cabernet '69;
that was a big jump for me.
Teiser: That put him on the map, didn't it?
Grgich: It put him, and it put me and my soul and my pride, and my belief
in myself that we could do it. The second one was the '72 Chateau
Montelena Chardonnay, then there was the '73 Chateau Montelena
Chardonnay. Since then every year there has been something
special. When I opened Grgich Hills [Cellar] in 1977, my first
Chardonnay was tasted in Chicago with 221 Chardonnays from all
around the world and came in first place in the Chicago shoot -out.
One wine writer, Craig Goodwin, wrote an article, "The best
Chardonnay in the world." I was so happy I couldn't believe it.
Little Mike Grgich, born in the village of Desne [laughs] --is that
possible? I never believed that I could reach that kind of
achievement, being small, five feet six, the eleventh in the
family. I came here to America and had no close relatives in the
Napa Valley. Then my name shows up in Paris tastings, in Chicago
shootouts, as they call them. My wine was taken to France by
President Reagan when he made friendship with President
Mitterrand. Four cases of the '69 Chardonnay were used for the
dinner with Mr. Mitterrand.
Our Chardonnay has also been served to Queen Elizabeth and
the King of Spain. I don't believe that I deserve it, and I don't
believe that I have made the best Chardonnay in the world, but it
doesn't hurt me to feel that I have contributed something good
with my life. However, I have to admit that while my father
advised me to spread my life over good food, wine, women, and
music, I was good only in the winemaking and not in the other
areas. I concentrated all my efforts in the wine, and that's why
I didn't come through with the food, women, and music. You cannot
do everything best.
Teiser: What has happened to Chateau Montelena?
Grgich: They are doing well. Actually, I can tell you a little story
about Chateau Montelena. The owners were thinking about making
Cabernet wine only, but they told me to make a budget for the next
five years. I worked two months to get those expenses projected,
and when it came to the income, I put a big zero. Because if I
make Cabernet, it takes a minimum of five years before I can put
it on the market, so it would be five years of expenditure and no
income, no cash flow. They looked at that and said, "Mike, it
doesn't look to us very realistic." I said, "It doesn't look that
way to me, either." They said, "What can we do?" I said, "Start
with your white wines, which you can make and sell and have cash
flow until your Cabernet comes into the market."
So we started with Johannisberg Riesling and Chardonnay.
Suddenly the Johannisberg Riesling was judged to be the best, and
the Chardonnay was judged to be best. Before they came into
Cabernet they were so well known for Chardonnay that they had
trouble when the Cabernet came to market. Few people wanted to
buy Cabernet, because everybody knew Chateau Montelena for
Chardonnay. They had to start discounting the Cabernet, just to
keep it moving out. Though they made good Cabernet, the public
didn't see Chateau Montelena as a Cabernet winery. The same thing
happened to me when I started Grgich Hills. 1 started on a
shoestring with white wines.
After five years as a limited partner at Chateau Montelena,
and after the Paris tasting when my Chardonnay came in first
place, in my soul came back the original feeling of why I came to
America. Did I come to America to work for somebody else, or did
I come to America to work for myself? I decided to go on my own.
All the savings I had I put into buying twenty acres of land in
Rutherford. Bare land- -no vineyard, no winery. But at that time
I was considering a partnership with Austin Hills, and in
conversation with him I learned that he had money and a vineyard,
the two things I didn't have. So we became partners and formed
The 1976 Paris Tasting
Teiser: You talked about the 1976 Paris wine tasting- -
Grgich: The Paris tasting is an event that will remain in the history of
American winemaking- -where we grew up, as the event when American
wines scored better than French. The tasting was organized by
English wine man Steven Spurier. Nine French wine judges blindly
tasted five French and five California Chardonnays. They would
smell it and say [pantomiming], "That's French; that's California;
that ' s French . " Then they concentrated on the French , and my
Chardonnay was in that French group and came in first place. It
was such a big surprise for them that they missed the California
wine and didn't separate it from the French.
When Time magazine called me from Europe and wanted to
interview me and take my picture, I didn't know why, because I was
not aware that my wine was in Paris. I told them, "Be sure it's
me and not somebody else." [laughs] I knew I had a good wine,
but I didn't know anything about the Paris tasting and what
happened there. I got a wire from my manager, Jim Barrett, but I
couldn't understand what he was talking about. But when they
came from Europe they told me, and I saw the news on t.v. I
finally jumped into the news with that event, and since then I
have been in the news all the time.
Teiser: Let's start with Grgich Hills tomorrow. You have now had fifteen
years experience there.
Grgich: We can cover it in fifteen minutes.
Teiser: No, I think we should have it in some detail.
Grgich: My English is poor, and I don't know whether you will be able to
understand everything I have said. I have spent most of my time
with wine and not with people, so I have little speaking
experience. I can talk better with wine than with people; it
doesn't talk back.
GRGICH HILLS CELLAR, 1977 TO DATE
[Interview 2: March 4, 1991 ]//#
Making a Beginning
Teiser: Would you tell a little about Austin Hills?
Grgich: He is a well -educated person. He graduated from business college
and has been in the coffee business for many, many years as a part
of Hills Brothers Coffee Company. I think they sold the coffee
company in 1976. He has been involved with Napa properties since
before I met him. He even had made some wine; Souverain Cellars
made some wine for him which he sold under Hills Vineyard label.
So when we met he already had a vineyard, had a house in
Rutherford, and was pretty much a part of Napa Valley.
Teiser: What kind of a vineyard did he have?
Grgich: His vineyard in Rutherford was Cabernet, Sauvignon blanc,
Chardonnay, Merlot--all these fine varieties. He had another
vineyard in Napa where he had Sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, and
Johannisberg Riesling- -all fine varieties. When the two of us
met, I had already heard about his being involved in Napa Valley
vineyards and in the winery.
He came to me to ask me to be his winemaker. I felt that I
had worked enough for somebody else and should go on my own. We
started to talk about it, and we both realized that it would be to
the benefit of both of us if we put in what we had and went
together rather than go separately. So we formed a corporation
and became partners. Grgich Hills Cellar was formed in 1977, and
we broke ground on the Fourth of July; that's the celebration that
you saw last night.
Breaking ground for Grgich Hills Cellar, 1977. Austin
Hills, left, Miljenko Grgich, right.
Yes, in the videotape you showed, the celebration in the vineyard.
Every year we celebrate the birthday of our winery on the Fourth
of July. One portion of the celebration is for the birthday of
the winery, and the second celebration is part of my commitment to
be a good American.
Are you a citizen?
Yes. I've been a citizen for twenty- eight years. But at the same
time that I am a good American, I'm also a good Croatian, because
I lived for thirty years in Croatia, from which I came. Whatever
I had in my body came from over there, and I feel responsible for
that country, too. So I'm loyal to both of these countries.
On the Fourth of July we broke ground for the building.
Nothing was there, as I mentioned before; we had purchased twenty
acres of bare land there. We built the winery the same year and
started to crush that same year. On the seventh of September
 we started to crush. We didn't have a roof, but we had
tanks and crushing equipment.
Had you bought the equipment?
Yes. Some equipment we bought somewhere, and some of it we
designed; we designed and made all of the tanks. Many things we
purchased, like a hopper, a press, and a pump for the pomace.
What did you design yourselves?
Stainless steel tanks, mainly, and we purchased some barrels,
we were ready in almost two months. We were really under
pressure. As I said, we didn't have a roof, and when rain came we
put a plastic sheet on top of the building. But we had the
crushing equipment and tanks to accept the wine and start
fermentation. The first Chardonnay we made there was proclaimed
three years later at "the Chicago Shootout" tasting to be the best
Chardonnay in the world.
And that was the first wine you made there?
What kind of crusher were you using?
We have a Healdsburg crusher, which can crush about ten tons per
hour. It's a well-designed crusher; still nobody beats them.
They have been in the business for probably a hundred years, so
their equipment definitely has a reputation for consistency and
Together we started the new baby, and my dream and also
Mr. Hills' dream came true. To have my own little place --that's
why I came to America. I didn't come here to work for somebody
else; I could have worked for the government in Croatia. I wanted
to be on my own and be able to learn what I want and to create
what I want. I felt a little artistic blood in my veins, so I
wanted to do it my own way.
How much did you crush the first year?
About two hundred tons .
How much did you crush last year?
A thousand tons .
Still not huge.
We think we will crush less this year. Last year we planned to
crush between eight and nine hundred tons, but the crop was so
good last year that we had to pick it while it was there. But we
will crush less this year.
In your first year, did you use only Mr. Hills' grapes, or did you
We used some of his grapes, and we bought some.
How has that worked out over the years?
how much do you grow?
How much do you buy and
In the beginning, only Mr. Hills had his own two vineyards.
Grgich Hills didn't have any, but now Grgich Hills has two
hundred acres of vineyards not including Mr. Hills' vineyards,
we feel now that we have enough grapes to satisfy our neeed,
except we usually buy Zinfandel from someone else.
What kind of grapes do you grow?
We grow Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc. We buy
I like your Zinfandel.
Oh, yes, we always have had a good Zinfandel. We are known for
consistency. Many people come out with an exceptional wine one
year, and the next year the quality goes down. Because we buy, we
have a choice of where to buy. If you have your own vineyard,
some years it may be good and some not. If the person who sold me
grapes last year doesn't have good grapes this year, I don't have
to buy them next year. So having the opportunity to buy grapes is
not all negative. In some ways it's positive and in some ways
I believe that from now on we will mostly have our own grapes
except for Zinfandel. Zinfandel is very particular. We would
probably have to buy a special vineyard in the hills, because if
Zinfandel is on flat ground the quality is not there- -unless it is
a sixty or seventy year old vineyard, the quality is just not
there; it doesn't have character. We probably won't be able to
buy a hillside Zinfandel vineyard or a hillside on which to plant
Zinfandel. At the present time we can still find the grapes to
buy. The winemaker makes a big difference. People say grapes,
grapes, grapes, but anybody can make vinegar out of the best
grapes. It takes a good winemaker to make a good wine.
Ideals and Implementation
Teiser: You have a philosophy of winemaking that I want to ask you to
Grgich: That's the basis on which I've established Grgich Hills. My
philosophy is to have the best grapes possible and then the best
cooperage possible. We buy French barrels mostly, which are $550
each empty; if they were full of wine, I wouldn't mind. It comes
down to quality- -in the grapes, in the cooperage, in the people.
I try to get the best in all of these. At the same time, I need
to have a good winery building which is air-conditioned so that my
wine can mature normally, without the temperature jumping up and
down. We just completed our warehouse, in which we store our
bottled wines. Everything is temperature controlled and organized
now. I can walk through and take inventory of bottled wine in a
Many wineries just make the wine, and then somebody stores
the wine for them and somebody else sells it for them. We do all
these things ourselves. We produce the grapes, we produce the
wine, we store it at the winery, and we sell it ourselves.
Teiser: You don't go through distributors?
We have to go through distributors outside of California, but in
California, where we sell 60 percent of our product, we can go
directly to the store or restaurant, and that's what we do.
That comes from having a good reputation, doesn't it?
Yes. The first thing is quality. Once you have it in the bottle,
many [winery] people pay attention to what label they are going to
put on the bottle, what packaging they are going to put it in, and
what kind of chandeliers they are going to buy for their winery.
But they lose the main point; they look at the superficialities
and not the essence. I look for the grapes, the cooperage, and
the best people.
What French cooperage do you use?
For Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Limousin oak; for reds, I
some Nevers and some American oak for complexity.
In order to organize my winemaking into a certain style, I
have divided my production in about five different stages. The
first stage is the grape growing. That's very important; nobody
can underestimate the value of the grapes. But grapes are not
just a product of soil or climate or people, but of all of these.
In other words, it's got to be good soil, a good climate, and good
management. Many people sell wine on the soil, soil, soil; but in
the best soil, if you don't have good management you are not going
to get good grapes. All these things are important. That's the
first stage of the wine.
The second stage is fermentationhow you do it: at which
temperature, do you macerate white wine before pressing, do you go
through malolactic fermentation? All these things that affect
fermentation are very important. We do not macerate, and we do
not go through malolactic fermentation in white wines. We do not
centrifuge, we do not filter grape juice. Our philosophy is to
keep in the wine whatever comes from the grapes, like everything
is in whole -wheat bread. Our wines do have body, and because of
the body they have longevity. Wine has longevity if it has
something in it to hold it from breaking down. I keep everything
that comes from the grapes in my wines .
Do you rack a great deal?
I do rack, but it doesn't remove anything; it's just a natural
moving of sediment out of wine. We don't beat the wine. So there
is a difference in my winemaking and that of some other winemakers
who try to do everything with the wine. I try not to do anything,
as long as I get good grapes at the right level of maturity. Then
I keep everything that comes with them in the wine and don't
remove it, except sediment. Many people nowadays go through
maceration, which means that when they crush white grapes they
keep them in contact with the skin for a certain length of time--
four, six, twelve hours- -and then they press them. I press them
immediately. Some people centrifuge, but I don't. Some of them
filter grape juice, but I don't. Some of them go through
malolactic fermentation [with white wines], but I don't, because
acid in California Chardonnay, for instance, is just about what it
should be when you drink it.
Teiser: At what Brix do you harvest the Chardonnay?
Grgich: About twenty- three. When you go through malolactic fermentation,
your acid drops down and you have to correct it- -add acid to it.
I don't like to take anything from my wine or add anything to it.
This is my philosophy. I'm an old-timer, and I'm very much in
touch with Mother Nature. I like to keep everything natural.
One day while I was working at Robert Mondavi, [James E.J
Nichelini, a winemaker who used to have a small winery next to
Lake Berryessa, brought his Zinfandel '67 to taste with Robert
Mondavi's '67, which I made. I tasted his Zinfandel, and I liked
it even more. I was wondering why I liked his Zinfandel more than
I liked mine. I had roto tanks there, stainless steel tanks,
filters, centrifuges, French cooperage- -all these things and yet
I liked his Zinfandel better. Something new came to my mind: if
I can make wine that people like, it seems to me that that is all
that counts. So how can I make wine that people like? I came to
the conclusion that this guy didn't have any equipment, so he
didn't process his wine. It might be that people liked his wine--
at least I liked his winebecause it had everything in it; it was
a whole wine.
When I was at Chateau Montelena, I started practicing that
natural way, because then I could do on my own what I wanted. The
wine was accepted in the market like a flash. I couldn't believe
it. It's still my philosophy- -to try to not process wine but
rather to have good grapes, pick them at the right time, and then
process them as little as possible. In other words, I want to
retain in the wine all the goodness that comes from Mother Nature
in the grapes.
Teiser: Do you do anything special about bottling that others don't do?
Grgich: Our bottling doesn't make our wine. Our wine is ready when it
goes into the bottle. Bottling is mainly to sterile filter wines
so that later on they will not get bacterial contamination, to
make sure the wine is clean, and that the bottles are properly
filled, as the government requires- -750 cc. We have to make sure
we have good corks, good foil, and a decent label. I have a
deluxe bottling line. But when we make wine, we try to keep the
wine whole, so bottling does not change our wine in any way.
The third stage of our winemaking is when we put wine in the
barrels for aging, where the wine starts breathing through the
pores of the oak and starts growing- -qualitywise, not volumewise.
The wines start looking better, smelling better, and tasting
better. We keep them in the oak until the wine harmonizes with
the oakiness, because while the wines are in the barrels oak
extractives are leaching into the wine and enriching the wine with
oakiness, which you can smell and you can taste. It's very
important that you don't have too much oak or not enough oak. If
we balance fruitiness from the grape and oakiness from the oak,
then later on, in a year or two or three, those two marry and fuse
into a bouquet. I sometimes joke that I am marrying the wines.
That is an expression in my language; you marry the oak and the
fruit into a bouquet. The bouquet is what my wines are known for.
The aroma comes from the grapes and the oakiness from the oak, but
the marriage of these two is called the bouquet.
Teiser: Is it the timing that is delicate about that?
Grgich: Everything is important, and mainly it is that the winemaker
follow the wine and know how to do the right things at the right
time --not just the right things at the wrong time. [laughs] It's
very important that you follow your wines all the way through like
a baby. I many times compare wine with babies, because they need
care. You cannot make fine wine by the book or by any projection
that you can make to compute how to make wine. Twenty- five years
ago, when I was at Davis studying a certain aspect of enology, one
professor mentioned that they now have computers, and the computer
would be able to make perfect wines. At that time I thought, "My
goodness, why am I spending money for an education if I won't be
needed?" Now, after twenty-five years, they need me more than
ever, because the computer only does what you put in it. The
computer has no eyes or nose. God gave us five senses, and we
have to use all five when we are making wine. The computer has no
senses, so my nose, my tongue, and my eyes are still very
necessary to make fine wine.
Teiser: One of the factors in fine winemaking is for the winemaker to be
able to tell, when the wine is new, about what it is going to be
when it is aged. Can you project that?
Grgich: Oh, yes. That's very important. I have been making wine only in
America for thirty- three years, and then I have to add thirty
years from the old country. So at the present time I am the
oldest working winemaker in the Napa Valley with the exception of
Andre Tchelistcheff . It's not only that I have worked for so
long, but I have been exposed to three of the best
winemakers that I know of. That's Lee Stewart, Andr6
Tchelistcheff, and Robert Mondavi. I don't make wine like Robert
Mondavi or like Andr< Tchelistcheff or like Lee Stewart, but they
have given me the triple information from which I can make
decisions. Decisions have to be made today that nobody made
before; decisions I make today I never made before. But the more
experiences I've had and the more I can remember- -the computer in
my head- -the better decisions I can make.
Experience and memory?
Yes, they are very important --and care.
"One Cannot Mention Care Too Often"
If you don't take care of your body and your mind in your work
habits, you will fail. One cannot mention care to often. It
seems to me that modern America is paying too much attention to
computers, mechanization, and organization; and yet I don't hear
enough about care. That care is necessary, because you have to
observe wine every day. A computer will not do that for you; you
have to do it yourself. You have to know exactly, to have in your
hands strings from wine that you have in the winery. You have to
know at which stage they are and what they need; do the right
things at the right time. And do everything as simply as
Simplicity is part of my philosophy. Don't complicate. Once
you start complicating, you will make a mistake somewhere. Make
it simple, because you don't make wine yourself; you have people
to make wine with you. If those people cannot understand what you
want to tell them, they will make it their own way. So you try to
judge their judgment and their ability to produce and adjust your
orders to their ability to do it. Many people forget that; they
just write orders on a piece of paper, whether people know what
they are talking about or not. I have learned about care from
being in quality control at Robert Mondavi and Beaulieu Vineyard.
When I go and open the bung and see the wine, I will know what was
going on there.
You can tell by sight?
Telser: Do you smell it at the same time?
Grgich: If looking isn't enough, I kneel down and smell it. I take a
sample to the laboratory and analyze it under the microscope. So
I make a total examination of the wine, by the eyes, the nose, and
I listen; I put my ear on the bung hole. If there is any process
going on, there will be some bubbling. If there is some bubbling,
I know something is going on, and I have to find out what it is
and see to it that I stop it, because I don't want anything to go
on that I don't want. You use your eyes, your nose, and your
ears, and these are all part of the care.
Teiser: Did Robert Mondavi have everything checked every day?
Grgich: Yes. I established his quality control; I was his first quality
control person. I gave that position to Zelma Long when I went to
Chateau Montelena. It wasn't necessarily every day, but you know
approximately when you have to change your baby, and you go over
and see if it was needed. Sometimes I would go home and get up at
three o'clock in the morning; I knew something was happening in
some particular process, and I had to go and see if it was under
control or not.
Teiser: Was that commonly done here at that time?
Grgich: Every winery tries to do it, but very few do it as consistently as
we did at Beaulieu Vineyard, Robert Mondavi, and Chateau
Montelena. Whatever else I was, quality control was my first
Another thing is that I, as one person, oversee everything,
so there are no messages being missed between shifts. I am trying
to keep the winery at such a size that I can keep it under
control. I know exactly what is going on in the vineyard, in the
winery, and in the marketing, because I am the main promoter of
our wine, too. Many times people spend lots of time quarreling
about who is first the sales department, the production
department, or the vineyard. In mine, I have to make judgments
according to particular times.
Sometimes the vineyard is the most important, sometimes
production is the most important, and sometimes sales and
marketing is the most important. I can then put accent and action
where it is necessary. If you have three departments, the
vineyard department always wants to be first, the production
department always wants to be first, and the sales/marketing
department wants to be first.
In many wineries the sales are first. Sales says, "I can
sell that, and don't make what I cannot sell." In my place, I
make what I can make the best and then sales has to sell it. We
are on totally different sides. I don't make what the sales
department thinks it can sell; I make what I think I can make the
best, and then it is up to them to find a way to sell it. I help
them, because I am the supervisor in all the departments. I know
what can be done and what cannot be done. It's a benefit that
there is one man who understands the vineyard, the wines, and the
sales. There are very few in the business who can manage all
those things .
Teiser: Only a small winery --
Grgich: There are many small wineries for instance, whoever buys a
winery, first he doesn't know how to manage vineyards, he doesn't
know how to make wine, and he doesn't know how to sell. He knows
a little bit about everything but doesn't have the experience to
manage all these things. I graduated from business college before
enology, and that has helped me greatly in my business judgment.
I know bookkeeping, accounting, budgeting, and all these things.
I cannot do everything myself, but I can oversee it and manage it.
I believe in an operation that is well managed so that quality and
efficiency come through.
Teiser: Does Mr. Hills do any of the business management?
Grgich: Oh, he works with me. He knows what's going on, but I am mainly
responsible for the vineyards, winemaking, and the sales. He
helps here and there. We are good partners. It's better that
he's not involved in one of these departments, because then the
partners argue about who has priority. This way, I am in charge
of everything, and he helps. That way we can have one style.
That's how I created the Grgich Hills style. When people buy
Grgich Hills wine they know they are buying a certain quality that
has been established for fifteen years. There are very few
wineries that have style, because many wineries hire the
winemaker. He is there for several years, like a quarterback, and
if he is good, somebody will steal him, like they would a chef.
Then a new winemaker comes in and produces a totally different
style, and then another comes in. In my place, I'm the only one
for fifteen years. That is why I have a style of wine. Every
year we try to improve the wine, but yet the original style is
carried on from vintage to vintage .
Teiser: Do you have anyone working with you in marketing, in selling?
Grgich: I have about twenty- five people working at the winery. I have a
good crew in the vineyard, a good crew in the cellar, and a good
crew in sales. My daughter, Violet, who is twenty- seven years
old, is now involved in promotion and sales. I also have a
nephew, Ivo Jeramaz. His name is very funny. It sounds like a
Turkish name, but he is not Turkish; he is Croatian. He graduated
in mechanical engineering from the University of Zagreb. After
that he came to me, and he is very helpful in the designing of
pumps or whatever is involved with engineering. At the same time,
he loves winemaking, and he is good at figures. You cannot be a
good engineer unless you know figures, so he knows figures.
Whenever we have trouble with the figures, he is there. I hope he
will stay with us forever in production. My daughter is supposed
to take my place in management and sales. So I have at least
those two people who are my blood relatives.
We have other people who are very important to us, like
Gustavo Brambila, who has been with us for fifteen years. I hired
him at Chateau Montelena, and when 1 came down here he came with
me; he was my first employee. He is still here, and is still my
major man. He was there when we built the winery and established
our style. He is very valuable to us.
Gary Ecklin has been with us for eleven years. He is an
enologist, as is Brambila, so there are two enologists besides me;
there are three of us enologists in a managerial position. And I
have three more enologists in the cellars. Actually, whoever
touches my wine has a degree in enology. They come here because
they know they will learn how to make fine wines . One day they
will go on their own, but I don't mind. I would rather have
people here who know what they are doing and who one day I might
be proud of than to have just ordinary workers. There is probably
no other winery in the world with so many qualified people. My
philosophy is to have the best grapes, the best cooperage, and the
Teiser: Are your enologists Davis graduates?
Grgich: Brambila is a Davis graduate, as is Ecklin, and I have three more
Davis graduates who work in the cellar.
Teiser: It must be great experience for them.
Grgich: I hope so. I tell them that they should learn something everyday,
Don't stay behind; you should grow and become somebody. You have
one life; make some good sense out of it. If they get anything
from me, they will be good winemakers. You have to rub off on
somebody in your life to give you incentive to keep going.
Teiser: You really have taught a good number of people who have added to
the wine industry here, haven't you?
Grgich: Yes. I think 1 am most proud of Zelma Long, whom I hired when I
was working at Robert Mondavi. She is very well known now all
around the world as one of the best winemakers in the United
States and maybe in the world.
Teiser: Are there others?
Grgich: Oh, yes. There is Aaron Mosley, who is winemaker for De Moor
[Winery], Fred Payne, Mark Smith, and Bo Barrett, who is now
winemaker at Chateau Montelena. These people are really doing
fine. Each of them is on their own as a winemaker. I think each
of them has gotten something from me. However, they developed
their own style.
Business Goals and Methods
Grgich: My business is mainly formed on my philosophy. I never was
inclined to overspend, but rather to spend what is most necessary.
Many people go into business thinking that business is to spend
money. In my philosophy, business is to make money, period.
That's one goal of business. Second goal is to produce quality to
be proud of. Many people go into business on the basis of
religion or something else, like the Christian Brothers. You
cannot run a business by church rules; that's why they had to be
sold to Heublein. Neither can you run a church by business rules.
Business has its own rules, and the church has its own rules;
business is run best by business rules, and the church is run best
by church rules.
I have always tried to avoid "Let George do it." George will
not do it like you want it done; he will do it like he wants to do
it. So I was working like crazy because I didn't let somebody
else do the most important things; I did them myself. It's very
hard for me to give the very important things to somebody else to
do. If I can't supervise it, at least I want to be there. I
have learned by talking with people that there is always a missing
link. You tell something to one person, that person tells
another, and at the end it is totally changed. If I have a
message for somebody, I tell it directly to that person. If my
worker has to do a very important job, I don't go and tell my
foreman to tell the worker. I go to the foreman and the worker,
and I ask both of them if they understand what I want them to do.
I believe in a small operation with direct contact, because I
have learned that in California, especially in Napa Valley, we
have good grapes and could produce good wine almost every year.
If one doesn't produce good wine, somebody has made a mistake.
When I was a student in Zagreb, there was a new wave of
preventive medicine: prevent sickness; don't cure it. I have
learned the value of prevention so that in the wine industry I am
trying to prevent problems, not to cure them. I teach my people
not only how to do it but how to prevent problems. If we start
with good grapes and don't make any mistakes, we'll end up
definitely with a fine wine.
These are all things that I consider a part of my success.
The philosophy that I have put forward is quality oriented and at
the same time business oriented.
Teiser: You've made wine the way you thought it should be and were
successful. How do consumers learn about it? Most people don't
have as good a palate as yours; they can't tell your Zinfandel
from somebody else's. How has this happened?
Grgich: We have settled lately on the assumption that, like each of us has
different fingerprints, we have different palates. Still, fingers
are fingers, and palates are palates. We have a tasting room, and
I expose my wine to the public and watch what they are saying and
thinking and how they like the wine. I don't make wine for
myself; I make wine for the public. As people are learning about
good wine, I'm learning about their palates, too. So we both meet
Teiser: Do you spend much time in the tasting room?
Grgich: No, but I try every day to be an hour there. I listen to the
people, and I tell them what I told you about palates being
different. What you like, that is the wine you should drink. You
shouldn't drink Cabernet because Professor [Maynard] Amerine tells
you it's the best wine in the world, and you shouldn't drink
Chardonnay because Mike Grgich says it's the best wine in the
world. You taste, and the wine that you like is your wine. If it
happens that it's a cheap wine, good for you; you enjoy it and pay
little money. Punished are those who like more expensive wine;
they get what they like, but they have to pay lots of money.
There is a distinction between a fine wine or a good wine and
bad wine. Yet there is the distinction between the good wine you
like and the good wine you don't like. I am trying to make good
wine that most people might like. I know how to make good wine,
but at the same time, in my judgment it's very important that
people like it. I take that into account, and many people don't.
Many people taste the wines and say, "It's a good wine. 1 * I say
there is a little more to it.
And there is a little more to taste; it's after taste. After
you taste the wine, how do you feel? Does the wine make you
happy, or do you wish you hadn't drunk a glass, or do you want
another glass? So much of this plays a role in the enjoyment of
wine and therefore in the buying of wine. If people like a wine,
they will buy it again; if people don't like it, they will look
somewhere else and find a wine they like.
I have to learn what people like,
many times because of people's likes.
I bend my personal opinion
Teiser: When your wines win awards at competitions, do people tend to buy
more of those?
Grgich: Yes. Some people buy what somebody tells them to, and some people
buy what they like. So you have many different customers. One
buys because he likes the wine, another buys because it has a gold
medal, another buys because of my accent. Some buy because of
label . There are so many individuals , and people buy for
different reasons . Many people buy my wine because of
consistency. If people know our wines, they know our wines are
consistently good. For instance, we have started to release the
new vintage in the market. Most stores and restaurants require a
sample so that they can see what your vintage is and whether they
want to buy it or not. Not from Grgich Hills- -people just order a
new vintage after the previous vintage is sold out. So you see
how much I save just on not sending out samples.
I save a lot by selling wine at the winery.
10 percent directly at the winery.
We sell at least
Teiser: The videotape you showed me yesterday of that wonderful party- -was
it mainly your tasting club--
Grgich: We have a pre- release club.
Teiser: Do you sell much through that?
Grgich: Yes. Probably we sell 5 percent through that. They are very
important people; they are not just anybody who buys a bottle of
wine. They are all wine connoisseurs who are very influential
people. We started that club at the time when I pressed two
hundred tons, and my release would be sold out in one month. So
the friends who liked my style of wine were complaining that they
couldn't find any. They forced me to start the club, through
which they would buy wine before it went on the market. A letter
is sent to them at least twice a year, and a case of each wine is
offered. Let's say that in summer we release Chardonnay and
Cabernet, so we send them the letter in June. Then we have the
Fourth of July for them to come here and taste the wine. If they
like the wine, they can buy it; if they don't like it, they don't
have to buy it. So they can buy the wine between June and
September, and in September it goes on the market. They can buy
it before anybody else.
We started that twelve years ago when our wine wasn't
available, but people are still continuing to buy through that
club. They treat their friends with our wines that cannot be
bought on the market because they were the first [to buy it]; they
are the cream of the customers. It's very beneficial to us,
because before the wine comes to the market somebody already knows
Grgich Hills Cabernet '86: "Is it in the stores?" "No, you have
to wait until it comes on the market." It's a kind of promotional
tool, and at the same time we have those permanent customers who
buy from us all the time. Not only do we sell the wine, but we
don't have to go around and open new accounts and find new
Teiser: Do they get discounts?
Grgich: Yes, but the discount is less than the wholesaler gets, so we get
more money from them than from the wholesalers .
The first year my accountant called me, and he said, "Mike,
do you know how much you have spent for promotion?" I asked how
much, and he said, "Twenty-four dollars." [laughter] Once a man
was evaluating our business. Every businessman wants to know
where he stands compared to other businesses. Our sales costs
were one -third the average sales costs in the wine industry. So
it's not only that we make good wine, but at the same time,
because it is good wine, we can sell it. There are less expenses
once you have a good wine. People don't realize how important
that is. People drink only what is in the bottle. They don't
drink foil, the bottle, the label; they don't drink the case,
whether it's a wood case or a cardboard case. People are still
smart. They like to pay for what they use.
One part of my job, as I said, is that I supervise the
vineyard and growing of the grapes, and I also supervise
production and sales and organize each of these in such a way that
we are definitely, I can say, the most successful winery in the
Napa Valley. We aren't the biggest one, and we don't want to be
the biggest one. But we have prestige.
You are tied in remarkably close to your market. I imagine every
winery would like to be that way.
Labels and Vineyard Blends
Grgich: The average cost of my wine is probably more expensive than any
other wine in California, because many wineries make private
reserve and then have regular wines , and they make a second and
third labels. Those are all priced differently, and they sell the
cheap ones the most. In my place, each wine is it. It's Cabernet
1986. All our Cabernet is the same. There is a master blend, and
every bottle is the same and at the same price.
Teiser: You don't make vineyard designations?
Grgich: We blend vineyards for complexity.
Legh Knowles, who was president of Beaulieu Vineyards and the
sales manager for a long time, told me once that somebody wanted
to hire him to work in the wine industry. He was a trumpet
player, and he didn't want to take the job because he didn't know
anything about wine. But the guy liked Legh's personality. He
said, "Legh, I believe you could sell wine. We need in the wine
industry some people with a personality like yours." He said,
"I'm afraid." "What are you afraid of?" "If you hire me, next
week I'll have to go to a wine tasting. I'll sit at a table, and
the person sitting next to me will ask me what I think about the
wine. I don't know anything about wine. What can I say?"
He said, "Easy. Can you see the color of the wine? Red
wine, white wine; judging the color is part of the competition.
Then sniff the wine. Can you do that?" Legh said, "I think I can
do that." "Can you sip a little bit in your mouth, gurgle a
little bit, and say, 'Interesting'?" Legh said, "Fifty years ago,
if you said, 'interesting,' everybody would think you were a wine
connoisseur." So he smiled and took the job. [laughter] But, he
says, today, if somebody doesn't know about wine, he still has to
know how to judge the color, sniff the wine for the aroma and the
bouquet, sip a little wine and gurgle it, and say, "Complex." In
fifty years we have moved from 'interesting' to 'complex',
So today we are making complex wines, and that complexity in
my Chardonnay comes from blending several different vineyards. I
have a vineyard in Rutherford, here in Yountville, in Napa, and in
Carneros. I blend them all together, and every time you smell the
wine, some of these vineyards come through in different aromas.
It's enrichment; that's the new quality- -complexity. I do not go
by the individual vineyard, because each vineyard fluctuates more
than a blend of four vineyards together. Some years one vineyard
is better, and some years it is worse than others. That way I get
my style --not totally uniform, but very close to my style --by
blending the four vineyards every year. If one vineyard is a
little worse, the others correct it.
We do not practice vineyard designation because we are
looking for simplicity in marketing, too. If you have Grgich
Hills Chardonnay from the Yountville vineyard, Grgich Hills
Chardonnay from the Napa vineyard, etc., people haven't seen the
vineyards, so they don't know which vineyard they are tasting, if
they want to compare them and talk about it. If they drink Grgich
Hills 1989, there is only one. It's so simple to sell and
promote. If you have four different Chardonnays, you have to
promote each of them. If I have just one, [snap] it goes through;
it is easier to promote.
Simplicity is the basis through my system. We do not
complicate it. That's why we don't go into the private reserve,
filters or no filters, or other labels. We have one wine of one
vintage. People ask me, "Mike, when are you going to make private
reserve Cabernet?" I say, "I made it; I just didn't put it on
the label." [laughs]
Teiser: I'm interested in your label from a different point of view. Are
the labels you use now on your wines the same ones you started
Grgich: Yes. Our first label was for Chardonnay, and then we faced coming
out with Zinfandel. Sebastian Titus, who made the first label,
came to me and said, "Mike, now you need a new label." They want
to make money; they want to make labels. I said, "Goodness, a
label costs so much money. I don't need a new label." He asked,
"How can you make a red wine out of white grapes?" [laughs] He
tried to pursue me to make a new label. I said, "I will tell you
pretty soon." What I did was to remove the green and yellow
colors [on the Chardonay label] and got this Cabernet Sauvignon in
just black and white. So our white wines have colored labels, and
our red wines have black and white labels, but they are all the
same for simplicity, again. People get used to that frame; they
see that label with those grapes, and they know it is Grgich
Hills. If I had different labels, they would be confused. But
they know there is just one label for Grgich Hills; they see it,
and it's very simple to memorize.
It seems to me I saw a bottle of Riesling in the tasting room--
Yes, Johannisberg Riesling, late harvest. That label is in the
style of the original label of Mr. Hills. It was not Grgich Hills
but Hills Vineyards. He registered that label and didn't want it
to disappear. In case something happens, he wants to be able to
carry on the tradition. We decided we would keep that label on
one wine, and it is late harvest Johannisberg Riesling. We have
kept that label for fifteen years just to carry on his label
tradition. That horse [on it] is his family crest.
That was a well -aged wine, I noticed.
Yes, it is '85 vintage --six years old. We sell maybe five hundred
cases out of fifty thousand cases of that wine. I knew that the
label meant a lot to him, so I said okay. We did make two
Rieslings before, and by having a regular Riesling with one label
and late harvest with the other label, it gives people the
distinction between the two Rieslings. They know regular Riesling
is one label and late harvest is the other label.
Teiser: At Souverain you had some success with a White Riesling.
Grgich: Very much, yes.
Teiser: Do you still make it the same way?
Grgich: We improved it as we went along. We definitely make better
Riesling at Grgich Hills than anywhere before, but I have kept
that original Lee Stewart style of Riesling. When I came to
Robert Mondavi, I tried to make it in that style. At Beaulieu
Vineyard they made a different style of Johannisberg Riesling;
Miljenko Grgich, left, and Austin Hills, right, in the Grgich Hills
they made it dry and aged it in the bottle for two years before
releasing it, and it would totally lose its fruitiness. When I
came to Robert Mondavi, I started with that fruity style.
The Robert Mondavi '69 Johannisberg Riesling was just grabbed
up by people. Robert Mondavi bought all the Riesling grapes from
Beaulieu Vineyard that they would sell. That [Robert Mondavi]
wine all sold in three months because we had fruity wine and left
about 1 percent of residual sugar. Riesling is bitter by nature.
If there is no sugar in it, it just is not palatable unless it is
well aged. From then on I always made regular Johannisberg
Riesling between 1 and 1.5 percent residual sugar, and I started
to make late harvest between 6 and 10 percent residual sugar. Two
Riesling is not much in demand these days, so we stopped
making regular Johannisberg Riesling in 1987.
Teiser: It's surprising that it has fallen out of favor.
Grgich: I don't know why, but somehow the dry wines are taking over. When
people don't know much about wine, beginners start with a semi-
sweet wine. As they go forward, they move into the dry wines. My
customers for my Chardonnay and my Cabernet have already
Teiser: You would think there would have been some influence from White
Zinfandel, although it's in such a different category.
Grgich: I would say you are right, there was some influence. Some people
like wine with a slight amount of sugars. When White Zinfandel
appeared on the market, it was half the price of the Johannisberg
Riesling, and yet it did have that mellow taste which Johannisberg
Riesling used to have. So that probably did cut some ground out
from under Johannisberg Riesling.
It's interesting to observe that twenty years ago in America,
statistics show that about 20 percent of the wine on the market
was rose. Do you remember grenache rose? Now there is about 20
percent White Zinfandel on the market but no rose. So nothing has
changed. [laughter] The percentage is the same, but the name has
And now we will switch since this "French paradox." Did you
see the "60 Minutes" TV program? Now people are going from whites
to reds. They say that red wine sales went up 44 percent since
that program was seen on TV. So now there is another reason why
people might prefer red wine over white wine- -health reasons.
It's lucky they took to white wines at a time when people could
produce them inexpensively.
Grgich: And better.
More on Improvements in White Wines
When I came to Napa Valley, white wines were almost undrinkable.
If they were on the shelf for three to six months, they would
oxidize or throw sediment. The wines were not palatable. Now we
can make white wines very well, and those wines can improve by
aging; they can age for ten years at temperatures of fifty to
fifty- five degrees. I still have some Chardonnay from '77 which I
made and kept a few bottles. If somebody were to ask me which of
these old vintages I would like to drink tonight, it would still
be the '77 Chardonnay.
What accounts for the improvement?
We learned how to make better wines, and we learned how to grow
better grapes. Those are the major reasons. Since they
discovered virus -free vines at Davis, most of the vineyards have
been planted with healthier grape vines , and those vineyards are
like healthier persons. If you have two people typing and one is
sick, the sick one will type slowly [taps slowly], and the healthy
one will speed along. So it is with healthy vines. The vineyards
have been replanted into better varieties and are virus -free. And
the grapes mature earlier, because when they are sick they won't
Then we have learned more about wine --how not to process them
but rather keep everything in them. The whole wine gives
longevity to the wine. And we have learned that wine has to be
stored at a cooler temperature, which people didn't care about
before. If you put the wine in the sunshine, it would oxidize in
We have learned all these things together, bit by bit, year
by year, until now we have produced such fine white wines that are
the best in the world or at least equal to the best wines in the
What other than Chardonnay are the outstanding ones?
I don't want to talk about somebody else, because we all have
different taste buds, and what is good for one person is not good
for another person. We don't talk about other wines in our
tasting room. People ask about other wines, and we say, "We know
about other wines, but you go over and taste for yourself. Every
winery has a tasting room, and if you like it, that's your wine."
Teiser: When you taste wines to make judgments about whatever processes
you use, do you taste your wines against others ever?
Grgich: No. I used to do that at Robert Mondavi. Robert Mondavi always
compared his wine with somebody else. We have our style, and I'm
only going to compare my style with my new wines so that we stay
not in the style of somebody else but in our own style. We
compare previous vintages with our new vintages so that we stay in
that style. When the customer gets the wine, they know
approximately- -if they like one vintage, most likely they will
like other vintages, because it's the same style.
Financing the Winery
Teiser: Let me get back to the development of Grgich Hills Cellar. You
said that you are fiscally conservative. How did you finance
increasing or improving your equipment over the years?
Grgich: We have been keeping all profits in the business; we did not take
any dividends for probably eight years. With the money we earned,
we built the winery and bought equipment and vineyards. We
thought that we should not be dependent on any bank. We don't owe
a penny to any bank now.
Grgich: Believe me. This is so ridiculous, because many in the wine
industry who are worth $10 million owe $8 million to the bank.
They say one Napa Valley winery owes $6.7 million to the bank, and
they estimate his value at $7 million. Another winery has been
estimated to be worth $4 million and owes $3.5 million to the
banks. This is not our style. We saved money by using our own
money. We did not spend money on interest. Many people are
trying to just make interest payments. Interest has been very
high these fifteen years, and we stayed away from that. We
started small, and what we earned we have been putting back into
Teiser: You haven't even had to borrow to get from season to season?
Grgich: Sometimes. We always had a line of credit. We started to make
money the first year. We were organized in such a way that when
we started the business we purchased the wines that Austin Hills
had made before. On the Fourth of July we broke ground, on the
seventh of September we started to crush, and on the first of
November we started to sell. As soon as we moved into the next
year, we had made a profit.
Teiser: That's very unusual, isn't it?
Grgich: Wineries usually make a profit after five or ten years. But, you
see, I am business oriented, and I found my style, which I thought
was a safe style. I didn't want to depend upon banks or anybody
else. When people ask me, "Have you ever been hit by a passing
car when crossing the road?" I say, "Never." They say, "How
come?" I say, "When I am crossing the street, there is no car on
either side of me." [laughter] I want to be safe when I am
crossing the road, and in business I like to be safe.
We went slowly, gradually, but safely. We started with high
quality wine. As you know, our first Chardonnay was proclaimed
the best in the world. Our wine was so much in demand that that
demand was reflected in the price. What you do if you have more
demand than you have wine is to raise the price. Our Chardonnay
was the most expensive in the United States.
Teiser: I'm trying to think of others who had more demand than they could
fill. The McCraes at Stony Hill had more demand than they had
wine, and I guess Joe [Joseph E.] Heitz has steady demand. But
there aren't many of you.
Grgich: Not many.
Teiser: I don't know what it proves. Careful winemaking?
Grgich: You have to know what you are doing, and you have to be small. If
you are big and you fail to make good wine, then that's it. The
main thing is to have good wine. Numero uno--I never take that
from my mind. That has to stay in my mind- -first, quality.
Teiser: Definitions of good change. There are wineries that have been in
families, and when the young people take over the wines were
changed to their concept of what is good. Maybe part of the key
is having one person live forever.
Grgich: I would say so, and I would like that to happen to me. If I could
be the first person who could live forever, I would vote for it.
[laughter] There is a joke going around in America. They say
that the first generation has the attitude to create, the second
generation has the attitude to enjoy, and the third generation
cannot even keep it; they destroy it. Then it starts new again.
This is not true in every case, but in many cases it is true.
The first generation suffers and learns how to suffer. The
next generation doesn't suffer, and they will not suffer. I will
suffer if my winery is going to break down: I will push with my
shoulders to keep it up. People who didn't suffer cannot do that.
They are looking for comfort; their comfort is number one. The
idea of the creation in the first generation is replaced in the
second generation with comfort. Comfort is the biggest enemy of
us now in America. We want to have everything, but you don't have
to have everything. But as soon as we can have those credit
cards, we charge, charge, charge; the whole country is on credit.
Teiser: I've been doing an interview with a company (not in the wine
industry) where the third generation just decided to sell. They
said, "This has been long enough in one family. It will now go
Grgich: In some cases that's true.
Teiser: Over the years since 1977, how has your winery changed as it has
grown? Or has it changed?
Grgich: Qualitywise, it has improved. Stylewise, we have, as you can see,
eliminated Johannisberg Riesling, which was our biggest seller for
the first few years; it paid our bills, because you make
Johannisberg Riesling, and in six months you can sell it and get
your money back cash flow. We have replaced it with Fume" Blanc,
which is dry. We have more demand for Fume Blanc and get more
money for a bottle than we did for Johannisberg Riesling. That's
a change as far as a variety is concerned.
Our Cabernet style has changed. When I worked for Beaulieu
Vineyard, every bottle of De Latour Private Reserve used to say,
"100 Percent Cabernet Sauvignon." I started making Cabernet
Sauvignon 100 percent, but then I realized that even at Beaulieu
Vineyard, who had on their label "100 percent," Mr. De Latour
planted Merlot in the vineyard, and I wouldn't like to write down
"100 percent." I found out, when I built a winery next to his
vineyard, that he had about 5 percent of Merlot interplanted with
Cabernet. Nobody in the winery knew about it.
I started working a little bit with Merlot and a little bit
with Cabernet franc, so my two vintages of Cabernet Cabernet '80
and Cabernet '81- -were 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1982 we
started to use some Merlot and Cabernet franc, not much, but it
creates complexity; I told you it was interesting to make complex
[flavors?]. We added Merlot for smoothness and Cabernet franc for
fruitiness, and Cabernet Sauvignon has that style, that stillness,
that body, that strength. So we have a complex Cabernet.
Teiser: How about Zinfandel?
Grgich: It has stayed the same. Fume Blanc we have changed, because when
drought years started to appear five years ago, we noticed that
the leaves in the vineyard fell off and the grapes were exposed to
the sun. We were afraid that we wouldn't be able to make good
wine, because the green berries became golden berries when exposed
to the sun. But once we made the wine, we found out that the wine
did not suffer from that excessive herbaceousness. Before, the
green grapes were grassy, and the yellow grapes were not so
grassy. Yet we have discovered that if clusters are exposed to
the sun during summer, we will not have that aggressive
herbaceousness, which was objected to in Fume Blanc or Sauvignon
Blanc. Now we strip the leaves ourselves in the summer to open
the grapes to the sun, and the sun turns the green color of the
berries into yellow. So we have improved that wine.
We are still at about the same complexity in Chardonnay,
using grapes from different vineyards in one total blend, and we
don't go through malolactic fermentation. However, we are trying
to keep some yeast in the wine. Yeast autolyzes and enriches the
wine during barrel aging. We have some yeasts now in our
Chardonnay, which we rack to the barrels at the beginning with a
filter. We used to filter the Chardonnay on its way to the
barrels, and then the yeast would remain in the filter. Now we
rack so that a little bit of the yeast comes through with the
wine. That yeast dies and autolyzes and enriches the body of the
Teiser: Did you experiment, or did you know what kind of yeast you wanted
We have stuck with one yeast all this time- -French White, which I
was using at Beaulieu Vineyard. We made experiments one year with
Andre Tchelistcheff , checking about twelve different kinds of
yeast, and we settled on the French White. I used that yeast at
Robert Mondavi, at Chateau Montelena, and at Grgich Hills. So
mainly we use French White, which was developed by the Pasteur
Institute in France.
Teiser: Did you ever experiment with wild yeasts?
Grgich: I didn't. I made all my wines in the old country with wild yeast,
but it wasn't any better than what we use now. There are many
things that some people are using just to say, "I am different."
I'm trying to be good, and I use whatever is necessary to be good.
I don't sell my wines because I use a lot of things, like
centrifuges or filters; I sell my wine because they taste good and
people like them. I like to say that I make my wine rounded like
a bowl; nothing stands out but the pleasure. That's my goal.
Grgich Hill Vineyards
Teiser: Let me ask you about your vineyards. What vineyards do you own?
Grgich: We own twenty acres in Rutherford, where the winery is. We own
this vineyard here in Yountville, which is about seventy acres.
There are eighty acres of land but about seventy acres of
vineyard, where all our Cabernet comes from.
Teiser: When was that bought?
Grgich: We bought it in 1984, together with this house as a bonus.
Teiser: You told me when this house was built.
Grgich: Yes, in 1885.
Teiser: What other vineyards have you?
Grgich: We purchased last year a hundred acres in Carneros. So we have,
roughly speaking, about two hundred acres. We do have part of the
Olive Hills vineyard- -about 10 percent; Austin Hills is general
partner of Olive Hills Vineyard.
Teiser: Where are his vineyards?
Grgich: His vineyards are in Rutherford, about a mile from our vineyard,
and in Napa.
Teiser: That gives you a lot of geographical spread within a small area.
Violet Grgich and Miljenko Grgich in the
vineyard adjacent to the winery, 1990.
Photograph by Earl Roberge
Grgich: Yes, and it gives us complexity. I would say that Cabernet is
good in St. Helena, Rutherford, and Yountville, but not down
below. We have a vineyard here that is very close to Heitz'
Martha's Vineyard, and on the other side is Dominus, two of the
best-known vineyards in the Napa Valley. Our Cabernet vineyard is
squeezed in between them.
As far as Chardonnay wine is concerned, we get body from
Rutherford and Yountville, and we get fruitiness from Carneros.
So we have complex wines. We are very lucky. In fifteen years we
have developed a winery from which, if I could live forever, I
would make a profit every year, because every year I am going to
make better wines.
Teiser: Have you had any trouble with phylloxera yet?
Grgich: Not yet.
Teiser: Aren't you lucky!
Grgich: Lucky. And we know something about phylloxera. After the second
world war I planted straight, without rootstock, when I was in the
Teiser: Without grafting onto resistant rootstock?
Grgich: Yes. After six or seven years, phylloxera started to eat them up,
so I am familiar with that. I don't have any yet, and we are not
pulling any vineyards out before we know there is damage. Who
knows, one day that louse might disappear. We might find a
natural enemy to eat them up. With Mother Nature, everything is
possible. So I'm not going to pull out my vineyards, like some
people are doing. They say, "Within ten years I have to replant
all my vineyards , and I have a thousand acres of vineyards . So
this year I will pull out a hundred acres." A good producing
vineyard--! don't do things like that. But because they have a
big vineyard, they have to do it; they can't replant a thousand
acres in one year. Being small gives me the opportunity to watch
and not do any foolish things. I can maneuver easier, being
Teiser: Besides, they may find an ever-resistent rootstock.
Grgich: You never know. One of these daysMother Nature changes; bugs
mutate, and bugs have enemies. For instance, we used to spray
once or twice every year for leaf hoppers , and then we learned
that everything in nature has an enemy. There are leaf hoppers
that eat leaf hoppers; they are different in size, and they look
different. If the good leaf hoppers have enough food, they
propagate like hell and eat up all the bad leaf hoppers.
Teiser: Did you have to introduce them?
Grgich: No, they were just there; Mother Nature had them. We have leaf
hoppers every year, but as there are leaf hoppers that do the
damage, there are also leaf hoppers that eat leaf hoppers. As
long as these good ones eat the others, and the bad ones don't do
big damage, we let them remain. Because then the good ones will
propagate when they have food; they only propagate if they have
something to eat. In two or three years leaf hoppers won't be any
problem. Then they will start to build up and build up, because
the good ones won't have enough food and will die. It's a balance
of Mother Nature.
Who knows , one day there might be something that will eat
that phylloxera louse, and we won't have to pull out the
vineyards. As long as the vineyards are producing good grapes and
enough so that it is economically feasible, I'm not going to pull
CHANGES IN THE CALIFORNIA WINE INDUSTRY SINCE 1958
Teiser: I'd like to ask about changes since 1958 in the California wine
Grgich: I would say that as far as white wines are concerned, since then
more attention has been paid to the grape juice to be as clean as
possible during fermentation. The cleaner the juice, the fruitier
the white wine. The second thing that prevents that fruitiness
from disappearing is cold fermentation. The third thing is aging
in French oak barrels. These three elements have definitely
improved white wines. I would say that the fourth factor is
replanting the vineyards with the virus -free stock that are
healthy vines. In other words, the better vineyards, the cool
fermentation, the clean juice, and the aging in French oak are the
elements which have improved white wine. Not all four of them for
every kind of wine , but these four elements have played the
biggest role. Then there is aging on the yeast, which is
something new, and malolactic fermentation of white wines is
something new. So there are five or six different factors which
definitely have changed the longevity of the wines, the taste of
the wine, and the value of the winewhite wines.
Red wines, I would say, were already much better fifty years
ago than white wines, but then the replanting of vineyards with
better vines helped give better grapes , and aging in the oak same
thing- -very important. Aging in the bottle, very important, and
storing the wine at the correct temperature. Sterile filtering of
wine prior to bottling prevents any bugs getting into the wine
during bottling. There is a millipore filter that was
manufactured in the sixties which screens all yeasts and the
bacteria on the filter, so sterile wine goes in sterile bottles,
and the wine is biologically stable forever.
These are all improvements, but for the stability of the
wine, I think sterile filtration has done the more than anything
else. Before that, the wine could go through malolactic
fermentation in the bottle, and when you opened the bottle it
would be champagne coming out. That cannot happen if you sterile
filter that wine before it goes into the bottle; it's biologically
Teiser: Is there any equipment that has helped?
Grgich: I don't believe much in equipment, but for cool fermentation or
for controlled fermentation, jacketed stainless steel tanks have
helped. At the same time, the barrels --people did not have so
many barrels as they do now. People are aging white wines and red
wines in the barrel, and with much better barrels, too.
So we have better grapes in whites and reds. As far as
cooperage is concerned, I would say that cool fermentation and the
possibility of controlling fermentation temperature- -and cooling
the cellars, too, so that all year round the temperature is fifty
to sixty degrees. That's all as far as equipment is concerned.
There have been changes in presses, but not in such a
I talked about the millipore filter, which was the one unit
that I believe revolutionized the stability of the wine in
bottles; wine can age in the bottle and not go through malolactic
fermentation. Sterile filtration was really the big plus for us.
While our wine on the shelf would be nice and good, many French
wines were coming in with gassiness, sediment, and those type of
things. The world wine industry now accepts millipore filtration,
sterile filtration, just as we do. But we started it at Beaulieu
Vineyard; the first successful .millipore filtration was done there
with Andre Tchelistcheff and myself. Gallo tried, Italian Swiss
Colony tried, Guild tried; but nobody succeeded immediately. We
succeeded, and we gave them reason to continue. Then from the
wine industry it has spread to the beer industry. Before, people
used to pasteurize wine in order to have it biologically stable.
If it was sweet wine, they had to heat it, pasteurize it; but if
you heat it, you get that boiled cooked character. This has
eliminated that cooked character, and yet it has produced wine
that is satisfying.
Teiser: Has there been any change in the character of the people in the
Grgich: I think so. I think the old people at the beginning were very
closed in; they would keep secret what they were doing. The new
people tell each other; there are no secrets. I think Robert
Mondavi has played a big role in that, because he was going around
telling everybody what he was doing, so other people started doing
the same thing. Before that, when I came to Napa Valley, every
winery was keeping everything kind of secret. But since then,
Napa Valley Vintners' Association has been very active. They have
a meeting once a month, and through that organization people
discuss common interests as far as the law is concerned and as far
as quality is concerned. The vintners love each other. At the
beginning they were competing, like in any other industry, but I
think the wine industry is superb in that respect. We each love
each other; we do not hate each other, winery to winery. We are
proud of one another, and we are not afraid that someone else is
making a better wine, because that forces you to make better wine,
too. So it's positive. That attitude is superb.
Teiser: That's a fine note to stop on. I thank you very much for this
Transcriber and Final Typist: Judy Smith
TAPE GUIDE- -Miljenko Grgich
Interview 1: March 3, 1992 1
Tape 1, Side a 1
Tape 1, Side b 9
Tape 2, Side a 15
Tape 2, Side b 23
Interview 2: March 4, 1992 28
Tape 3, Side a 28
Tape 3, Side b 36
Tape 4, Side a 42
Tape 4, Side b 50
INDEX- -Mi Ijenko Grgich
Barrett, James L. , 21, 23-24, 26
Beaulieu Vineyard, 15-19, 35, 50
Berg, Harold, 19
bottling, 17-18, 33-34
Brambila, Gustavo, 38
Chateau Montelena winery, 21,
Christian Brothers winery, 13-16
Diener, Brother Timothy, 14-15
Ecklin, Gary, 38
"French paradox", 46
frost protection, 16-17
Gallo winery, E. & J., 18
Grgich Hills Cellar, 25-26, 28-57
formation of, 28
vineyards, 30, 52-54
Grgich, Miljenko (Mike),
business philosophy, 39-40,
childhood and education in
in Canada, 8
in Germany, 7
moves to California, 9-11
studies e no logy and
winemaking philosophy, 31-36
Grgich, Violet, 38
Hahn, Ernest W. , 21, 23-24
Hills, Austin, 26, 28, 37, 45, 52
Hills Brothers Coffee Company, 28
Hills Vineyard, 28, 45
Italian Swiss Colony winery, 18
Jeramaz, Ivo, 38
Knowles, Legh, 43-44
Long Zelma, 19, 22, 36, 39
malolactic fermentation, 19,
Mohacek , Marko , 5-6
Mondavi, Robert, Winery, 12, 13,
19-23, 24-25, 33, 35, 36, 46,
Napa Valley Vintners' Association,
Nichelini, James E. , 33
Paris wine tasting of 1976, 24,
Physicians Friends of Wine, 24
Pirio, Auguste, 14
quality control, 18-19, 31-32, 36
Riesling styles, 45-46
Spurier, Steven, 26
Stewart, J. Leland, 11-13, 16,
Tchelistcheff, Andre, 12-16,
18-19, 23, 35, 51
Tchelistcheff, Dimitri, 17, 20
Titus, Sebastian, 44-45
viticulture, 47, 53-54
wine industry, changes in, 55-57
Winiarski, Warren, 12
Wines Mentioned in the Interview
Batard Montrachet, 24
Cabernet Sauvignon, 19, 20, 22,
24-26, 44, 50-51
Chardonnay, 24-26, 29, 32, 44,
47, 51, 53
Fum6 Blanc, 50, 51
Johannisberg Riesling, 22, 25,
Sauvignon Blanc, 32
White Riesling, 45-47
White Zinfandel, 46
Zinfandel, 30, 31, 33, 51
Grapes Mentioned in the Interview
Cabernet franc, 51
Cabernet Sauvignon, 28, 30, 53
Chardonnay, 28, 30, 33
Merlot, 28, 50-51
Sauvignon blanc , 28 , 30
Johannisberg Riesling, 28
Zinfandel, 30, 31
Born in Portland, Oregon; came to the Bay Area
in 1932 and has lived here ever since.
Stanford University, B.A. , M.A. in English;
further graduate work in Western history.
Newspaper and magazine writer in San Francisco
since 1943, writing on local history and
business and social life of the Bay Area.
Book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Co-author of Winemaking in California, a history,
An interviewer -editor in the Regional Oral
History Office since 1965.
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