A Night to Celebrate: Mike Grgich, Forward from the Paris Tasting

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By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- It was an evening of official acknowledgment for a man already well recognized. On Friday, August 18, a discrete crowd of handsome tuxedo-garbed men and sparkling-attired women – many luminaries in their own rights, came to pay homage to Mijenko Grgich.

Titled: An American Dream Come True, the evening’s program paid tribute to the life and achievements of this Croatian-born immigrant. Mike rose to international prominence in 1976 as the winemaker for Chateau Montelena after their 1973 Chardonnay was chosen as the winning white wine in the now historic Paris Tasting.

As with most auspicious events, this overnight success story was years in the making, and few of its participants have been content to rest upon those laurels. It is upon the world’s wine stage that Mike has continued to shine.

The festivities on Friday started with Fume Blanc and oysters on the Herb Terrace at Greystone in St. Helena. The late afternoon weather achieved perfect pitch and the view over vineyards held the glow of the sun’s fading rays. A small group of dancing children, in traditional Croatian costumes marched and weaved and bobbed. They were younger by half than most of the wines sitting on display for the silent auction.

This year coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Paris Tasting, and Mike opened his cellars to help commemorate Napa’s entrée into the exclusive clan of fine wine producing regions, and to raise money for a scholarship program funding professional wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

The silent auction included wines from:
Beaulieu Vineyard: 1951, 1954, 1960, 1961, 1964, and 1965 Georges de Latour Private Reserve;
Chateau Montelena: 1973 and 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon;
And a 1943 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was the live auction and dinner where the party picked up. Celebrated auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski quickly dispatched the three live auction items, with the most interest in the last known remaining full case of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.

Ursula induced all to stand, and to take a step forward at every increment of $100 per bottle, or to sit when your bidding level had been reached. I had to opt out of this adult’s game of Simon Says before it started. Approximately 12 bidders reached the stage pledging to pay around $550 a bottle (as yet unconfirmed by the winery). Ursula would not allow collusion among the bidders and there was no pooling of resources to play, or actually to pay. But everyone seemed happy with their prize.

Stellar guests in attendance were Robert and Margrit Biever Mondavi, along with son Tim. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter of official recognition along with Ed Heidig, general counsel for Secretary Sunny Wright McPeak, to represent the State. Local media was well in attendance, and most tables were seated with admiring members of the Grgich Hills wine clubs.

My lively table included a handsome doctor from Dallas (yes, he wore boots), the Prices from Fresno (who will soon be celebrating a scandalously long marriage), and two Bodega Bay movers and shakers – Chris Wedel from Inn at the Tides, and her guest, Charlene Schnall.

No matter how much fun I had, the night belonged to Mike and his family and while the focus was on the famous Paris Tasting and the notable survival of a full case of ’73 Montelena Chard, many rose to the podium to speak about Mike’s continued contributions, his successes, his charity, and of course, Grgich Hill’s current wines and farming practices.

During a recent interview I had with Mike, I asked him if, 30 years ago, he was surprised by the results of the Paris Tasting. Melodie, he told me, I was prepared to make world class wines.

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