Today is the 40th anniversary of the world’s most famous wine tasting. The Judgment of Paris pitted the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy against some underdog Cabernets and Chardonnays from California.
This momentous blind tasting was chronicled in the 2008 Hollywood film “Bottle Shock”, and the far more historically accurate book, “The Judgment of Paris” by George Taber, the only reporter present at the event. This tasting brought together wine experts from France and the United States to blind taste a wide range of wines. White Burgundies competed against California Chardonnays, while Bordeaux reds were pitted against some of California’s best Cabernet Sauvignons. In 1976, when the tasting took place, California wines were already rocking, but they were relatively unknown to the wine cognoscenti.
That all changed when the wines were unveiled. The French loved the Stag’s Leap Napa Cabernet more than First Growth Bordeaux, and they chose the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay over Grand Cru white Burgundies. The floodgates burst. The world wanted California wine.
That 1973 Chardonnay was crafted by none other than Miljenko (a.k.a. “Mike”) Grgich, a Croatian immigrant who had worked his way up in the Napa winemaking ranks. From refugee to respected winemaker.
Perhaps more than any other individual, Mike Grgich was on the front lines of the Napa Valley wine revolution. When he first game to California in 1958, Mike was hired by Brother Timothy Diener of Christian Brothers Winery, which was the largest winery in Napa Valley at the time. He then took a position with legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards. From there, he bounced over to Robert Mondavi at the point when his winery was really taking off. Then, with Jim Barrett, Mike became a partner and integral part of the newly revitalized Chateau Montelena in 1972. It’s incredible to think that, in just a year’s time, Mike would craft a Chardonnay that blind tasters deemed higher quality than the best white Burgundies.
However, Mike didn’t even know the tasting was taking place. He figured something was up when Chateau Montelena received a telegram saying: “We won in Paris,” followed by a call from a New York Times reporter.
It was a miracle, Mike said. He recounts this event in his new autobiography “A Glass Full of Miracles,” which the 93-year-old published last month. It’s a beautiful and awe-filled foray into the life of a true California wine icon.
“The Judgment of Paris energized the wine world. Not only in California but around the globe, winemakers realized that they too might have the terroir to produce premium wines,” Mike writes. The 1973 Montelena Chardonnay was honored in a Smithsonian book titled History of American in 101 Objects. “It is amazing to me that as an immigrant to this country, I would live to see my Chardonnay considered an ‘American object.’”
This success gave him the last jolt he needed to kick off his own winery, Grgich Hills, which broke ground in 1977. It remains an exceptional source of Napa Chardonnay, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
Grgich’s prose, like his wines, is delightful and lively. Unlike his wines, the prose is simple and uncomplicated, but I mean those words as praise, not criticism. Reading this book, I felt like I was sitting on a couch listening to Mike spin tales of the old days.
Grgich was born in Croatia and raised by a winemaking family. His memories of his pastoral upbringing are wonderful to read. From a very young age, he was drawn to wine’s ability to bring people together. “People like to celebrate with wine in good times, but it also helps them forget in bad times,” he writes. “In fact, it adds pleasure to any day.”
But World War II ushered in a brutal fascist occupation, which also disrupted and destroyed the winemaking cultures of coastal Croatian communities. When the partisans drove out the fascists, Croatia quickly transitioned to a Communist dictatorship. After years of such chaos and destabilization, Grgich had to leave. With no freedom to move about or move ahead with his aspirations, Grgich fled the country. He had heard that California was paradise, and he knew he had to get there. Somehow.
I’ll leave the story of his escape and travels to Mike, who tells it beautifully, but suffice it to say: his is an exceptional and inspiring story of a poor immigrant who refuses to let his dreams go unfulfilled.
If you’re at all interested in those thrilling years of Napa Valley’s evolution, this book is full of great stories and history. Also, for the Zinfandel lovers out there, Mike tells of his role in tracking down the mysterious origins of Zinfandel to its birthplace in Croatia, which is my vote for the coolest and most fascinating stories of a researching a grape’s heritage.