How a Croatian vintner helped California beat the French at their wine game
Participants relive the blind tasting 40 years ago that helped make Napa Valley famous
Drive into California's Napa Valley from either direction and you'll find a sign welcoming you to the "world famous wine growing region."
Back in 1950 when the sign went up, "world famous" might have been a bit of a stretch. No one served American wine‚ not even American restaurants. Napa only really became a household name in 1976, thanks, in large part, to Mike Grgich.
"These trees shade and they mature early, so we planted Merlot there," he says. "And then the rest is mostly Zinfandel because it came from my country."
No one in the Croatian village of Desne could have guessed that Miljenko Grgich, the shepherd boy with homemade shoes, would end up owning his own vineyard, much less one in Napa Valley.
"Beautiful country," he says, staring at the distant Mount St. Helena. "And it reminds me of my own, where I was born and playing as a kid."
Grgich shows me a painting of his old house, the ruins of which still stand. His home didn't have electricity or running water. but it did have a tiny vineyard where he began learning his craft.
And Grgich had a taste for the work; he says at the age of two, his mother switched him from breast milk to bevanda, a traditional mixture of water and wine.
A father's legacy
"I must drink that wine because our water was not sanitized," he says, smiling,
"My father was so generous, whoever would pass the road, he was so proud of his wine he would offer people to drink his wine. He enjoyed it, and I inherited that from my father."
After studying winemaking in Zagreb, he bought a beret because he couldn't afford to replace his lost umbrella, packed a cardboard suitcase, and left what was then Communist Yugoslavia in 1956.
He spent two years in Vancouver before settling in Napa Valley. These days it's home to more than 400 wineries, but back then, Grgich says, there were fewer than two dozen.
He worked for a few well-known winemakers like Robert Mondavi. And, with a few European touches, he improved their wine.
"It takes much more of your intuition to put into the wine, put your soul in there to make wine with the French quality," he says.
The improving quality of California wine was a little-known secret until May 24, 1976‚ when a blind tasting in Paris shocked the world.
"The event was held in a little small room, right off of the summer place at the Hotel Intercontinental," says George Taber, the only journalist in that room.
"Most of the judges were in one long row of judges, and I was just wandering around through, listening to them," Taber says.
"And there was one moment, about halfway through the white wine, when one of the judges, Raymond Oliver — who was the Julia Child of France in those days — he held up a glass of white wine and he swirled it around like you do when you're looking at tasting wine, and he held it up, he swirled, he looked at it again, and then he tasted it, and then he held it up again and said, 'Ah, back to France.' And I looked at my wine card and he had just tasted a Freemark Abbey from California. I thought, 'Hey. maybe I've got a story here.'"
The four-paragraph story in Time magazine would shake the world of wine. The winning red was from California. The winning white: also from California. And it was made by Mike Grgich. He found out by telegram that his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay had won.
'I was born again'
"I was born again," Grgich says, looking to the heavens. "And I was dancing and singing Croatian songs. But at the moment I didn't know really what happened."
What happened became known as the Judgment of Paris, ending France's long reign over fine wine.
The French, it seems, are still in denial.
"What Judgment of Paris? I don't know what you're talking about!" says French winemaker Jordane Andrieu, chuckling. Andrieu straddles the Old World and the New: he owns a winery in Burgundy and a wine store in Beverly Hills.
"You know, in France we don't hear anything about it," Andrieu says.
"It's actually since I moved here that we hear about it. In France they hide it, like something that never happened. It was a big surprise. But this impact could only have lasted a few years if behind that, the quality was not there. But you see the Californian wine quality is there, and it's still improving."
The Judgment of Paris wasn't just a huge win for the United States, Taber says. It sent a message to other up-and-coming wine-producing countries as well, like Australia and Chile.
"They felt that if the California winemakers could stand up to the French, then they could do it as well," he says.
Land prices shoot up
Restaurants started carrying California wines. Napa Valley land prices shot up.
"And the grapes' price in Napa Valley is twice as expensive as the Sonoma, which could be just as good," Grgich says.
It was the start of Brand Napa. Wine lovers from around the world, like Ottawa's Tony Mason, started making pilgrimages.
Mason swirls a glass of white at the Grgich Hills Estate tasting room.
"It really put Napa on the map," he says. "Robert Mondavi, who was always saying what is grown here, what's made here can rival anything else in the world — and I think he was right. Napa Valley is now world famous."
Grgich's beret and cardboard suitcase are on display in the Smithsonian. Not bad for the shepherd boy with homemade shoes.