The Coast News Group
Taste of Wine

Sharing a Table with the ‘King of Chardonnay’

In my last column, I shared some recent experiences in the great desert, from Rancho Mirage to La Quinta.  Palatial resorts, princely restaurants and the hauntingly beautiful Santa Rosa Mountains all caught my attention.

In Palm Desert on El Paseo at Portola, a relaxed European style restaurant, Mitch’s, is where Miljenko (Mike) Grgich comes to lunch from his nearby winter home in La Quinta. It reminds him of his early days as a youthful student of wine in Zagreb, Croatia in the ‘50s, before he took his first wine job in Napa Valley in 1958. I got to Mitch’s early for my interview with this 91-year-old world-renowned iconic wine master. Grgich is known the world over as the King of Chardonnay since his 1973 vintage Chardonnay won over all the competition at the Paris Blind Tasting in 1976.

His professional life has been and still is, the stuff that makes this nation so great:  a poor immigrant full of ideas about his chosen work, and making them work beyond his imagination.

When he arrived to join me at Mitch’s, he was careful to select just the right table, at the end of a row, with light shade.

After a couple of tries, he found a soup to his liking.  I imagined that search for just the right essence came from his need for excellence in making wine.

“Great wine is made in the vineyard,” he said.  “We are caretakers bringing the earth and vines in harmony naturally, to produce pure, healthy grapes. Then comes the passion, talent and experience of our people to bring them to their full potential. We have five beautiful vineyards with 367 total acres planted.  Our wines are 100 percent estate grown, produced and bottled.”

Grgich Hllls Estate vineyards in Napa Valley touch almost every district known for excellent wines: Yountville for Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot; Carneros for Chardonnay and Merlot; American Canyon for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot; Grgich Headquarters in Rutherford, an 18-acre winery and vineyard, for Cabernet and Petit Verdot; and finally the family home and vineyard in Calistoga with 34 acres of hillside vineyards for century-old Zinfandel that make Miljenko’s Old Vines Zinfandel. “Zinfandel is a special grape for me,” Grgich revealed.

After spending a lot of time doing research and presenting proofs, he traced a variety of the Napa Valley Zinfandel to his homeland of Croatia.

The next vintage Old Vine Zinfandel will be out for purchase in March of this year with very limited production.

This year, Grgich Hills Estate will be celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the Great Chicago Showdown, another Mike Grgich triumph when the first Chardonnay that was made at Grgich Hills, the 1977 vintage, took first place over 221 other Chardonnays.   He is in the Vintners Hall of Fame and has been featured in an award winning documentary, “Like the Old Vine” that describes his life.  The Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History displays his 1973 Chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting.  He is now busy on a book that documents his life, and a movie is being talked about that sets the record straight on the Paris Tasting, more in line with the book “The Judgment of Paris,” authored by Time Magazine correspondent George Taber. In 2013, Grgich established a $1 million endowment fund at the University of Zagreb in Croatia, to help educate future winemakers so its can become a world-class wine industry.

Some 5 million visitors a year come to Napa Valley which is neither the oldest or the largest wine country in California, but it is the most known and most chosen of the wineries in our great state.  The most compelling reason — one name — Miljenko (Mike) Grgich.  Read more at

Wine Bytes

In Temecula, Thornton Winery’s Chef’s Counter in a private kitchen is presented Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. A one-of-a-kind dining experience, you will dine one-on-one as the chef prepares your five-course meal in front of each guest.  $125. RSVP at (951) 699-0099 ext. 3129.

Skip Coomber of Coomber Ranch Wines will appear at La Costa Wine Company, Jan. 30 from 6 to 9 p.m.  Two Chardonnays, two Pinots and two Cabernets will be poured for $20.  Phone (760) 431-8455.

Capri Blu in Rancho Bernardo will present Rodney Strong Wines of Sonoma in a 4-course menu dinner Feb. 4 at 6 p.m.  Details, including price, at (858) 673-5100.

PAON Wine Shop in Carlsbad welcomes Tablas Creek Vineyards, Feb. 12 starting at 5:30 p.m.  Wines include:  Vermintino, Espirit de Tablas, Mourvedre, Patelin de Tablas and Espirit de Tablas Rouge.  Price of $35 includes French onion soup, tuna tartar, and Prosciutto with burrata cheese topped with mixed greens.  Find out more at (760) 729-7377.

Frank Mangio is a renowned wine connoisseur certified by Wine Spectator.  He is one of the leading wine commentators on the web.  View and link up with his columns at  Reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Facebook.