By Rick Riozza
You know you’re dealing with wine royalty when one of the premier restaurants in our valley, Morgan’s in the Desert, at the La Quinta Resort & Club sets aside an entire evening for an exclusive dining affair to celebrate a winemaker’s career and a wine watershed moment.
The winemaker: the Esteemed Master, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich. The event: Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the historic Judgment of Paris tasting.
All you wine enthusiasts pretty much already know the story of how, in 1976, an Englishman who ran a fine wine shop in Paris, decided to promote it by organizing a blind tasting to coincide with America’s Bicentennial celebrations. For the tasting, he gathered together the best French judges, the finest French wines and he added in a few wines from some upstart winemakers in California. Well—the unthinkable happened: the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, crafted by Mike Grgich, won with the highest total score from the judges!
The California and French Wine relationship was changed forever. We had finally garnered respect! Our terroir and wine matched theirs. We could now walk the Champs-Elysées with our heads and wine glasses held high!
Perhaps everyone in the wine world knows of Mike Grgich. The long time Napa Valley winemaker and part time La Quinta resident is the “hero” of this story. So how apt was it that this 40th anniversary gala which coincided with Mike’s 93rd birthday, was celebrated here at the La Quinta Resort! And—as we valley folk know as well, Executive Chef Jimmy Schmidt and his staff implement gastronomic perfection at the flagship dining venue; Morgan’s is one of Grgich’s favorite desert restaurants.
The entire evening was a good story in itself. It began with a late-afternoon wine tasting featuring a library selection of the famed Grgich Hills Estate wine. Yep—the Fumé Blancs, Estate Chardonnays, Cabs, and the acclaimed Zinfandels that Mike and the UC Davis staff were to determine as to the grape’s Croatian origins. Every time we enjoy a Grgich wine—it’s like California wine history in a glass. And for your information, Grgich was one of the first vineyards and winery in our state to follow biodynamic practices.
If you felt left out on this tasting—not to worry, Morgan’s, throughout the entire year, provides not only select world class wine tasting events, but deliver on some of the valley’s best food & wine pairing dinners—with both inventive and elegant themes exhibiting Chef’s Schmidt’s culinary artistry. Check out Morgan’s info and menus at morgansinthedesert.com.
Now prior to dining, I had the great pleasure to meet and chat with author George Taber. Get this: working for Time Magazine, he was the only reporter to attend the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting. Taber would later write a fascinating book & account of the Paris event and its impact in the wine world. His narrative will be the basis for an upcoming Hollywood motion picture next year; indeed, the co-producer and screenwriter were also in attendance this evening.
Another fun personality present, was Grgich’s longtime friend and Croatian compatriot, Tony Butala—the original and founding member of The Lettermen, one of the most popular vocal groups in recording history. No need to ask—of course Tony crooned a couple of tunes to Mike and us diners.
The evening’s dining room setting was regal but relaxed; graceful with a great impression and sense that we were remembering, commemorating, and honoring one of the most important winemakers in wine history. Cheers to the Master!
A Glass Full of Miracles is the title of Mike’s just released memoir, a 400+ page book, with book jacket commentary stating, “…Mike’s story begins in1928 [as] a little boy in an obscure village in Croatia…He survives World War II and the rise of Communism aided by determination, pluck, relatives, friends, and a few miracles. In 1954, he manages to leave the Iron Curtain behind. Twenty-two years later … in Napa Valley [Mike] finds himself on the top of the wine world.”
“Mike has told his tale with grace, charm, and deep-rooted passion… It contains Mike’s personal angle on the major figures in the winemaking ferment of the Napa Valley and an abundance of stories and lore… But it’s more than a good read… [it’s] a deeply moving meditation on the art of a life lived in the pursuit of making the perfect wine.”
Mike is known to say, “I realize that you don’t make wine only with your head and your senses. You make wine with your heart.” He then follows with, “To me, wines are like children. You have to guide them and give them the riches of your own spirit.”
Mike’s daughter, the lovely Violetta, who has been with the winery since 1988, and Mike’s nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker, made the evening truly heartfelt and familial as they danced lightly around the tables to Croatian folk tunes.
Celebrate across the country and “Taste the Legacy”: The evening’s festivities was also a launch of sorts, where Mike and especially Violetta will be traveling about the nation to places such as Washington DC, Miami Beach, and Napa Valley commemorating with discussions and festivities. Also, the winery will host Judgment of Paris dinners around the country with restaurant partners.
The ever energetic gentlemen Mike Grgich continues as our true hero! Mike concludes in his book, “In my life, I have had real miracles; they were between God and me, and when I was offered one, I accepted it with all my heart and soul, and with gratitude.”—Cheers to that!
Rick is the valley’s somm-about-town conducting at wine events, tastings, and at restaurant venues. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org