Mike Grgich & Warren Winiarski
Jeffery Lindenmuth / January 2006
Food Arts presents the January/February 2006 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Miljenko "Mike" Grgich and Warren Winiarski, the prescient duo who sparked a vinous gold rush by demonstrating the potential of Napa Valley wine to a skeptical Old World guard by besting France's finest in the now legendary Paris blind tasting of 1976.
Grgich, winemaker and president of Grgich Hills Cellar (in partnership with Austin Hills and Hills' sister, Mary Lee Strebl), was literally weaned on wine in his native Croatia, graduating from bosom to bevanda, a folk mixture of water and wine intended to sanitize the rainwater the family collected in a cistern. He began stomping grapes almost as soon as he could walk. In 1949, while attending the University of Zagreb, the tales of a well-traveled university professor planted in Grgich the dream of making wine in California. "I heard California was paradise. I thought, why die to go to paradise when I can walk in?" says Grgich. The journey was no leisurely stroll: Grgich fled communist Yugoslavia to West Germany, emigrated to Canada with just $32, and arrived in Napa Valley in 1958.
Warren Winiarski, proprietor and founding winemaker of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, grew up in Prohibition-era Chicago, where his father legally made dandelion and fruit wine for family use. "That is where I put my ear to a cask and first heard the bubble of fermentation," says Winiarski. In 1964, working as a lecturing instructor at the University of Chicago, he abandoned his promising career in academia to pursue his destiny with wine.
Beyond their congenital fascination with wine, the two had similar formative experiences in the intimate Napa Valley of the 1960s: each had his first job with Lee Stewart, founder of Souverain Cellars, enjoyed the tutelage of legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff, and worked for Napa wine giant Robert Mondavi. On separate, yet eerily parallel paths, Grgich became a limited partner at the new Chateau Montelena Winery and Winiarski founded Stag's Leap Vineyards with a group of investors. With a magical vintage in 1973, stars aligned.
When English wine merchant Steven Spurrier gathered California wine for his Paris tasting of May 1976, he included Grgich's 1973 Montelena Chardonnay, aged in the same French oak barrels that overpowered the previous vintage, and Winiarski's Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' 1973 S.L.V., from fledgling Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Spurrier never considered they would win.
When told of the victory, Winiarski replied, "That's nice," unaware that the outcome would affirm Napa as America's Cabernet enclave, inspire winemaking throughout the New World, and land the winning wines in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. The yin to Winiarski's yang, Grgich was anointed the "King of Chardonnay," transforming his trademark blue beret into an iconic crown. Now, 30 years later, their seminal triumphs have been deservedly documented by George M. Taber in his recently published first-person account, Judgment of Paris, a Homeric saga worthy of its two American wine country heroes.