A CEO, a grape, and female intuition 🍇


All work and no play makes Jack, or Bob, a dull boy. That’s why Bob Benmosche, then CEO of MetLife and later saviour of AIG, thought hard about what he wanted to do when he retired. The answer came to him during a visit to Dubrovnik, “a place like no other” as he would say, when he heard stories that the Zinfandel grape may have come from Croatia.

The origin of one of California’s most popular grape varietals was murky. Some labeled it “California’s own red grape” and theorized that it originated there. Others thought that it arrived on the east coast of the US in the 1820s via a nursery in Vienna, and was grown in hot houses around Boston as a table grape. In the 1850s, with their lust for riches exceeding their love of horticulture, many of the nurserymen joined the California Gold Rush and headed west possibly taking the grape with them.

Either way, the planting of Zinfandel boomed in the mid-19th century, and soon after it was the most widespread variety in California. Putting that unfortunate hiccup called the Prohibition aside, the Americans have been making some amazing Zins ever since in places like Napa, Lodi and the Russian River Valley. We particularly love Storybook Mountain, Turley, and the super-yummy Williams Selyem from their Papera Vineyard.

The mystery that eluded wine lovers for more than a century was finally solved in 2002 by UC Davis geneticist Carole Meredith. A culmination of a 35-year search by two generations of scientists, her DNA analysis conclusively proved that Zinfandel and a forgotten Croatian variety called Crljenak Kastelanski were a perfect match. That’s Crljenak Kastelanski: pronounced tsurl-YEN-ahk kahstel … ah, forget it, let’s just call it Zinfandel.

At this stage only 20 original vines were left in Croatia, so Bob partnered with the Mrgudić family of winemakers and together they concocted a crazy idea: transplanting Zinfandel vines from California back to their ancestral home in Croatia. All that was left was to find the perfect spot to plant them.

Marija Mrgudić, the boss-lady of a wine family that spans 21 generations, recounts the story as follows: “As most things I do, I planted the Zinfandel vineyard completely intuitively in a place where almost everyone told me not to, including my husband and children. I followed my female instinct!”

Her instinct was aided by a story her late grandmother used to tell her: where the yellow broom flower grows the land will certainly be good for vines. As she was touring the Adriatic coast with Bob they found a slope turned completely yellow above the coastal village of Viganj. She told him the story, and they immediately agreed to plant the vineyard.

As they cleared land to plant the 1,500 Zinfandel plants imported from Napa, Marija and her husband noticed a grapevine growing wild. They stopped the construction, and looked at it closely. It was an original, long lost vine of Crljenak, still alive. After going to America and returning home as Zinfandel, its journey was now complete. And we’d love to share a bottle of Croatian Zin or Bob's Dingac with you.


  • Frank Woodard

    This is a great story thank you

  • Jill Meltzer

    It’s wonderful he got to experience this actually happen before he left us. It was exciting to see a wine with a label “Benmosche Family wine”

  • Jayne Benmosche

    Beautiful article. Bob woud have been so proud. He was so passionate about everything in his life, expecially the vineyards (family first though all the time). Thank you so much for sharing his story.

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