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Following in Big Footprints – The Modern Grgich Hills Estate

IMG_20140515_135923Violet Grgich, Proprietor and Vice President, Operations, Grgich Hills Estate

by Andrew Chalk

In 1976, wine experts blind-tasted some of the most storied wines from France against similar styles from upstart California in. The mainly-French expert jury in what came to be known as The Judgement of Paris announced the California wines to be the winners. It was a shot heard round the world (I remember it being reported on the front page of British newspapers at the time) and  California wine’s time on the global stage had come.

One of the most remarkable victories in a set of remarkable victories was in the white wine  category. A 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay came top, beating out four Burgundies. That wine was made by a young croatian-American, Mike Grgich. No flash-in-the-pan, Grgich won the Great Chardonnay Showdown in 1980 with the very first vintage (1977) of wine from his own winery (then called Grgich Hills Cellar) in Napa Valley’s Rutherford area against 221 competitors.   

Since that time the Grgich winery has continued to make prodigious California Chardonnays. They are still owned by the same family. They have gone from a grape buyer to the holder of 366 acres of vineyards and became fully estate grown in 2007. They are certified organic and solar powered. Their output of 70,000 cases makes them small on the California stage. Indeed, over 30 years, they have expanded by baby steps to include Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon in their lineup. And Mike Grgich, at the tender age of 91, is still active in the running of the winery (although no longer the winemaker, by title. That goes to Ivo Jeramaz).

Much of the work, and most of the public face of the winery, is now the province of Violet Grgich, Mike’s daughter. She played in the winery as a young girl while her father worked. Later, she went to the University of California, Davis, earning a B.A. in music while also studying chemistry, biology and enology. After taking a master’s degree in harpsichord at the University of Indiana she returned to the winery full-time. That was the beginning of a long career that started, at her father’s insistence, in every position in the winery in order to learn them thoroughly and sees her today as Director of Operations and in charge of sales and marketing.

On a recent visit to Dallas she took me through some of the current Grgich wines. We started with the 2011 Estate Grown Napa Valley Chardonnay. It was a fortuitous choice as its restrained style was a harbinger of what was to come. As we shall see, all of the wines are, in terms of Violet’s training, her playing Bach, rather than Mötley Crüe. This wine isn’t a ripe tropical fruit, full-on type of New World Chardonnay. The fruit is grown in the cool southern areas of Napa where Grgich owns vineyards (American Canyon and Carneros). Nor is it an austere mineral-driven Chablis style wine. It is in-between, with French oak, but only some of it new, and ripe fruit flavors with hints rather than lashings of tropical fruit. The acid level is firmly medium as this wine has seen no malolactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that converts tart malic acid to softer lactic acid). The wine is the glove that coats the hand of fish or poultry dishes in its most sophisticated role, but it is also a style that is pleasant to just quaff. Experience suggests this wine should age impressively as well, although I have not had any old Grgich Chardonnays recently.

We moved on to 2011 Estate Grown Fumé Blanc, the oak-aged style of Sauvignon Blanc invented by Robert Mondavi in the 1960s. Mike Grgich worked at Robert Mondavi winery at the time it was invented, although Violet gives full credit for the invention to Mondavi. What a young Grgich did learn there was how to make it in his own right and the style of the 2011 is a doppelgänger for current Robert Mondavi To Kalon Fumé. That means dry, with a note of French oak in the mouth. Has a glorious heavy mouthfeel and a long minerally finish. Pair this wine with shellfish.

The next wine was also Sauvignon Blanc. The 2012 ‘Essence’ Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc is a kind of reserve Sauvignon Blanc of the winery. It comes from selected grape blocks. It is a complex melange of citrus and stone fruit flavors (lime, apricot and grapefruit). I like the idea of this as a Chardonnay substitute. Same forward fruitiness but a different grape flavor profile.

On to a pair of reds: the 2009 Estate Grown Napa Valley Merlot and the 2009 Estate Grown ‘Yountville Selection’ Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes for the Cabernet Sauvignon came from Grgich vineyards in Rutherford, Calistoga and Yountville. The Merlot came from Yountville. As with the Chardonnay, they exhibited a restrained style that manifested the oak, berry fruit, green pepper, cigar box and mocha attributes common with these grapes but not with any one dominating and not in an exaggerated fashion. Taste these, as we did, with steak and your favorite steakhouse trimmings.

Napa had a decades-long flirt with ‘massive’ styles of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay back in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, more and more prestigious producers have tried to dial back the power and emphasize complexity. Grgich Hills Estate has always been at that destination, waiting for others to arrive. The downside of not following the trend is that you might be ignored. With the landing zone now becoming very crowded, new arrivals are noticing that Grgich was there first and the winery is acquiring the lustre it achieved from competition results in the 1970s with a whole new generation of wine drinkers.

Grgich wines are available in better wine stores in Dallas or online, via the company web site.

The Judgement of Paris, per Peter Paul Rubens. I think that is Mike Grgich on the right


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