A charmed winemaking life

“I don’t drink Chardonnay,” a smart lawyer- friend of mine told me not long ago.

I asked her why and she told me, “It’s too oaky.” I replied, “Oh, you don’t like oaky Chardonnay.  Neither do I.” Most wine people today don’t like or drink oaky wines.

In the 1970s, a heavy and clumsy oak influence was employed, because there were many new wine drinkers who embraced the caramel and butterscotch flavors. That didn’t last long and soon winemakers were reducing the oak in all their oak aged wines to “Let the fruit speak for itself.” Indeed, oak became a seasoning like salt, to give mouthfeel and accent but not flavor. Once you get the taste, oak, like salt, is too much.

Violet Grgich, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich’s daughter, was in New York recently to show us Grgich Hills Estate’s current wine releases. Mike Grgich was born in Croatia, the youngest of 11 kids. He grew up in Croatian vineyards and learned to make wine.  He enrolled in oenology classes in Zagreb and then West Germany. Learning from a mentor and wine teacher that Napa Valley was paradise, the perfect place for growing grapes and making wine.  Mike made his way to Canada and then to California and became acquainted with and/or employed by the Christian Brothers, Robert Mondavi, André Tchelistcheff and the Barrett family of Chateau Montelena Winery.  It was here that Mike made the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay that turned the wine world upside down.  In the now-famous 1976  book “Judgment of Paris,” this wine was chosen in a blind tasting using only French wine judges as the best Chardonnay in the world, against several Burgundian and California producers. 

When you’re voted best in the world, you get some serious street cred. In 1977, Mike partnered up with Austin Hills of Hills Bros. Coffee and started Grgich Hills Estate winery.  I asked Violet if Mike Grgich’s wines ever led or followed the pendulum swing to heavily oaked wines. She said, “No, our wines have always been pure. They start simple, subtle and then grow in the glass. There was never a need for manipulation.” Grgich Hills was a frontier forger with organic and sustainable practices in the vineyard and in the winery.  The winery owns all its own vineyards and doesn’t have to buy grapes, which gives it complete “vine to bottle” control of the product.  

We tasted a series of wines against the backdrop of a wonderful meal prepared by Raoul Whitaker, owner and executive chef of David Burke Kitchen.  Grgich Hills Estate’s 2014 Fumé Blanc was crisp and tight with a lemon citrus dominance. It was also dry with a pronounced fruity presence, perfect with a root vegetable salad.  The 2014 40th Anniversary Chardonnay was a rich, creamy, lovely balanced wine with subtle oak influence.

The 2012 Merlot and the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon each showed a dry dustiness with dark cherry flavors and a full-bodied generous mouthfeel and finish.  The Grgich Hills Violetta was a wonderful dessert wine experience. Of course, you could pair it with certain dishes like foie gras, but to me it is wonderfully paired with dessert, or being the featured dessert.  It is made using grapes affected by botrytis, the same noble fungus that affects and is responsible for the flavors in a Sauternes. This wine showed deep, sweet, golden honey with an unctuous mouthfeel carried and balanced by a backbone of rich acidity.  

Mike Grgich is a man blessed by hard work, dedication, knowledge and probably a bit of luck.  His list of friends is a veritable Who’s Who in the California (and Croatia) wine industry.  He came to this country with just a couple of dollars, a suitcase and some wine knowledge and experience, building a New World wine in the Old World style.  Grgich Hills Estate’s signature wine style is food friendly, balanced and elegant. Today, Mike Grgich’s suitcase and his 1973 Montelena Chardonnay are in the Smithsonian Institution, and his wines have been served at White House state dinners. Pick up some for your next event.  Grab a piece of history. They are easy to find and well worth the price.  To Miljenko Grgich and his charmed life, “Cheers to You!” 

Write me at doug@dougpaulding.com.

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