May 24, 1976 is a date forever ingrained in the history of California’s wine industry. No one could have predicted how the outcome of one wine competition in Paris would cause such reverberations across the world. The “Judgement of Paris” not only put Napa Valley on the world wine map, it also marked the arrival of Croatian-born Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, the winemaker behind the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that earned the highest score of the white wines. More than 40 years since that historic tasting, 96-year-old Mike has ensured that his legacy of producing world-class wine continues at Grgich Hills Estate through his daughter Violet (President) and nephew Ivo Jeramaz (Winemaker/VP Vineyards & Production).
The win while opportune, was hardly fortuitous, and with it came instant credibility and new-found fame. Mike had always dreamed of having his own winery and finding a financial partner proved much easier after that historical win. With family being such an integral part of Mike’s philosophy, it made perfect sense that he would join forces with another family—Austin Hills and his sister Mary Lee Strebl of the Hills Bros. Coffee Company. There are only a few wineries left in Napa that have been around for 40+ years that are still family-owned. We saw firsthand just how prominent the part family plays in the winery as we waited to meet with Mike’s nephew Ivo. We were greeted by Maya who is not only the winery’s Export Sales Ambassador, she’s also Ivo’s eldest daughter.
Grgich Hills produces about 70,000 cases annually and since 2003 makes exclusively estate wine, a change they made to control quality. As you might expect, given history & reputation, about half of their production is Chardonnay. Six years ago, in celebration of Mike’s 90th birthday, the winery decided to make a special Chardonnay to commemorate the Paris tasting. Their aim was to make it as close as possible to the wine that won the competition in 1976. It features a picture of Mike with his trademark beret on the bottle and is so popular that they’ve continued to make it ever since. The only thing that changes is the retail price which is always his age (today it sells for $96).
The winery owns 5 vineyards totaling 366 acres across Napa Valley from the South to the North: American Canyon, Carneros, Yountville, Rutherford, and Calistoga. The majority of their vineyards are over 25 years old with some of their Cabernet Sauvignon vines turning 60 years old this year. Their oldest vineyard is a 2.8-acre block of Zinfandel that that was planted in 1889.
We met Ivo inside the tasting room and he immediately took us outside to see the vines on the winery’s property because for him, this is where he spends most of his time and where he says he has the most fun.
“Our biggest strength is our farming like in Europe. No one cares who the winemaker is; it’s always about the vineyard. The secret to great wine is always in the vineyard. Winemaking is an important skill, but the soul of wine comes from farming.”
His humility comes by him honestly. He came to the US in 1986, thanks to Mike sponsoring him as it was difficult to get a Visa even then. Ivo wasn’t interested in just being a tourist and wanted to stay permanently. Mike agreed to help him and hired a lawyer to assist with the paperwork and promptly put Ivo to work in the cellar.
But no special treatment was given to Ivo despite his Uncle being the boss or the fact that he had a master’s degree in Engineering. He started at $7 an hour like everyone else and had to work his way up like everyone else. “It took me 3 years to get to $10 an hour, then 5 more years before I got a meaningful job. Before that it was cleaning barrels, unplugging septic systems, whatever was needed.” Working with Mike he became very interested in winemaking, and after a few more years he realized that the secret to great wine starting in the vineyards, and shifted his attention to organic grape growing.
For Ivo, farming is an art and the key is to understand the soil. “If you treat soil like dirt it won’t work. Most people use roto-tillers which are the worst thing because you want structure and they destroy that. You want your soil to be elastic meaning there’s enough pores. If you pulverize soil it becomes dust, there are no pores. Microbes need pores for oxygen and roots need pores to spread.”
He emphasizes his point about unhealthy soils by lamenting the fact that it’s a regular occurrence today to see vines being ripped out at 20 years old when they used to live and produce much longer. “In Europe, they don’t talk about Grand Cru unless the vineyard itself is at least 20 years old. Just like humans, you can be 15 years old and have an IQ of 150—you may be very smart, but you are lacking wisdom. You have to get to a certain age before you can gain that wisdom. Age is not only economically better, it also means better wine.”
Despite being an engineer, Ivo is a firm believer that machines cannot replace the art of certain things being done by hand such as pruning and harvesting. “Pruning is an art. How can I create a machine that can prune properly? How do you harvest with a machine properly? If you’re making nice commodity wine it makes sense to use machines, but fine wines are pieces of art and need to be done by hand.”
Because everything starts in the vineyard, the farming is done naturally, and the fermentation is done with wild yeast. Nothing is added to the wine and Ivo’s sole objective is to capture the wine in its natural state. “We are not trying to make big, bold Napa Valley Cabernet, we are making authentic Grgich Hills wine. We don’t want to alter it or make it the same every year, we want to capture its character and we want it to be true to its vintage.”
Ivo is at ease in the vineyards and it is where he has found his true sense of purpose. To him, farming is a spiritual endeavor that has brought him inner peace.
“It has changed my life and how I view my worth. When I started and wanted to be a great winemaker, I studied diligently, and Robert Parker gave us an 82-point score for one of my wines—I was physically sick. It shook me because I connected my self-esteem to scores. But once I started being a farmer, I got such an inner satisfaction knowing we were doing the best stuff here that I no longer needed anyone to praise me. If the scores come or not, I don’t care. I know what we do, I know this is an honest farm and if you like our wine or not, I don’t take it personally. I’m just so happy to be a part of this and it has improved my life dramatically.”
As we wind up the interview, Ivo takes us through the winery where everything from crushing, to fermenting, and bottling, is all done on site. The barrel room is pristine with French barrels stacked 7 high alongside a handful of Foudres (large wooden vats that hold over 1,000 gallons of juice). He takes us over to where some of the barrels are sitting on wheels to demonstrate an ingenious system they use to stir the lees (yeast cells that fall to the bottom of an oak barrel). Typically, a winery will employ a method called “Batonage” whereby a metal tool is inserted into the barrel and someone stirs the juice. At Grgich, when they want to stir the lees, they simply rotate the barrel on the wheels, thus saving both time and minimizing oxygen coming into the barrel every time a metal stir stick needs to be inserted.
We wrapped up our visit with an extensive tasting in the Library VIP room hosted by Maya. Yes, we tasted chardonnay—a few of them—along with their Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Violetta, their dessert wine. Of particular interest, were their two Croatian wines, a white wine of the variety known as Pošip, and a red wine made of Plavac Mali.
It seems Mike’s sense of family extends back to his native home which left well over a half century ago. When he returned to Croatia in the early 1990s after Communism fell, the economy was in shambles and he wanted to help in some way. He turned to what he knew best and in 1996 established Grgić Vina right on the Adriatic. The winery name is the original spelling of the family name and produces approximately 5,000 cases of wine a year.
Oprah Winfrey famously defined luck as preparation meeting opportunity. Luck certainly played a part in the wine Mike was making being chosen for the Paris wine tasting competition all those years ago. But his hard work and preparation not only set the course for the success of that day, it is at the heart of his legacy some 40+ years later. And we’re all lucky that we’ll get the opportunity to enjoy Grgich Hills wines for many years to come.
Grgich Hills is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm for tastings with the exception of New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. Walk-in visitors are welcome in their main tasting room where two flights are offered:
Intro to Grgich– $25 (USD)
Miljenko’s Flight – $40 (USD)