Grgich Hills

By Sunny Brown on December 1, 2005

Category: Winery of the Month

Mike Grgich is a wine genius, though you would never hear him say it. He has been lauded as one of the best winemakers in California, though until a few years ago it was quite difficult to find his wines outside of the state. He has been pumping innovation, hard work and tender loving care into the wines of Grgich Hills since 1977, but his name regularly gets lost in the shuffle of who the hot new winemakers are. I guess there is something about consistently producing great wines for a quarter of a century that doesn’t have the sparkle of today’s “superstar” winemakers.

It all started in Croatia some 80 years ago, when Milijenko “Mike” Grgich was born into a family of eleven children. The son of a winemaker, Grgich grew up with one foot in the vines and one in the tub used to crush the grapes. Enology was always a passion from the start, and led him to the University of Zagreb, in the capital of Croatia. But communism showed Mike that he would never truly be free unless he left his homeland. So he left seeking freedom, the freedom to make wines his way, and to live his life as he saw fit. After stops in Germany and British Columbia, in 1958 Mike finally landed in Napa Valley, a place that had been described to him as paradise by one of his professors in Croatia. And Paradise it would become.

Short stints with some of the best and most famous winemakers in Napa provided Grgich a steep learning curve. A little education in Riesling with Lee Stewart of Château Souverain. Nine years under the tutelage of the legendary André Tchelistcheff for insight into filtration and malolactic fermentation. Oh, and a little work with a guy named Mondavi. Each stop along the way provided new and unique training in a volatile and exciting time in the wine history of California. The culmination was a limited partnership and position as winemaker at the prestigious Chateau Montelena, one of California’s oldest wineries. This is where skill, fate and a little luck would make him a star.

A historic Parisian event held in 1976 matched the best wines of France in a blind tasting with a few upstarts from Napa Valley, a land barely on the wine map when compared to the grand crus of Burgundy and the great wines of Bordeaux that little old Napa was pitted against. Lo and behold the best wines of the day were a Cabernet from Stags' Leap and a Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena made by Mike Grgich. The fact that a California Chardonnay could beat wines from Montrachet, Meursault and the Beaune vineyard Clos des Mouches was a shock not only to the French judges, but also to everyone else involved as well, including the winemakers.

This event was the springboard that would launch wine greatness in Napa Valley. The effects can still be felt to this day. Some say that the most important fact of the day was the revelation that great wines could be made outside of France. The full event and much of its impact has been chronicled in the book “Judgment of Paris,” the story told by George Taber, at the time a reporter for Time magazine and the only journalist to cover the 1976 tasting.

With new found fame Grgich was given the opportunity to follow his dream of owning his own winery. Along with partners Austin Hills and his sister Mary Lee Strebol, they broke ground on a winery on Independence Day 1977. Hills and Strebol brought business savvy honed over the long years their family owned Hills Bros coffee. Grgich brought an intense desire to make the very best wines he could, regardless of price, quantity or current fashion.

What have followed are only fame, fortune, family and 27 years of great wines. The list of accolades started with the very first vintage of Grgich Hills Chardonnay being voted as the “Best Chardonnay in the World,” beating 220 of its peers at a 1980 tasting in Chicago. The list of medals and awards that follows is too long to count.

Mike’s wines are a combination of dedication to the fruit and a desire to give the grapes the best possible chance at creating great wines. His philosophies include a “hands off” winemaking style, as well as practices that include the very best barrels and technology that money can buy. To this day he remains involved in the day to day operations of Grgich Hills, including his duties as winemaker. He continues to apply the same basic principle to “Never be satisfied with yesterday’s best, each vintage arrives as a new challenge to create the best wines of the future.”

Today Grgich Hills produces 60,000 cases a year from its ivy-covered facility in the heart of Rutherford. The winery is a family operation, with Mike’s daughter Violet the Vice President of Sales and Marketing and his nephew Ivo Jeramaz Vice President of Vineyards and Production. The winery owns some of the best vineyards in all of Napa with acreage in Rutherford and Yountville for Cabernet, Los Carneros for Chardonnay and Merlot, American Canyon for Sauvignon Blanc and Calistoga for Zinfandel.

The 2006 vintage will be a benchmark in that they will offer every wine as “Estate Grown” under biodynamic, organic and sustainable farming practices. There will be no purchased fruit, and 366 acres will be grown biodynamically, a process which can be summed up that it “Treats the earth as a living organism and utilizes nature’s basic life forces to bring about balance between grapevines and the earth.” Whew.

The best part about biodynamic winemaking is that if you ask ten different winemakers what biodynamic cultivation means to them you will get ten different answers. The practices at Grgich Hills include using everything from fermented dandelions, to stinging nettle tea, to cow manure packed inside of a cow horn, all used at specific times during the lunar cycles throughout the year. No harmful herbicides, fungicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers are used in this process. It is truly a concept designed to work with Mother Nature rather than against her.

Despite years of success Mike Grgich has never forgotten his roots. He has done extensive work with charity organizations, de-mining operations for his war-torn homeland and the cultivation of both wineries and native grape varieties in Croatia. His work in identifying the parents of the California Zinfandel grape have become legendary, resulting in the identification as Crljenak as the parent of both Zinfandel and the Plavac Mali, a close cousin to Zin that is cultivated in Croatia. He also has a winery based in Croatia dedicated solely to rebuilding the struggling economy there.

This has not gone unnoticed, as Mike is one of only seven people to receive the Zlatna Kuna (the Golden Ferret), an award presented by his country for his lifetime of achievements. His wines have been served at state dinners, to presidents and royalty, and enjoyed by stars all over the world. Not bad for a guy that came to North America with little money and even less English.

The wines of Grgich Hills enjoy a bounty of advantages, from state of the art winemaking facilities and oak barrels of the highest quality, to resting quietly in the winery after bottling and boasting the same winemaker for the last 28 years. They are intense, finessed and long-lived, something every winemaker strives for. Mike Grgich would tell you this stems from the quality and care in the vineyards, but others would say the true reason is the man behind the wines. His tireless tinkering over the years to make his wines that much better. Or his unwavering commitment to quality. That may be true, but modest as always, you won’t hear it from Mike.