By Jerry Greenfield.
His name is Miljenko Grgich, but everybody calls him Mike, for apparent reasons. And, since this year is the 40th anniversary of the so-called “Judgment of Paris,” it’s time you get to know him … and his wines.
If you’ve seen the movie “Bottle Shock,” you know that the famous blind tasting held in Paris in 1976 consisted of a lineup of American and French wines sampled by a panel of France’s most distinguished connoisseurs and critics.
In the red category, six of the top 10 winners were American, including Stag’s Leap, Clos du Val, and Ridge Montebello. In fact, several of the judges ranked two of the American wines in first and second place against the finest Bordeauxes.
In the white wine judging, three of the top four wines were American, including the No. 1 Chardonnay, Chateau Montelena.
Though the movie does not disclose this, Mr. Grgich, working at Montelena at the time, made that wine. The event put American wines squarely on the world stage, and Mike was a big part of it, even though he says he had no idea a blind tasting was happening in Paris.
He relates that in the previous year, the estate’s 1972 Chardonnay “won over three best French Chardonnays at a tasting in San Diego.”
“I knew it was something important when a reporter from The New York Times called to say they were sending a photographer to take my picture! Imagine! A little immigrant named Mike Grgich was to be in a famous New York newspaper. I started dancing around the winery and singing in Croatian that I was born again! It was a miracle!”
Mike also remembers that the prizewinning Chardonnay sold, at the time, for $6.50 a bottle. Today, there’s one bottle on display in the Smithsonian Museum to commemorate the event.
“As soon as the story was released, I started getting offers to become a winemaker,” he told me. “But I had always wanted to own my own winery. I had a five-year agreement that ended in 1977 and I told Mr. Barrett that I would be leaving at the end of the contract. I earned 1 percent ownership for each year I was winemaker at Chateau Montelena, and I took the money from that to purchase land in Rutherford.”
The rest, as they say, is wine world history.
Today, Grgich Hills Estate produces a wide assortment of wines from classic varietals, at several different (and attractive) price points.
“I have always thought acid is important in white wines,” he says. “Our wines are dry, crisp, balanced, food friendly, aromatic, not too oaky.” He wants his wines to “give a lingering enjoyment.”
Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay Napa Valley 2013 — According to Mike, 2013 was a “nearly perfect” vintage for Chardonnay. This sample, from vineyards in the southern tip of Napa Valley, gives off peach aromas and that characteristic “tutti-frutti” Chardonnay nose. On the palate, there are hints of mango and a mix of tropical fruits. WW 92, about $40.
Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013 — The law says that if you want to call your wine by a varietal name (like “Cabernet Sauvignon”) there must be at least 75 percent of that grape in the bottle. The rest can be … whatever. In this case, “the rest” is a yummy blend of Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. As you’d expect from this particular combination, there are bold, full-bodied flavors of currant, mocha and licorice, with spicy hints of cinnamon. WW 91-92 points, about $70.
Grgich Hills Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley 2012 — It’s a bit rare to grow Zinfandel in Napa, but Mike does … in a 34-acre vineyard above Calistoga. He co-ferments his Zinfandel with about 2 percent Petite Sirah to add complexity and structure. This wine is very true to type, with big blackberry flavors, black cherry, and perhaps a peppery note way in the back. Of course, you’d drink this wine at your July 4 cookout, with grilled meats, chicken and lots of barbecue sauce. WW 91, about $35.