Exactly forty years ago, Napa Valley wineries were quietly making a name for themselves with worldwide acknowledgment only a slim hope. While the wineries around Modesto, California still reigned as the center for American wines, Robert Mondavi was traveling the world praising the Napa Valley as a future home for great wines. The French Wine industry believed – and made the world believe – their wines were the standard of excellence. This was about to change.
In 1976, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman and purveyor of fine wine in Paris, created a promotion for his wine shop by organizing a blind tasting to coincide with America’s Bicentennial celebrations. He brought together the top French judges, the finest French wines and he added in a few wines from some upstart winemakers in California. He had previously traveled to California and selected a few wines from the Napa Valley to take back to France where some of his wine shop’s clientele included a number of expats who might be interested in learning how California wines had evolved.
Then the unimaginable happened. The Château Montelena 1973 Chardonnay, crafted by Mike Grgich, won with a total score of 132 points. At the afternoon red wine tasting, the French judges awarded top ranking with 127.5 points to Warren Winiarski for his 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar’s Cabernet Sauvignon, beating the best Cabernets of Bordeaux!
Afterwards, George Taber, with Time magazine, wrote an article about this American triumph that sent shock waves throughout the wine world. Thirty years later, Taber wrote a fascinating account of this significant tasting in his book, Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.
Both bottles of the 1973 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon and Château Montelena Chardonnay are currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and with this momentous event celebrating its 40th anniversary on May 24, I had the opportunity to interview four individuals integral to the production of these wines, including two of the winemakers, Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski. The owner of Château Montelena, Jim Barrett, passed away in 2013 but Bo Barrett has carried on the legacy. I also interviewed cellar worker and current business owner, Ron Scalatti, about working at Château Montelena in the early 1970’s.
It was an era of honest, solid, hardworking men with a passion for excellence but now, 40 years later, it is still worth noting it is the French who put Napa on the map. Viva la France!
The drive to Mike Grgich’s home in Calistoga is one of the most breathtaking with rolling hills and panoramic views. This is my third visit to his home. The first was a few years ago when he and I walked out into his vineyard to see the 100-year old zinfandel vines on his property. The second was to pick him up to take him to lunch. Born Miljenko “Mike” Grgich in Croatia, he left home at age 10 and often jokes that we are cousins since my mom’s family is from Slovenia. Napa Register’s Sasha Paulson helped Mike write his memoirs in a book recently release entitled A Glass Full of Miracles. In 1954, he left communist Yugoslavia for West Germany, obtaining a fellowship to study there and then immigrated to Canada before finally receiving a job offer from a winery in California, at age 34. My good friend, Mike, wearing his signature beret at age 93, still speaks English with a accent reminiscent of the old
K: How do you remember the Paris Judgment? Before I came here I spoke with Bo Barret and he said when the telegram arrived about the Paris Tasting you danced around the cellar proclaiming ‘We won. We won.’ Is that how you remember it?
M: I have different version. The first telegram came from Jim Barrett and all it said was we won in Paris. I didn’t know that our Chardonnay was in the tasting. No one told me. When I was excited was when I received the telegram from Time and they wanted to interview me.
K: Bo said the Chardonnay had already won a number of tastings so, they weren’t surprised that it did well in the tasting.
M: For me, the biggest event was getting the telephone call from the New York Times to interview me. I asked what did I do wrong because newspapers usually only write about bad things. They said no, its positive. Your wine, the 1973 Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting and we would like to interview you. They sent three people out to Calistoga. That was an important event for Calistoga. Me too. They took my picture and published it in June 9, 1976.
K: What was it like for you in 1976?
M: There was a small amount of wineries, but we made amazing wines. The Paris Tasting showed that a young country like America compared to the European countries could make great wine. Then not only in American, but a small valley called Napa Valley can make great wine. This was most significant event for the Napa Valley. Grapes and land became three times more expensive than Sonoma.
K: Are grapes better in the Napa Valley over Sonoma since you mentioned it?
M: As a winemaker, I favor Napa Valley, however, objectively speaking Sonoma grow grapes as good as us. But we make better wine. We had Andre Tschelistcheff, who was a great winemaker and many of us learned a lot from him.
K: You worked with Robert Mondavi, too?
M: When I worked with Robert, we had tastings every Monday that always included French wines. He always believed Napa Valley could make wine as well as the French and that was his purpose. In the book the Judgment of Paris, Robert wrote in the forward that he knew Napa had the soil, the climate and the varieties, but for the first time Napa Valley beat the French thanks to his students Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski. That made me proud to read that.
K: When the script came along for the movie, Bottle Shock, you chose not to participate in it because you felt it was too Hollywood and wasn’t accurate. Now there is a new version of the Judgment of Paris coming out by well-known Hollywood screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. They shot the first part of the movie with you at the winery. Talk about that.
M: I am the winemaker in this movie. I was the winemaker at Château Montelena.
K: Bo Barrett said he always worked under you and spoke highly of you. You were the artisan of winemaking.
M: They still make Chardonnay in the same style that I started. I established my style from Andre Tschelistcheff. The first vintage of 1972 and 1973 was tasted in San Diego comparing among 80 people and they came in first and second place. For me that was as big a deal as the Paris Tasting.
K: What was it like working at Château Montelena in 1972 and 1973? I understand it was three hippies and a Croatian. Ron Scullati said when you tasted the 1973 grape you knew it was special.
M: (Smiling) We bought 14 tons of Chardonnay grapes that went into 1973 chardonnay. The owner of the vineyard said she had a lot of people buy her grapes, but every time Mike Grgich came, he tasted the grapes. The others relied on a machine to measure the sugar. I tasted it. My mouth was checking on the acid and aroma for the optimum taste. I believe no other Chardonnay was made like the 1973.
K: I understand these pristine grapes were not crushed under ideal situations, but you were able to make the wine pristine again.
M: Yes. It takes an artist feeling and the nose and soul. There is much more that goes into winemaking. But I feel it is in my blood. My father made wine and when I was a baby my mother gave me wine mixed with water. The water was not good to drink so most of us drank more wine than we drank water. I started stomping grapes as soon as I could. Then I went to the University of Zagreb to studied viticulture and enology. I heard about California and I wanted to come here, but after waiting 18-months I had to go to Canada first. When I came to Napa Valley I met Andre Tschelistcheff who was from Russia, but he could speak Croatian. Can you imagine? I was lost in America speaking broken English and this great winemaker could speak my language. I was now American and no longer wept on my pillow at night because I now felt welcomed. I received all my instruction from him on how to make French style wines.
K: You had great teachers along the way, but you have a natural ability to taste the wine.
M: When I was young we would catch water in the cistern, but it wasn’t sanitized so we drank wine half and half so the wine sterilized the water. That was a big part of it. Andre Tschelistcheff started high quality wines and he was an immigrant. Meeting him, the sun started to shine down on me. He told me I could have a job if I could look at 25 samples and analyze them correctly and I did it. I was paid $3.25/hour.
K: After the 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting, you were called to start your own winery with Austin Hills of Hills Brothers Coffee?
M: I had collected all this knowledge from my father, from the university, from these great vintners and great winemakers and the Christian Brothers. I was very proud with all the miracles I can create in a bottle. Yes, I started my own winery.
K: How did feel when you realized finally that you had beaten the French?
M: I was dancing around the cellar. The second great thing I was proud of was when my Grgich Chardonnay won the Tasting in Chicago in 1980. Of the 221 Chardonnays in that tasting our Chardonnay came in first in the world. At the Paris Tasting we beat out four French Wines, but in Chicago my Chardonnay beat out 221 wines.
K: I always thought it was Cabernets that can last many years and that Chardonnays need to be consumed sooner but according to you, if you make a quality Chardonnay, it could last 40 years?
M: Sometimes when I write about my wines, I claim age is relative if the quality is there.
K: What was your inspiration to be the success you are today?
M: I was very poor and was a shepherd. Neither my father nor mother could write. There was no book in my house. No television, but I was born to be interested and move forward. From shepherd to school to manager of a grocery store at age 14, I was in charge of my cousin’s store. I went to business school and did one year of accounting, but I wanted to make wine. My personality was developed from being poor, but I was looking to be better.
K: You were 53-years old when your Chardonnay won the Paris Tasting so you had been at the winemaking process 20 years?
M: In my case, I had the ability to absorb knowledge of a lot of people. Andre and I both had the European attitude towards the wine and continue that all the way through. My style is different from young winemakers graduating today from U.C. Davis. Always look forward. Never backwards.
K: I’ve asked this of everyone I’ve interviewed, but how has the Judgment of Paris affected the wine industry?
M: After the Paris tasting, the Australians started making better wine. New Zealand and countries all over the world woke up to the fact that they can make better wine than the French. Paris Tasting is a victory for the Napa Valley and the whole world because the France claimed their soil or terrior was the best and now we know there are other places good too.
K: One of the phrases you are known for is the word “Moooore.” Describe that for me.
M: (Smiling) I tell my customers when they ask me which wine should they buy. I always tell them, taste it first and when the wine goes through your throat, if it says more, that’s the one you want. My life is always been about wanting more…more knowledge…being a better expert in wine….and I never ignore people. My father told me you can always learn from someone else and be sure to learn something every day.
K: What did you learn today?
M: I learned that I received this proclamation that the city I go to every winter, La Quinta in Palm Dessert, has proclaimed April 1, my birthday, Mike Grgich Day. I’m fortunate that I am getting better.