California Classic: Grgich Hills Estate

There are a number of names in California wine that are so inextricably tied to its history that you cannot mention them without evoking years of heritage and conjuring up images of all the changes that American wine in general has undergone in the past half century. Among them, a few stand out, and Grgich is certainly one of them.

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich’s story is as close to the American dream as you’ll find: He was born in Croatia, chafed under its Communist rule, and, through a round-about route, found his way to America--the Napa Valley--in 1958. His résumé reads like a who’s who of Napa royalty, with stints working at Souverain, Christian Brothers, Mondavi, and, at Beaulieu, alongside André Tchelistcheff. All of this led to his term at Chateau Montelena, where, as Grgich’s web site notes, he “first gained international recognition at the celebrated ‘Paris Tasting’ of 1976. Then, in a now-historic blind tasting, a panel of eminent French judges swirled, sniffed, and sipped an array of the fabled white Burgundies of France and a small sampling of upstart Chardonnays from the Napa Valley. When their scores were tallied, the French judges were shocked: they had chosen Mike’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay as the finest white wine in the world.” Ultimately, Grgich founded his own winery, Grgich Hills Cellar, in 1977, and has been a leading force in the industry ever since.

On a personal note, I’ve always had an affection for the wines even before I had a chance to taste them: Years ago, sometime in the 1980s, my parents were on their first vacation to Napa, and, as a budding oenophile, my father wanted to visit the great Grgich Hills. With no prior warning or notice, they pulled their rental car up to the property and knocked on the door. Mike Grgich himself answered it, and proceeded, over the next half hour or more, to taste with them and welcome them into his world with a warmth and generosity of spirit that they’ve never forgotten. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old at the time, but the story they told me when they arrived back home in Philadelphia has stuck with me to this day.

Turns out that Grgich’s wines themselves also demonstrate that same generosity of spirit. Last autumn, I had a chance to taste a number of recent bottlings--the first time I’d had the opportunity to do so in quite some time. My overall impression was of an estate that remains at the top of its game: The wines were exceptionally expressive, delicious right now, and, in many cases, showed serious potential for the future.

These days, all of the wines are produced from estate-grown fruit, picked from any of five different vineyards in Carneros, American Canyon, Yountville, Rutherford, and Calistoga. Of the 366 acres planted, all were officially certified biodynamic in 2006. And now, at 70,000 annual cases (down from the 95,000 cases that were produced back when some of the fruit was purchased), Grgich Hills is the largest biodynamic winery in the country.

Even with that sort of volume, each of the bottlings I tasted exhibited the kind of personality and depth of expression that reveals a serious, concerted attention to detail from vineyard to winery.

My notes are below:

Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2008
This wine has a high-toned, almost Burgundian character, with taut acidity brightening notes of caramel, fennel, and tarragon. It’s all so bracing and filigreed, with a sense of brininess giving it excellent structure. It undergoes no malolactic fermentation, sees 60% neutral oak with a bit of lees stirring, and is fermented completely dry. It boasts style and breed to spare.

Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc (Dry Sauvignon Blanc) 2009
The zippy acidity of the lemon and lemon verbena dances with oak that lends the wine a textural component almost more than a flavor one. Tropical notes on the nose, with aromas of white grapefruit, lead to a beautifully balanced wine with hints of the grape variety’s classic aromatics on the back of the palate. Gorgeous. A lees-y sense of richness counters the acidity, and the interplay of the two is transfixing.

Grgich Hills Zinfandel 2007
Lots of red fruit here--clear, transparent aromas of red cherry, wild strawberry, and gentle spice. The structure here is remarkable, vivid and lively on the palate, carrying brambly berry notes as well as a sense of minerality and licorice.

Grgich Hills Merlot 2005
Such a deeply savory Merlot, with clay, plum pudding, and a hint of mint. For anyone who doesn’t believe that California Merlot can mature into something beautiful, this bottle is an utterly delicious refutation of that misapprehension. It’s at its peak, and magnificently so.

Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 
Ambrosial, almost creamy nose, dizzying with venison carpaccio, sweet fruit, spice, currants, cherry, and pastry shell, as well as undertones of chocolate and cafe mocha. Buy a case and taste a bottle every few years: It’ll keep on delivering on its current promise for a long time to come.