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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
04/08/2013
Monday Manifestos
In Honor of Mike Grgich

By Charles Olken

I am headed up to wine country in a few minutes to attend a small birthday party for Mike Grgich at the winery that bears his name, Grgich Hills. Mike is rounding into his 91st year, which means, of course, that we will gather to celebrate his 90th birthday.

The party itself is not really the story here, and while this column has no intention of a becoming a full biographical sketch, it does intend to look at some very special things that Mike accomplished. You probably know the big picture here, and if you don’t, you can bet the wine pages this week will be able to fill you in.

My fascination with Mike Grgich is not that he authored a great wine that won a famous tasting in Paris. That story has been told and told and told, and while it is one of those wonderful watershed moments in the history of California wine and in the history of Chardonnay itself, I reference it here for its role in creating the legend of Mike Grgich. Without that particularly fateful event, Mike Grgich would still be a great winemaker, and, indeed, already was a great winemaker. That event, however, was no random accident.

We associate Mr. Grgich with the Napa Valley. Yet that winning wine was from the Russian River Valley long before we knew that the area would make superb wines with Burgundian grapes. In the early 1970s, Chardonnay was still mostly the province of the Napa Valley proper, and yet here was a wine, crafted by genius from grapes whose provenance was virtually unheard of at the time. The wine, of course, bore the Chateau Montelena label and that winery, regardless of how good its wines may have been over time, was able to build on the success that Mike Grgich brought them with grapes that he knew had good acidity and well-focused fruit. That, my friends, is genius.

It is also the reason why Austin Hills, heir to the Hills Coffee fortune, went into business with Mr. Grgich and put the Grgich name on the winery. That is the second part of the legend. We certainly know of wineries that bear the name of the owner, and it does not matter whether that owner is the moneyed creator like a Garen Staglin or a D. R. Stevens or Cliff Lede or whether that owner is a winemaker who found a way to build his own brand like a Joe Heitz or a Paul Hobbs or a Rick Longoria. There may be another winery somewhere in which the creation took on the name of the winemaker as a way of honoring that person’s genius, but, if so, those honors are few and far between.

I like to think of Mike Grgich not for those first two examples of genius in action and genius uniquely recognized. It is the wine of Mr. Grgich that intrigues me the most. To be sure, working at a medium-sized winery makes demands on production that do not always result in brilliance. I am not so concerned with that as I am with the incredible wines that come with the kind of inner beauty and balance that they have lived for years past what we might expect of them if measured by their peers.

We have, at Connoisseurs’ Guide, conducted tastings of well-aged wines across the nearly four decades of our existence. We proved early on that California Cabernet would age brilliantly despite the skepticism that greeted the emerging new brands in the late 60s like Heitz, Ridge, Chappellet and others. That knowledge is now common wisdom shared by all except those who think Cabernet begins and ends in Bordeaux. It was not until we had been able to study well-aged Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel that we begin to realize the genius at work in the wines crafted by Mr. Grgich. When his versions of those varieties began outliving their peers, it was clear that he knew something that most others did not.

The legend of Mike Grgich is broad and dotted with far more success than I have mentioned here, but I and CGCW will long remark on his accomplishments that extend the beyond the obvious. For it is not in the winning of one tasting that genius is measured but in the many, varied and important contributions that have helped shape the California wine industry as we know it. For those reasons, we are delighted to stand with those who will gather today to honor Mr. Grgich.


 

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Comments

Mike Grgich
by doug wilder
Posted on:4/9/2013 4:43:05 PM

I remember when I first got into the wine business in 1990, the shop I worked at had at least 100 different Chardonnay on the shelf including some early favorites like Patz & Hall, Talley and Babcock. However, the only one we carried in multiple vintages was Grgich Hills and I think it was seven or eight at the peak. They aged very well and were not that expensive. In the last two decades I think they have not changed much except likely increasing production and by doing that may miss those in search of the smaller brands. Estate bottled Chardonnay for $40 is worth checking out, I think.

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