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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Mike Grgich: The Judgment at Paris Legend

Every industry has people who have made innovations and through their skill and hard work changed how we look at products we use every day. One of the great things about writing about the drinks industry is that occasionally I will encounter one of these legends.

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, is an 84-year-old native of Croatia, who is responsible for really annoying the French back in 1976. Grgich came to America after fleeing Communist Yugoslavia and settled in Napa Valley to make wine. He worked at a couple of wineries before becoming the winemaker at Chateau Montelena. That is when a bit of magic would take place that elevated Grgich to cult status.

To mark the American Bicentennial in 1976, English wine merchant Steven Spurrier came up with idea to organize a blind tasting matching California cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays against French Bordeaux blends and chardonnays. It was more of a publicity stunt for Spurrier's business than anything and a chance to show if the Americans had managed to close the gap when compared to the great wines of Europe.

The deck was stacked against the Americans. The judges for the event were French winemakers and journalists. The tasting was held at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris. No one involved really gave the American wines much of a chance. Most had little respect for California vineyards.

In what can only be described as the American Wine Revolution, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was selected as the best white and the 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon was selected as the best red in the tasting. The Americans had run the table. The event would become known the Judgment at Paris. The shock wave from that one tasting caused an instant leap in interest in California wines. Land values in Napa and Sonoma skyrocketed and the $100+ bottle of California wine has become almost common.

The event also propelled Grgich forward in his dream of having his own winery. In a partnership with Austin Hills, of Hills Brothers Coffee, and his sister Mary Lee Strebl, Grgich Hills Estate was born in Rutherford.

During our trip to California we stopped at Grgich Hills to have a glass of chardonnay and to try some of their other wines. Ken Morris, Communications and Marketing Manager for the winery, gave us a tour and ushered us into the tasting room. While we were going through the recent releases, Mike Grgich appeared to greet patrons arriving via the Napa Valley Wine Train. I managed to get a couple of moments with Grgich, get this photo snapped and ask him about what has made his wines consistently standout for 30 years.

Grgich talked about the importance of vineyard management and the hard work of his nephew, Ivo Jeramez, who manages the vineyards. Grgich sums it up when it comes to his prized vines: “We love the grapes.”

We tasted several of the Grgich Hills wines, including:

Grgich Hills 2005 Chardonnay: Smooth oak flavor base, solid acidity level. A very good wine by which to measure other California chardonnays.

Grgich Hills 2006 Fume Blanc: Fruit forward wine with hints of lemon and floral bouquets.

Grgich Hills 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: This wine, which spent 21 months on French oak, has an inviting nose and plenty of plump blackberry flavor notes.

Grgich Hills 2004 Merlot: With grapes from 4 out of 5 of the vineyards owned by the estate, this is a smooth and inviting red. Hints of plum and black cherry.

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