Set in the heart of the Napa Valley wine region of Northern California is Grgich Hills Estate, owned and operated by co-founder Milijenko Grgich, his daughter and nephew. An immigrant from Croatia who moved to Napa in 1958 to learn about oenology from the bottom up, Grgich brought international fame not only to his own talent as a winemaker but to the previous overlooked Napa Valley region, when a wine he had elaborated – the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay – was awarded best white wine in the world at the Paris Tasting of 1976. Since then, Grgich has turned his focus on producing estate-grown wines from five distinct vineyards managed with certified organic and biodynamic practices. While the single-varietal Chardonnay remains the Grgich flagship wine, the estate’s elegant Cabernet Sauvignon blend is not to be missed.
An Immigrant Becomes an Icon in Napa
In 1958 a Croatian gentleman by the name of Milijenko Grgich arrived in Napa Valley. Born into a winemaking family of 11 children, Grgich had a fierce passion and curiosity for oenology right from the start. Yet the 40’s and 50’s were difficult times in Croatia, so the young winemaker left to go try his luck in a region he had once heard described as a paradise. At the beginning, Grgich worked short stints, learning from some of the most talented winemakers of Napa at the time, including Lee Stewart of Chateau Souverain, Andre Tchelistcheff and even Robert Mondavi. Eventually he landed a position as winemaker at the prestigious and historic Chateau Montelena, a position that would change his career – along with the international reputation of the region – forever.
By the end of the 1960’s, the winemakers of California had, for the most part, figured out the patchwork of parcels and the quality of wines produced in each. The beginning of the 1970’s saw an increase in single vineyard wines, and a shift in focus from the name and know-how of the owner to the terroir reigning over the vineyard. But while the wines of Napa Valley were becoming more and more popular domestically, they were far from the international fame they enjoy now. This was before the days of Robert Parker and his high ratings awarded to the wines of Napa in The Wine Advocate. But then, at the Paris Tasting of 1976, something – at that time quite unbelievable – happened: among a dazzling array of famed Burgundies and just a few upstart Chardonnays from Napa, the French judges selected the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay at a blind tasting as the finest white wine in the world. And the winemaker who made it, none other than Milijenko Grgich. The shocking results of the “Paris Judgement” reverberated around the world, turning the attention of wine lovers – for the very first time – in the direction of Napa, the American wine industry and, specifically, Grgich.
Grgich Hills Estate is Born
In the momentum of his newfound fame, Milijenko Grgich made the leap toward his life’s greatest goal, to own and operate his own winery. He sat down with Austin Hills and his sister Mary Lee Strebol from Hills Bros. Coffee Company. Inspired by the talent and passion of the winemaker, Hills and Strebol agreed to invest in and co-found a winery, with the goal of making the best wines possible and without attention paid to price, quantity or the trend of the time. Grgich Hills Estate was officially born on Independence Day 1977. The winemaker immediately got to working on the Chardonnay that had earned him his fame. The very first vintage of Grgich Hills Chardonnay was voted out of 220 peers as being “The Best Chardonnay in the World” at a tasting in Chicago in 1980. From that point onward, the list of awards and accolades grew, and is now too long to mention here. Forever committed to quality, the wines of Grgich have frequently been featured at state dinners with Presidents Reagan and Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II and French President François Mitterrand. Now 93 years old and easily recognizable by his signature blue beret, Milijenko Grgich was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2008. His daughter Violet currently serves as President of the estate, while his nephew Ivo Jeramaz manages the vineyards and winery as the estate’s winemaker.
But What Makes Grgich So Special?
At Grgich Hills, the focus is strictly on the fruit with minimal intervention in the vineyards but the very best technology and barrels sourced to enhance that which nature has wrought. In 2006, the winery changed its name to reflect the production of exclusively “estate grown” wines, certified both organic and biodynamic. Potentially harmful herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and synthetic fertilizers are replaced by natural ingredients to “feed” the soil. These include nettle tea, fermented dandelions and the classic cow manure packed inside a cow horn. Vineyard treatments follow a biodynamic calendar based on the lunar cycle.
The estate now expands over 366 acres of vines planted in five different vineyards at the heart of Napa Valley. Each of these five precious pieces of land comes with its own unique terroir and the varietals planted on them are chosen according to optimal performance in each terroir.
- American Canyon: The majority of the estate’s award-winning Chardonnay is grown on 98 acres of land in the 163-acre American Canyon vineyard, the largest of the five. Cool temperatures and powerful winds reduce vine vigor and concentrate the quality of the fruit. Here, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer are planted in sandy loam over slate soils, while Merlot is planted in clay soil.
- Carneros: White varietals are also planted in the Carneros vineyard, purchased in 1989, and extending over 87 acres of Chardonnay, Merlot Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc vines. The prized Chardonnay from this vineyard is reserved for the Paris Tasting “Commemorative” Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc grown on the American Canyon and Carneros vineyards are used to produce a Fume Blanc, with 80% of the grapes fermented in large French oak casks and the remainder in small French barrels.
- Calistoga: The sunny 34-acre Calistoga vineyard, purchased in 1997, is home to mostly Zinfandel grapes, along with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Merlot, grown in reddish loam and gravel with fantastic drainage. Zinfandel and a touch of Petite Sirah from Calistoga are used to make a beautiful wine aged in large French oak casks.
- Yountville: The 63-acre Yountville vineyard, purchased in 1984, is focused on classic Bordeaux varietals, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot and Petit Verdot. The pebbly subsoil here encourages the roots of the vine to stretch deep into the clay loam and loam soil in search for nutrients.
- Rutherford: Cabernet Sauvignon is also planted on 17.4 acres of the estate’s Rutherford vineyard, purchased in 1977, which enjoys a warm climate and is characterized by gravelly clay loam soils. On the same vineyard 1 acre of Petite Verdot is also grown, which is blended into the Cab.
Be it the oaky and balanced Chardonnay, smoky Fume Blanc, the Zinfandel, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon blend, the wines of Grgich Hills are sure to not disappoint. Each of the estate’s signature wines is a perfect reflection of one of its vineyards, the character of the land and its climate, the taste of the fruit best suited to its conditions. Grgich Hills is a family project built on a passion shared by the founder’s daughter and nephew – to create the most fruit-forward, honest wines and always respect the land in the process.
Two of Our Favorites From Grgich Hills Estate
Grgich Hills Estate : Chardonnay 2014
The single-varietal Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2014 is produced from grapes grown in the cool American Canyon and Carneros vineyards, located in the southern tip of Napa Valley. The 2014 vintage was the third in a row proving to be exceptional with near drought conditions. Low temperatures in July and high humidity through the rest of the summer resulted in a slowing down of sugar accumulation, allowing the grapes to gradually achieve optimal ripeness with a lower percentage of alcohol. The harvest began and ended two weeks earlier than normal. This is a classic wine, made from exclusively Chardonnay grapes, with no malolactic fermentation in order to preserve the natural acidity of the fruit. After fermentation the wine is aged for 10 months in French oak.
The Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay 2014 has plenty to offer, with notes of oaky vanilla perceivable from the beginning. Secondary notes include baked pear, lemon custard and butter cookies with some fragrances of fresh green grass and a bright acidity to cut the richness. Notes of minerality mingle with toasted almonds for a complex finish. This wine peaks after aging for 7-10 years and is a great wine to pair with food, especially fresh seafood, grilled pork or roasted chicken.Browse this Wine