Interview: Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, The King of Chardonnay

Note: This interview is from our sister publication, Cheers Magazine.

Croatian-born winemaker Miljenko “Mike” Grgich first gained international recognition at the celebrated 1976 Paris Tasting, a.k.a the Judgement of Paris. At the now-historic blind tasting, a panel of French judges chose the 1973 Chateau Montelena California chardonnay, crafted by Grgich, as the best white wine in the world.

Grgich then partnered with Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. Coffee family in 1977 to open Grgich Hills Estate. He serves as president/winemaker of the Rutherford, CA, winery, along with his daughter Violet Grgich (vice president of sales and marketing) and nephew Ivo Jeramaz (vice president of vineyards and production).

With the 40th anniversary of the 1976 Judgement of Paris on May 24, Cheers editor Melissa Dowling caught up with Grgich, who turned 93 on April 1, to get his take on the historic tasting, how to make the best chardonnay and the state of wine today.

Cheers: How will you mark the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting?
MG: We have a lot of Judgment of Paris wine panels and dinners planned for 2016. For instance, Violet Grgich will participate in a dinner and panel discussion of the “Paris Tasting Legacy” as part of the American History after Hours at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in May. The winery will also host Judgment of Paris dinners around the country with restaurant partners.

73ChateauMontelena

The 1973 Chateau Montelena California chardonnay from the Judgement of Paris.

Cheers: That event put American wine on the map and dispelled the myth that good wine could only come from France or Italy. What other places are producing great wines today?
MG: I believe the Judgment of Paris is a significant event—not just for me and the Napa Valley, but for everyone who is dedicated to winemaking, since it proves that you don’t need French soil to make great wine.

Today, there are many regions creating great wine, and I don’t want to praise one over another. In the end, it really comes down to the winemaker making wine with his heart.

Cheers: As the “King of Chardonnay,” what do you make of the varietal’s rise in recent decades—and the resulting backlash against its popularity from many wine enthusiasts?
MG: When the 1973 chardonnay that I crafted outscored with 132 points the best French and California red and white wines at the Judgment of Paris, I think it inspired other wine makers to make chardonnay. The first chardonnay that I made at Grgich Hills Cellar, the 1977, won the 1980 Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown, beating 221 chardonnays from around the world.

So I knew that chardonnay was becoming more popular with the American public. While some wine critics may bash chardonnay, the most important thing is consumers still love it. Chardonnay is the most popular wine in the United States!

Cheers: The over-oaked, buttery style of American chardonnay has been criticized in recent years; many winemakers now seek a fresher, fruiter style. What is your take on how to get the best expression of that particular grape?
MG: I believe that chardonnay’s natural acidity gives the wine a fresh, flower flavor and provides structure—without acid, white wines do not have a “spine.” At Grgich Hills Estate, we put into the bottle what chardonnay really tastes like, instead of masking the flavors with a secondary fermentation.

We start with growing the grapes in the right location. We’ve purchased land in the coolest part of Napa Valley in Carneros and American Canyon. By growing chardonnay in this ocean-cooled area, we maintain low pH in the grapes and good malic acid, which is apple acid.

Plus, the chilly winds slow vigor so the vines concentrate their energy into the grapes, not growing shoots and leaves. We pick at night when the grapes are ripe and taste delicious.

The winemaker’s care and knowledge prevents malolactic fermentation that destroys malic acid. Our white wines do not go through malolactic fermentation: Our wines are dry, crisp, balanced, food-friendly, aromatic and not too oaky. They give a lingering enjoyment and do not have residual sugar.

GrgichSign

Cheers: Red wines have become more popular in the U.S. in recent years—what is your favorite red?
MG: Like any father, I am proud of each of my wines. But at home, what I enjoy most is zinfandel. It reminds me of my homeland of Croatia. I like it so much that I built my home overlooking our zinfandel and merlot vineyard above Calistoga!

Cheers: You also have a winery in Croatia. How did that come about?
MG: I left Croatia [in 1954] because of Communism, and when Communism was finally voted out, I went back and met with the president of Croatia and asked how I could help.

He asked, “What do you do in America? I replied, “I make wine.” He said, “Why not come back and help us make better wines in Croatia?”

So, my daughter and I started Grgić Vina [in 1996] to make the finest wines from native Dalmatian grapes.

Mike Violet and Ivo

Miljenko “Mike” Grgich with his daughter Violet Grgich and nephew Ivo Jeramaz.

Cheers: There is more interest in wines from Eastern Europe in the U.S. today, thanks to their unique varietals and good values. Do you see the increased popularity of these wines as more competition for American wine, or does help all winemakers?
MG: We don’t see growth in Croatia as competition to Grgich Hills Estate or other Californian wineries. I learned much from working for Robert Mondavi [from 1968 to 1972], and he was great promoter of the Napa Valley, but first, he was a great promoter of great wines.

He always believed that all wineries benefit as we improve. Mondavi was always willing to share his knowledge with anyone, and I believe he was correct.

Cheers: What advice would you give to a winemaker starting out today?
MG: When I started more than 50 years ago, winemakers were happy to make good wine. Today, the winemakers are more highly educated and more enthusiastic than ever. There is a real focus on quality. Now, everyone is shooting for crafting exceptional quality wines.

I’m very optimistic that the next 50 years will see even higher quality wines! My father always told me, “Every day, do something just a little better, and in one year you will be much better than you started.” I’ve found that was good advice, and I always pass it on to my employees.

Melissa Dowling is editor of Cheers Magazine.

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