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(E) Grgich-Hills Cellars 25th anniversary
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  12/22/2002 | Croatian Cuisine | Unrated
(E) Grgich-Hills Cellars 25th anniversary

It's another 25th anniversary for MikeGrgich 

Thursday, November 21, 2002

Register Correspondent

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Grgich-Hills Cellars by winemaker Miljenko "Mike" Grgich and coffee magnate Austin Hills.

It follows Grgich's other 25th anniversary last year, that marking the renowned Paris tasting where a 1973 chardonnay he made for Chateau Montelena outdid the best French white Burdundies.

Since the winery was founded, it has developed a reputation for excellent wines, but ones that might have been a bit ahead of their time. They're made in a European style rather than the richer California model, and the chardonnays age for years, while the cabernets are highly regarded for both their elegance, aging well and being particularly compatible with food. 

Looking back on a quarter century

Grgich reflected on the last quarter century, and how his winery and its winemaking has evolved. The winery produces now about 80,000 cases per year, and Grgich intends to stay at that level. "We intend to grow quality, size," he said.

To achieve that goal, the firm has been acquiring vineyards throughout Napa Valley, and now owns Grgich-Hills now owns 418 acres of vineyards. In two years, will be able to supply all its own needs. 

In this, he depends on his partner Austin Hills. "He keeps the winery on solid ground," said Grgich. "He's a smart businessman with good experience. He gives us good advice."

Reflecting his European winemaking training, Grgich has always emphasized that vineyards are the most important element of the winemaking process, a concept sometimes forgotten in enthusiasm for "cult" winemakers. "We make our wines in the vineyard," he said. "My job is to grow balanced grapes, then pick them at physiological maturity," he said. 

The winery now has vineyards in what Grgich considers Napa Valley's best sites for the specific grapes: zinfandel on 40 acres in Calistoga, cabernet sauvignon in Rutherford and Yountville, 86 acres chardonnay and four of merlot in Carneros and those same grapes plus sauvignon blanc in American Canyon. 

Last year was the first the winery produced a varietal merlot. It formerly used it as a component of its cabernet sauvignon wines along with small amounts of cabernet franc and petite Verdot. 

"I've been very surprised at the merlot from American Canyon," said Grgich. "It's very balanced with a softness I don't see in merlots from other sites." The winery made 500 cases.

In all his vineyards, Grgich is moving toward organic farming of the vines, though he says they've always used minimal chemicals and none of the vineyards are firmly organic yet.

Grgich is especially fond of zinfandel, which reminded him of vines from his native Croatia. He comes from a small town near the coast in the former republic of Yugoslavia that has a wine-making traditional as long as that of nearby Italy. He fled his native land, ending up in Napa Valley where he acted as a winemaker for Chateau Souverain, Christian Brothers, Beaulieu and Robert Mondavi Winery. He joined Chateau Montelena in 1972, then started Grgich-Hills Cellars in 1977.

It's recently been determined, with Grgich's help, that zinfandel is a little-known indigenous Croatian grape variety called Crljenak kastalanski and closely related to its popular Plavac Mali vine. 

Maintaining his love for zinfandel, Grgich-Hills recently introduced a very limited production wine, Miljenko's Old Vine Zinfandel, from his Calistoga vineyard planted in 1884. On the 50-acre property, Grgich planted zinfandel using cuttings from the old 4-acre zinfandel cultivar from the site. The budwood had never been through the heat-treatment process used to eliminate viruses, but Grgich finds it makes superior wine.

Changes in winemaking

Although he still regards the vineyards as the key part of his winemaking, Grgich is a master in the process most consider winemaking. "In the winery we marry the flavors of the grapes, oak and yeast and send the wine on a honeymoon," he said poetically. "None of the flavors should stick out but they should be integrated and rounded."

He hasn't stood still, however. "Every year we've done something better," he said.

One big change for the winery in recent years was to adopt the popular technique of fermenting of chardonnay in oak barrels instead of stainless steel, which helps marry the flavors. It also let the chardonnay age on the yeast cells rather that isolating them, which releases tasty amino acids and proteins from the dying yeast cells.

In optimum years, Grgich-Hills makes limited amounts of a sweet dessert wine named Violetta after Mike's daughter. The winery just released its 2000 vintage; the last year it was made was 1995. 

Grgich notes another big change in the wine business. "Forty years ago, if you had a good wine, that was enough.

"Twenty years ago, you had to make an even better wine, and provide good service for customers." Now, he said, "You have to have that and superior communications with the public as well." 

Grgich remains active in promoting his wine, attending many functions around the country. The winery is renovating its new visitor center to include an upscale experience by appointment only, and is turning his former residence, a prominent Victorian in Yountville surrounded by vines, into a hospitality center and offices .

Mike Grgich is still going strong at 79, but he's increasingly turning day-to-day operations over to Violet and nephew and winemaker Ivo Jeramaz.

Mike Grgich has moved into a modern house overlooking his vineyards in Calistoga and continues to go into the winery as needed. He's legally still the winemaker and approves all the wines.

In addition, he spends time on other projects here and abroad. He is involved in the Roots of Peace program that clears mine fields in Croatia and elsewhere. He has also established a small winery in Croatia to transfer modern technology to his homeland and sells its wines here. 

Most of all, he remains a spokesman for the American dream. "I tell newcomers to America to do quality work and have a good character so people will trust you. If you do, there are always people willing to back you. That's the only way to succeed."

It's a lesson he learned well.

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