Grgich Hills Estate was founded in 1977 by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich and Austin Hills. Austin is part of the family that started Hills Bros. Coffee, Inc – he started as a an assistant coffee buyer with the company until ultimately he was Chairman of the Board. Today both the Grgich and Hill families continue to share the ownership of the winery equally.
This history of how Mike Grgich came from a tiny village in Croatia to become a world renowned winemaker and own his own winery in the Napa Valley is a fascinating one. It starts in Croatia – where he was born (the last of 11 children) in a tiny village, Desne, located inland on the Dalmation Coast. This village is still small but well spread out with only around 100 people living there today. Mike’s family home (perched on the hillsides) is remarkably still standing, but mostly only the stone walls as time has taken its toll on the structure – including in 2004 in which a devastating forest fire burned around and through the family home and several nearby houses.
Standing inside Mike’s old home is a very humbling experience. One cannot help but realize this successful winemaker and mentor to many others over his decades in the business was rooted to his childhood spent within these old stone walls.
Mike’s father owned a small farm near their home – and Mike’s introduction to wine grapes came early on in his childhood. At only a few years old, Mike was helping stomp grapes and was tending sheep by the time he was 6 years old.
During the 1950’s the Communist control of the former Yugoslavia region did not create an environment conducive to producing fine wine. In general, production at the time was about quantity rather than quality. Realizing that to make premium wines Mike would have to move out of Croatia.
But first he studied viticulture and oenology at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Agriculture. One of his professors had visited California and spoke very highly of the state and it’s agricultural resources. After hearing his professors stories about his trip, Mike was intrigued. Mike then moved to West Germany where he was given and studied under a fellowship – he had no plans to return to Croatia and set his sights on moving to California. He contacted one of his cousins (a priest) living in Canada. During these years it was easier to immigrate into Canada then into the United States. He was supposed to take a wood cutting job in the Yukon – this never materialized so he took a train to Vancouver where because of his limited English at the time, his first job in North America was washing dishes at a small college.
From there he started working at a pulp mill, but this wasn’t going to be a long term career choice – his primary interest was in wine. He placed an ad offering his wine making services in the Wine Institute’s monthly newsletter. A winery called him from the Napa Valley – tiny Chateau Sovereign (housed at the time in what is now Burgess Cellars in Deer Park). Founder Lee Stewart hired Mike in 1958. This was Mike’s first wine related job in the Napa Valley. He arrived to Napa with not much – his worldly possessions fit in merely a suitcase.
Other jobs in the valley included working for Brother Timothy at the Christian Brothers Winery, then Napa wine pioneer, André Tchelistcheff who was working at Beaulieu Vineyard hired Mike on a six month trial basis. Liking what he saw after this trial period he hired Mike full time to help oversee quality control at the winery. During his time working with André several innovations were introduced to the wines at Beauliu Vineyard including inoculating the wine to begin malolactic fermentation and using micro filtration to remove yeasts and any bacteria prior to bottling. Mike worked with the ‘master’ at Beauliu Vineyard some nine years before moving to a “new” winery at the time, Robert Mondavi.
He then met James Barrett, a lawyer who wanted to start a winery in the Napa Valley and make a premium Cabernet Sauvignon (the founder of Chateau Montelena). James hired Mike as his first winemaker – until they could get some cash flow from the sales of Cabernet Sauvignon, Mike suggested they start making a Chardonnay – quicker to bottle and quicker to market. Grapes from both Napa and Sonoma County were sourced to make this wine. This Chardonnay was entered in the 1976 Paris Tasting, was tasted blind against other French and California Chardonnays by French wine judges. When the final results were announced the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay had earned the highest score of any of the Chardonnay wines.
Mike calls his winning 1973 vintage Chardonnay his “first real miracle as a winemaker”. It is easy to see why with significant press at the time including stories in the New York Times Time Magazine. The timing was good – he was nearing the end of his five-year tenure at Chateau Montelena and had long dreamed of starting his own winery.
He located 20-acres in Rutherford – this was bare land at the time – merely grass fields. With the financial help from Austin Hills, Grgich Hills was founded with their first release from the 1977 vintage. Ground was broken on an auspicious day for Mike, July 4, 1977 – symbolizing his own freedom from the former communist part of Europe. The first Grgich Hills wines were a Chardonnay, Zinfandel and a Johannisberg Riesling.
Many people have heard of the 1976 Paris Tasting but not as many are familiar with the Great Chardonnay Showdown organized in 1980 in Chicago. Over 200 Chardonnays were entered in this competition with some International wines also represented. By the end of the competition Grgich Hill’s first Chardonnay vintage, the 1977 had triumphed over all the entries. Mike was later honored when he learned that President Ronald Reagan brought some of his Chardonnay to France for a dinner with the president at the time, François Mitterrand.
Mike is certainly one of Napa’s living vintner legends; his induction in the Vintner Hall of Fame in 2008 culminated a storied career.
Grgich Hills manages and owns over 360 planted vineyard acres in the Napa Valley with five fully owned vineyards ranging from American Canyon & Carneros in the south, Yountville, the ‘home’ vineyard in Rutherford and a vineyard north of Calistoga. In fact a small block of Zinfandel in their Calistoga vineyard dates from 1889. The Rutherford vineyard surrounds the winery and is planted almost entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon with just a small block of Petite Verdot.
At one point Grgich Hills was the largest Biodynamically farmed winery and grape grower in the USA. They have refocused their efforts on organic farming and all their vineyards are now farmed this way. They also use solar for much of their power.
Mike is no longer involved in the day to day operations, however his only child, Violet is President of Grgich Hills Estate (previously Vice President of Operations & Sales). She is also an accomplished musician (harpsichord) having earned her Master’s degree in music at Indiana University. Mike’s nephew Ivo Jeramaz came to the Napa Valley in 1986 and joined the winery and vineyard operations. Today he is Vice President of Vineyards & Production.
The winery is simple and functional – Mike has a saying about wineries, “A chandelier doesn’t belong in a winery”. The original small stainless steel tanks from their 1977 vintage are still here and are still being used. The winery has expanded significantly since it was built – with additional large barrel rooms having been added on over the years. Several practices that are extremely rare for a Napa winery are how they stack barrels, the type of vessel they use for aging some of the wine and how they “stir” the lees on their Chardonnay wines.
The winery uses an Oxoline barrel stacking system (introduced by long time Grgich enologist Gary Ecklin) – a series of metal tubes that encircle the barrels with cross supports and ‘catwalks’ for workers to stand on as needed. This system supports barrels stacked eight high (most wineries we have seen in Napa range from a single barrel to five high). Despite the height it is a fairly stable way of stacking barrels. Case in point: the Napa earthquake of 2014 while centered much further south in the valley and caused more damage in the city of Napa than Rutherford, only caused a loss of 8 barrels at the winery.
Their Chardonnay barrels rest on wheels – so when they want to “stir” the lees – rather than the accepted practice of battonage (inserting a stainless steel tool into the barrel and stirring by hand), one worker simply rotates the barrel 360 degrees, allowing the lees to cloud up the wine and filter back down. A barrel with one wooden head replaced with plexiglass is displayed so you can easily see this process in action.
And they use 1,500 gallon wooden casks for some of their wine – these are called Foudres and are commonly used in France’s Rhône Valley.
Each room in the winery is named with a wooden sign above the doorway. One room is called the “Honeymoon Suite” – Mike used to tell visitors “I pick my grapes, they then marry with the aromas of the oak, and I then send both on a long honeymoon”. Appropriately a photo of daughter Violet and her husband Colin on their wedding day hangs on the wall next to the entrance to this barrel room.
The wines are all estate grown. Total production depending on the year is usually between 65,000 to 70,000 cases. Their largest produced wine is the Napa Chardonnay. Mike has been called the “King of Chardonnay” and for good reason. His Chardonnay wines have good acid, mouth feel, are food friendly and are not overly oaked. They produce several Chardonnays.
The 2012 vintage was sourced from their cooler Carneros and American Canyon vineyards. This wine sees no secondary (malolactic) fermentation. It shows an appealing bouquet with both citrus characteristics and honeydew melon and a hint of baking spice. It is rounded on the palate, with a sweet note of fruit with a pleasing mouth feel and a lively long finish (melon, red apple).
More recently the winery started producing a special Chardonnay – a commemorative to the Paris Tasting. This wine is only available at the winery and to through the wine clubs. The label is of Mike in his trademark cap – an image created by New Jersey artist, Kevin Sprouls (creator of the Wall Street Journal Portrait Style bio images). The 2012 vintage was created through clonal selection and it ages longer than the Napa Valley Chardonnay. The more subtle aromas do not reveal a beautiful richness of fruit that shows on the palate. However the fruit is tempered to some degree by good acidity so this wine retains its crispness.
Not many Napa wineries label a Sauvignon Blanc as Fumé Blanc. Mike learned of this when working at Robert Mondavi Winery. The 2013 vintage is 100% varietal Sauvignon Blanc – it was aged in the large Foudres casks. The bouquet shows stone fruit aromas including white peach and white nectarine. A sweetness of fruit shows mid palate tempered by a tartness on the finish. This is a polished wine meant to be enjoyed with food.
The 2011 Zinfandel is from their Calistoga Vineyard. The bouquet reveals lively aromas of cherry cola, nuances of white pepper and is slightly dusty. More red fruit than black fruit shows on the palate – strawberry, raspberry and red licorice. It is not a big jammy styled wine that one more commonly finds from California grown Zinfandels. The earthy tannins are well integrated into the finish.
The 2010 Yountville Selection Cabernet Sauvignon is made from some of Napa’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines – these vines were planted in 1959 (west of Yountville) near Dominus. The vines are planted with what is known as the Inglenook clone and are on St. George rootstock – resistant to several waves of Phylloxera to have afflicted many of Napa’s non resistant rootstocks over the years. Unlike other parts of the world, here in Napa it is a rare treat to try a Cabernet Sauvignon that is from vines this old. In the vineyard they are converting over some of the vines back to the way they were historically managed – head pruned rather than on trellising.
The 2010 vintage shows a sweet almost jelly like note on the bouquet – black berry jam. This ‘sweetness’ carries over to the palate – a perceived sweetness that is from the fruit rather than any residual sugar. Red cherry and blackberry show; this is a robust full-bodied wine. The wine tastes younger than it’s age (five years old at the time of our tasting) – the mouth watering finish is anchored by gripping heavy tannins.
The 100% varietal 2011 Merlot are from grapes grown in a cooler part of the valley – Carneros and American Canyon – not to mention 2011 was an unusually cool and damp growing season at times. This wine shows earth, smoke, and saddle leather with cedar box aromas. The wine shows bright fruit and lively tannins with moderate alcohol (13.5%).
The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is dark purple in the glass with black cherry, blackberry and a violet floral component. This wine has very good acidity. It shows higher toned fruit on the palate with a very long finish including tannins that linger. A tartness, perhaps red currant and notes of oak also show on the finish.
The Violetta late harvest wine is made from Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Named in honor of Violet. These grapes are harvested late in the year after a naturally occurring Botrytis fungus attacks the fruit. This wine is rarely made (only several times in 15+ years), has limited production and is only available at the winery and through their wine clubs. Rich and ripe, the 2012 vintage is layered with aromas of honey, brown sugar and pear. The palate is honeyed and rounded with plenty of sweetness to satisfy dessert wine lovers. One would need a rich cheese to pair with this wine.
Should you be in the area during September and typically much of October, ask about their free grape stomping in which you can help out during this process. You will make juice the old fashioned way; be prepared to get dirty. The grapes for this fun activity are harvested from the short rows of vines in their demonstration vineyard in front of the winery (see below for more details & photos).
The tasting room and gift shop are located at the main entrance. For a very relaxed experience, guests may purchase a flight of wines or by the bottle and weather permitting enjoy these in the outdoor patio. Noise from vehicles on the nearby Highway 29 are muted during certain times of the year – from late Spring through mid Fall when the vines are covered in leaves.
For those looking for a more in depth visit experience, Grgich Hills offers the “Unforgettable Educational Wine Experience” tour and tasting. This lasts from 60 to 90 minutes and touches on both Mike’s history and accolades of 50+ vintages in the valley, includes a walk through of the actual winery and culminates with a tasting in their VIP room. Unlike many wineries, Grgich Hills has older vintages for sale in the tasting room. Also note they have barrel tastings most Fridays from 2-4pm and this is included with the main tasting fee.
A tasteful souvenir section is located near the tasting counters including Mike Grgich Bobble Head Dolls. This is one of only several Napa wineries we’ve visited who have memorialized their founder with the bobbing bobble head!
Two wine clubs are available – appropriately named Miljenko’s Cellar Club (Mike’s Croatian name) and Violet’s Pre-Release Case Club after his daughter Violet.
THE WINE TRAIN
The winery is located on the west side of St. Helena Highway (Highway 29) in Rutherford; the wine train travels directly across their driveway. You may be treated to a blast from its loud horn if you are visiting mid day or later in the afternoon when the wine train returns. The operation of the wine train was somewhat controversial when it first was introduced to the Napa Valley. Now it is a well established somewhat iconic presence in the valley, running from the city of Napa to St. Helena. With a perspective on trains coming more so from growing up in Europe rather than the United States, Mike embraced the Wine Train from it’s beginning.
The Wine Train offers an optional stop for it’s guests at Grgich Hills and then continues up to St. Helena. The winery offers an hour tour for these guests which are then picked up when the train heads back south (your call to board is clearly heard with the blast of the train’s horn!).
THE GRGICH GRAPE STOMP
The annual Grgich grape stomp is usually offered from mid/end of August through mid to end of October (timing always changes slightly depending on each year’s actual harvest dates). Grgich Hill is the primary winery in the Napa Valley to offer this – although we are aware of at least one other winery selectively offering this (Sterling). The stomp is held among their small demo vineyard rows in the front of the winery. No appointments are needed for groups of 8 or under and the mornings are recommended because it is usually the least crowded (especially on the weekends). Several barrels of grapes are available – visitors get to slosh around to their heart’s content – posing for photos.
The juice created from the stomping is not used to make wine, rather it is put back into their vineyards as compost. Each guest receives a souvenir glass and a glass of wine to enjoy before or after or perhaps during the stomp. Once your feet are covered in grape juice you clear off the skins and then step onto the back of a white t shirt, effectively leaving a perfect outline (and memory) of your time stomping grapes in the Napa Valley. The t-shirts are then allowed to dry (10-15 mins if its sunny outside).
Over the years Mike has become very well known in Croatia and in neighboring regions; during our visit, we met numerous people who were aware of his success in the Napa Valley (both from our time in Croatia as well as Bosnia & Herzegovina).
In 1995 Mike purchased a building perched above the Adriatic Sea across from the tiny village of Trstenik on the Peljesac Peninsula in Croatia. This building dates from 1947 and was originally built by the military as a resort for their officers and later used by a large firm from Mostrar for a summer getaway for their employees. Mike converted the building into a winery and tasting room and opened in 1996 – called Grgić Vina in Croatia. Grgić Vina is about an hour and 45 minute drive from the Dubrovnik Airport (DBV) along narrow and often very windy roads hugging the Dalmatian coast line. The drive is extremely scenic featuring beautiful bays and rugged coastline as well as small villages and and plenty of restaurants along the way.
The winery produces between 55,000 and 60,000 bottles (4,000 and 5,000 cases of wine) annually focusing on two Croatian varieties, Pošip – a white wine and Plavac Mali a red wine and the only red grape planted on the Peljesac Peninsula used for commercial red wine. Grgić Vina sources the Pošip grapes from the beautiful nearby island of Korčula and some of the Plavac Mali comes from their own several acre steep hillside vineyard located on the slopes directly behind the winery (approximately 6,600 vines are planted here).
The 2018 Grgić Vina Pošip is a light golden color in the glass – highly aromatic offers aromas of citrus blossom and honeysuckle. Noticeable immediately is the feel of the wine on the palate – rounded and slightly creamy in texture, the wine is supple from start to finish. Very clean and balanced with a hint of presumably residual sugar (a slight perceptible sweetness). 13% alcohol.
The 2016 Grgić Vina Plavac Mali shows a unique spiciness on the bouquet with notes of pepper, cigar smoke and a jalapeno pepper like nuance. The aromas are layered. Shows a nice texture on the palate – very noticeable tannins but they are not course or rough – puts forward some grip and lingers with flavor for some time. A slight darker fruit tartness on the finish.
While Grgić Vina does not produce a Zinfandel, the winery played a role in the discovery of this varieties’ pedigree. Mike noticed the similarities between Plavac Mali and Zinfandel and mentioned this to Napa’s own viticulture doctor, Dr. Carole Meredith (who was still teaching at the University of California Davis at the time). With her research and the help of others, in the year 2000 it was proven that Zinfandel was actually Crljenak Kaštelanski, a grape native to Croatia and the parent of Plavac Mali. Carole stayed at the winery during part of her research on Zinfandel’s heritage in Croatia.
In 2015 a devastating wildfire burned all the way to the Adriatic Sea along the way destroying a number of homes in the area and severely damaging Grgić Vina including destroying about 25,000 bottles in their cellar. The winery used to be surrounded by a forest – today all the surrounding trees are gone – slowly to regrow again over the coming decades.
Trstenik is highly worth a stop for lunch or at the very least drinks or ice cream – only about a 2-3 minute drive from Grgić Vina. Several restaurants and cafe’s offer indoor or outdoor seating – overlooking the small bay with its aquamarine and blue waters and overall picturesque scenery. People come to town by bike or car or by boat (popular with sailors and slightly larger boats).
The winery is open for tastings daily of the two current release wines from 9am until 5pm. Tastings of select Grgich Hills Estate wines from Napa Valley are available upon request. A sizable terrace offers exceptional views on clear days overlooking the azure waters below as well as of Trstenik – with chairs and tables outside available weather permitting. The tasting room is popular with independent bicyclists as well as bicycle tour operators – often the winery provides small bites with tastings for small tour groups. Plans eventually call for opening a small hotel and restaurant on site. For more information about Grgić Vina visit: www.grgic-vina.com
ROOTS OF PEACE
Grgich has worked for many years with Roots of Peace, an organization dedicated to removing landmines from war affected countries including his native Croatia. The Roots of Peace Fountain is located at the entrance to the winery. On the 7th anniversary of 9/11, Mike and Roots of Peace founder Heidi Kuhn placed the first coins in this fountain. From then on, all usable coins tossed into the waters are collected and donated to Roots of Peace (their primary focus is to turn minefields into vineyards and or make the land once more productive).
Grgich Hills ships to all 50 states and has some International distribution. For more information about the wines visit, www.grgich.com
Grgić Vina, Croatia Vineyard
Grgić Vina, Croatia Winery & Cellar
Desne Village, Mike Grgich birthplace
Mike Grgich original home, Desne