AWG Correspondent

Mark and Sonja

Grgich Hills Estate Photos

Grgich Hills Estate Review

Regions: Napa Valley AVA, Rutherford AVA, California

Reviewed: March 10, 2016 by Mark and Sonja
Published: May 25, 2016

Forty years ago, the name “Napa Valley” meant little to anyone who wasn’t already living there. To those in the wine industry, it was something of a cute experiment, the residents of the area apparently harboring some vague and unrealistic notion that they could make wine that the rest of the world might be willing to drink from grapes they were growing in orchards originally cleared for plums. But forty years ago this month, that position was reversed almost overnight when in one fell swoop at the famous Judgment of Paris, Napa Valley wines bested French wines in a blind tasting, held in France, and with expert French judges. The winning red was a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon made by Warren Winiarski, his first vintage, while the winning white was a Chardonnay of the same vintage, crafted at Chateau Montelena by Miljenko ‘Mike’ Grgich.

Grgich had arrived in the Napa Valley some eighteen years earlier, an immigrant from Croatia and a refugee from communism. The next in a long line of vintners to bear the family name, Grgich studied the art of making great wine under the masters of the Valley. Then Grgich was offered an opportunity – a limited partnership in the historic Chateau Montelena, if he would agree to make wine. “I learned quality from Souverain Cellars, red wine from André Tchelistcheff and white wine from Robert Mondavi. With all that knowledge I was able to make the 1973 Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena.” Mr. Grgich explained in a recent interview. And so, perhaps by fate, the most famous Chardonnay ever made came to be.

But Grgich soon felt stifled at Chateau Montelena, and his desire for independence drove him to seek out a partner and to found his own winery. He found such a partner in Austin Hills and Mary Lee Strebl of Hills Bros Coffee, and Grgich Hills was born on July 4, 1977, marking the 201st year of American independence from Great Britain, as well as Mr. Grgich’s personal independence and the opportunity to truly spread his wings as an autonomous artist in the budding field of viticulture. Those wings have been widespread and soaring gracefully ever since.

Stepping out of the heavy spring rain and into the Grgich Hills tasting room, I could immediately feel his presence, though in truth he was many miles away, enjoying warmer climes during the months when even the Napa Valley gets chilly. Everything about the quiet, rather confined room seemed personal, and unique. Behind the polished wooden bar, his great-great-niece, Maja, poured our tastings and spoke casually yet knowingly and passionately about the family enterprise, while just across the room Justin Hills poured tastes of their excellent wine for other visitors. Later, Maja’s father, Ivo, who is amongst other things an expert winemaker, stopped by to chat, having been driven from the vineyards by the rain. “Quality wine is very personal,” he explained, gesturing towards massive stacks of oak barrels contained just off the tasting room in a massive chamber. After all, he explained, “Wine are pieces of art.” It quickly became clear that Mr. Grgich’s great nephew takes the same pride in his craft that Mr. Grgich does, and the results are undeniable.

Grgich Hills wine is produced entirely from 366 acres of estate vineyards, all of it cared for under the watchful eyes of family or else a tightknit bunch of close and caring staff, and the wines produced from the fruit of those vines are truly something special. The Chardonnay remains to this day, in my opinion, unparalleled, and was the bottle I selected to take home from our visit. And yet, Grgich Hills Estate is crafting more than just excellent Chardonnay. Their Cabs are big and bold, yet balanced and refined, changing subtly in profile from vintage to vintage depending on the elements. An entire library awaits the adventuresome taster, dating back well over a decade. In addition, other reds, such as a beautiful Merlot, and the incredible late harvest wine “Violetta,” named for Mike’s daughter, are among the delectable offerings. In fact, so far as I observed, the only wine you can’t try in the entire establishment is the one sitting behind the bar with the iconic Golden State Warriors logo etched into the bottle, the lone remaining bottle of the very limited number that Grgich Hills produced in partnership with the Golden State Warriors organization to help them celebrate their NBA championship season last year. (I’m now secretly wondering if a 73-wins wine may one day soon be available, and how I might obtain one.)

Six decades ago, the Napa Valley was little know, and the subject of, at best, hearty skepticism in the world of wine. Then Miljenko Grgich arrived and, in short order, set the world straight. Said Mr. Grgich of his accomplishments: “I’m very proud to have started something from nothing: there is now a winery with my family name on it and now my daughter is part of the long chain of Grgichs who have made wine. I also am proud to be part of American history.”

Where the world of wine would be with the contributions of Mr. Grgich is hard to say, but it’s easy to imagine Highway 29 as a desolate stretch of highway some thirty miles long, running up and down the eastern edge of the Mayacamas, still planted in plums and brimming with untapped potential, had that potential not been tapped, and the power of the valley harnessed by an ambitious and talented immigrant vintner from Croatia.

Today, as the fortieth anniversary of the Judgment of Paris approaches, the world of wine and those of us who inhabit it owe a tremendous debt to Miljenko Grgich, and I can think of no better way to square with that debt, and to experience history, than a visit to the Grgich Hills Estate. There, you’re likely to meet family, fall in love with history, and taste some of the very best wines the Napa Valley has to offer.

Read Mark & Sonja's full interview with Mike Grgich and view historic pictures of his work in the Napa Valley.

Address & Contact Information: 1829 St. Helena Hwy. Rutherford, California 94573. Telephone: 707-963-2784, email:, website: Tasting Hours: 9:30-4:30.

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