Winemaker still savors Judgment of Paris

Mike Grgich's 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay helped turn the wine world on its head by winning the famed Judgment of Paris, in which a panel of predominantly French wine judges did the unthinkable by scoring California wines over their own. It was an event so earthshaking they made a movie out of it in 2008 called "Bottle Shock."

But Grgich insists he wasn't at all surprised, for one simple reason: "We knew how good the wine was."

If there is one thing the 90-year-old winemaker, a member of the Vintner's Hall of Fame, has going for him, it's self-confidence. And you can believe he's needed every bit of it.

Grgich arrived in the Napa Valley in 1958, barely speaking English and with $32 hidden in his shoe. That was when the area was better known for prunes, walnuts and cattle than for wine. Things have certainly changed, and Grgich is one of a handful of men who helped make things change.

He's one of the last living links to the birth of modern American wine, having worked with legends such as Lee Stewart, Robert Mondavi and the great Andre Tchelistcheff.

But it's that 1973 Montelena for which Grgich will be most remembered, the one that won out over some of the biggest names in French wine: Meursault-Charmes, Beaune "Clos des Mouches," Batard-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.

Just like he knew it would.

"You see, in 1975 we had had a competition where we tasted 22 chardonnays, and we took first place in that, even with four French chardonnays," recalled Grgich, still active and bright-eyed beneath his trademark beret. "Now that was such a great feeling, and that was even before Paris.

"Then a little later we had a British wine writer come in, and he tasted the 1973 chardonnay in barrels. I still remember: I put some wine in his glass, he took a sip and swirled it around in his mouth. Then he looked at the glass very seriously, then he looked at me, then he looked at the wine again. Then he told me, 'Never in my life have I tasted such a chardonnay, even in France.'

"So I knew that we were making very good wine."

Unfortunately, that very good wine ended up leaving a very sour taste in his mouth. He fell out with Montelena owner Jim Barrett over who got credit for it. When the Copia wine museum staged a re-enactment of the historic tasting, Barrett insisted that either he or Grgich could be present, but not both. They went with the owner. Along the same lines, Grgich was written out of "Bottle Shock" while Barrett was played by Bill Pullman.

No matter, the win also was enough to encourage Austin Hills, of the Hills Brothers Coffee family, to offer to back Grgich in his own winery, which opened in 1977. He's still helping make wine today, at Grgich Hills Estate, along with his daughter Violet Grgich and his nephew Ivo Jeramaz.

And his chardonnay is still among the best in the valley. It is made in a very traditional style — with crisp acidity and low alcohol — but with very modern concerns: Not only are all of his grapes grown organically, but they're also biodynamic.

"I always say, from my vineyard to your glass, naturally," he says. "We add nothing to the wine and we take nothing from the wine."

And then with a twinkle in his eye he leans in, "The other thing I always say? There are only two things important in life: wine and women. And every day!"


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