CHICAGO WINE JOURNAL: Grgich revisits crowning of Chardonnay king
By Lawrence B. Johnson
It was 35 years ago that Miljenko Grgich, a gifted but as yet little-known winemaker from Croatia, soared to center stage in American viticulture with a stunning triumph at a world-wide Chardonnay competition in Chicago.
Grgich’s 1977 Napa Valley Chardonnay, the first he’d produced under his own name, beat out 220 other Chardonnays from all points on the compass (yes, including France) in the largest single-varietal blind tasting ever held up to that time. Last week, Grgich’s daughter Violet and other representatives of Grigich Hills Estate returned to Chicago for a small commemorative tasting of their library Chardonnays from 1995, 2004 and 2006 as well as three more from the 2012 vintage.
Wine buffs who know their recent history – or anyone who saw the film “Bottle Shock” – may immediately associate the 1980 “Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown,” as it was dubbed, with the watershed event of four years earlier, the so-called Judgment of Paris. That’s when a 1973 Chardonnay from Napa producer Chateau Montelena bested the Burgundians at their own game, to the consternation of the French.
What many people may not know is that the winemaker who turned out that game-changing Chardonnay for Montelena was Miljenko Grigich, who shortly afterward teamed up with investor Austin Hills – he of the Hills Bros. Coffee family — to create Grgich Hills. (Yeah, no, the name has nothing to do with the rolling hills of Napa.)
One further bit of trivia: Before Grgich signed on at Montelena, he worked at Robert Mondavi’s winery. When Mondavi coined the name Fumé Blanc for his Sauvignon Blanc in 1968, Grgich’s fingerprints were on that as well. Today, Grgich labels his own Sauvignon Blanc as Fumé Blanc in honor of Mondavi.
Former Chicago Tribune wine writer Craig Goldwyn, who helped to organize the 1980 Chardonnay tasting, joined in this commemoration and recalled how Grgich’s wine dazzled everyone. When Goldwyn interviewed Grgich, 57 years old at that time, the golden winemaker summed up his craft as the art of “tender loving care, and keeping the wine as natural as possible. I am really a wine-sitter, not a winemaker. I give them a good environment and they develop themselves into good wines.”
Amid much laughter, Goldwyn recalled urging his anything-but-Chardonnay friends to invest $18 in a bottle of Grgich’s newly laureled Chardonnay. Thirty-five years later, he was still shaking his head at the resistance he met.
Grgich, now 92, didn’t make the trip back to Chicago, though according to daughter Violet he’s in pretty robust shape. Father and daughter will preside over a repeat of the Chicago commemoration on May 16 in St. Helena, Calif. And the company has created a special Chardonnay bottling in honor of Grgich’s finest hour.
Between his behind-the-scenes work leading to Montelena’s victory in Paris and his own ascendancy in Chicago just four years later, Grgich came to be known as the King of Chardonnay. The crown still fits, if one is to judge from current as well as older wines poured for this remembrance. A clear, strong arc of continuity linked the now-golden but still-vibrant 1995 Napa Valley Chardonnay with the subtle, honeyed 2004 and the full-bodied 2006.
What sets the Grgich Chardonnays apart as much as anything is the restrained use of oak, much in the tradition of the Chardonnays of Burgundy. The 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($41) showed its lineage of finesse. The killer, though, was the 2012 Miljenko’s Selection Carneros Chardonnay ($65). Available only from the winery – phone (800) 532-3057 – it is a small-production wine of consummate elegance and a perfect expression of what Violet Grgich characterized as her father’s lifelong guiding principle: harmony.