Taste the Legacy: Grgich Hills celebrates 40 years of the art of winemaking
On July 4 (America’s Independence Day) in 1977, Mike Grgich and his new partners—Austin Hills and his sister, Mary Lee Strebl, of the Hills Bros coffee family—broke ground for a new winery in Rutherford, in the heart of the Napa Valley. This dusty spot would soon become home to what is now the world-renowned Grgich Hills Estate.
Vintners Hall of Fame inductee Miljenko “Mike” Grgich was born in a tiny village in Croatia, the youngest of 11 children. Mike learned winemaking from his father and then at the University of Zagreb. Growing up during the country’s Communist era, he dreamed of going to America, where he heard he could be free to achieve his dreams. The journey to America took four years, first escaping to West Germany then traveling to Canada. Mike finally arrived in the Napa Valley in 1958, just in time for harvest.
Lee Stewart, the owner of Souverain Cellars, gave Mike the job guarantee he needed in order to get a visa. Mike later went on to work for some of the icons of Napa Valley: first Brother Timothy at Christian Brothers, then André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard, with whom he spent nine years, then Robert Mondavi soon after Mondavi founded his own winery. In 1972, the owners of Chateau Montelena asked Mike to join them as winemaker and limited partner. It was here that Mike first gained international recognition as the result of the celebrated Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976, when the Chardonnay that he had crafted beat the best of France, outscoring all other wines, red or white. Wining the Paris tasting allowed Mike to pursue the dream of owning his own winery when he went into partnership with Austin Hills.
While many wineries buy their grapes from outside sources, Grgich Hills has, over the years, assembled a string of five outstanding vineyards, totaling 366 acres (148ha), running the length of the Napa Valley. Today, all of its wines are labeled “Estate Grown,” guaranteeing a consistently superior level of quality in wines that are lauded for their balance and elegance.
The vineyards and cellar are now managed by Mike’s nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, who also emigrated from Croatia, joining the winery in 1986. Ivo led the shift to organic farming in 2000. Today, every acre is certified organic, with no artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or fungicides. Ivo’s aim is to constantly improve the quality of the vineyards and wines, which display a creative and intuitive touch. “Personality is more important than perfection,” he says. “Every vintage should be different, while at the same time maintaining our heralded style—this is the beauty of wine.”
Today, Mike’s daughter Violet heads up the winery’s sales and marketing. She remembers, “Many years ago, we had the opportunity to grow our production to over 100,000 cases, but we decided instead to downsize to the 70,000 cases we produce now. In our hearts we wanted to pursue quality first, not profits. Today, we use only estate-grown fruit, all of which is grown naturally and sustainably and is certified organic. Not every lot of finished wine makes the cut, though, and those lots are sold bulk to ensure the highest quality in the wines that bear our name.”
Ivo Jeramaz also comments, “Every year we learn something new and combine these present-day ideas with tried-and-true ancient wisdom in the effort to continuously improve our wine growing. We’re pruning our vines to increase the flow of sap into new shoots and invigorate old vineyards. We’re actively decreasing our carbon footprint by storing much more CO2 than we produce. And we’re using only native yeasts, to create wines with more personality!”
A third generation has already joined the winery to continue the legacy, including Austin Hills’s son Justin, Ivo’s daughter Maja, and Violet’s son Noel, all eager to carry Grgich Hills Estate into the next 40 years and beyond.
But some things never change. Violet Grgich adds, “Passion, dedication, and hard work are the core of our values. This was passed on from generations of Grgics in Croatia to my father, who taught every aspect of the wine business to me and Ivo.”
From its legacy, rooted in a tiny vineyard in Croatia, to a historic tasting in Paris, to a family-owned winery in the Napa Valley, the future looks bright for Grgich Hills Estate.
Things to do
Visit Grgich Hills Estate The tasting room is open almost every day of the year and welcomes walk-in visitors, though you will need to book for a private tasting of special wines paired with artisan cheeses.
Ride the Napa Valley Wine Train You can take a trip up and down the Napa Valley in a restored train car, eat a fabulous meal, and visit several wineries along the way, including, of course, the Grgich Hills Estate.
Take a balloon ride This requires an early start but offers the opportunity to see the beautiful valley and its vineyards from a unique perspective.
Take a cooking or wine class The Culinary Institute of America has taken over the former COPIA wine and food center, offering cookery classes and demonstrations, food and wine tastings, and innovative dining.
Tour the Napa Valley by bike The Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition is building a 47-mile (76km) walking and biking trail system to physically, artistically, and culturally connect the entire Napa Valley.