Miljenko Grgich’s life in wine is an object lesson in courageous dedication to a philosophy, supported by empirical evidence, that some wines need no tinkering, and that adhering to old paradigms can create greatness.
As he celebrates his 90th birthday, the diminutive, beret-wearing wine maker everyone calls Grgich reflected back on his accomplishments, assessed the acclaim he has rightfully gotten as a dedicated craftsman of chardonnay, and finally called himself little more than a shepherd of great grapes.
He just brings them in from the field and guides them to deliver.
An old Australian saying goes, “To make a great wine, get great grapes and don’t trip on the mat.” To a degree, it was this philosophy that drove Grgich to, first of all, craft a wine of balance that displayed the great fruit California grew, and then to stick to the style of wine despite pressure to join the forces of evil who transmogrified the grape into a parody of the original.
Grgich has made a wide array of stellar wines in his life, from great cabernet to a sublime dessert wine named for his daughter. But it is chardonnay that has defined him since the one he made exactly 40 years ago, 15 years after he came to the United States from his native Croatia.
That wine, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, ended up winning a blind tasting against famed white Burgundies in a 1976 tasting in Paris that rocketed California and Napa Valley into a vinous spotlight they haven’t relinquished.
The wine was a crowning achievement for Grgich and Montelena, and it followed the tradition of California’s greatest wine maker, Russian expatriate Andre Tchelistcheff, with whom Grgich worked in the 1960s while Andre was at Beaulieu Vineyard (BV).
It was at BV that Tchelistcheff and his lab assistant, Joe Heitz, conducted extensive research on bacterial cultures that convert the tart malic acid to the softer, more buttery lactic acid.
The procedure, then considered a spoilage element since it could not be controlled, is called malolactic fermentation (ML). Beaulieu Vineyard under Andre never employed the then-controversial practice on its Chardonnays. Tchelistcheff said the resulting wine would usually be deficient in acidity.
Grgich adopted Tchelistcheff’s philosophy that the best style of chardonnay was one that featured good acidity so it would work with food — its intended purpose. Grgich said he believed that although ML-treated wine might be softer and more appealing to novices, his style was more valid. Not only that, but that non-ML chardonnays live longer and prosper.
As a proof of that theorem, at a birthday luncheon on Monday at his winery, Grgich poured for 40 guests sips of his first California chardonnay, the 1972 Chateau Montelena, and the wine was still vibrantly scented, fresh, un-oxidized, and tasting as if it were 10 years old, not more than 40.
“I never would destroy the malic acid,” he said when asked about his penchant for leaving his chardonnay un-affected by the ML process. “Malic acid is an anti-oxidant, and the wine lives longer” when ML is avoided.
The temptation to do ML in the 1980s was obvious. ML-rich Chardonnays caught on with some consumers since they emphasized butter and oak. And such wines often sold at high prices.
Grgich and a number of older stalwarts instead stuck to their guns and resisted ML for their chardonnays. Among the finest that still do not force their chardonnays to undergo the indignity of ML are Far Niente, Chateau Montelena, Stony Hill, Freemark Abbey, Mayacamas and others who know that time is on their side.
Older bottles of these wines usually show brilliantly, some emulating Burgundian whites. The one drawback: you get this amazing depth and complexity only with bottles that spend years in a cellar.
Grgich has said of his chardonnays at his own Grgich Hills Cellars that they show vitality and complexity with time, yet when they are young, still work nicely as a truly dry alternative to the occasionally dull, soft full-ML styles.
“Acid holds the wine together,” he said, implying that ML-treated wines can be too soft to go with food.
Today, Grgich lives primarily in semi-retirement in Palm Springs, but his nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, and daughter, Violet, run the winery with Grgich sampling tank and barrel samples his nephew sends to him.
And he likes visiting the winery in which he is a joint partner with coffee heir Austin Hills, who was at Grgich’s birthday party and posed before two stylistic bronze busts of them.
At his birthday party, Grgich said he has lived his life primarily “for the two W’s,” which he acknowledged were wine and women. “This is the happiest day of my life,” he said,” and then added as an aside that he has more happy days ahead.
This story has been modified since the original posting.