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Grgić Vina: a winemaking mantra to live by

“Croatia is very important in the lives of the Grgić family”. Violet was speaking from the heart. Despite being born and raised in Napa, she has always considered Croatia her homeland. She was raised with Croatian values, grew up as a Croatian speaker and on a Croatian inspired diet, enjoying wine with dinner as tradition dictates, even from a fairly young age. “I always felt Croatian.”

Violet Grgich (© Grgich Hills Estate)

Filled with emotion to this day, she recounted her experience of visiting Croatia for the first time. She was 16 years of age. As she walked down the steps from the plane to the tarmac, she was not greeted by the picture postcard views of the dazzling Adriatic coastline, but rather by what was back then a very basic and rather ugly airport. Regardless, when her foot touched the ground “something went right through me and I literally had the urge to kiss the ground”. A magnetic pull of sorts, I suggested. “Exactly!” She may have refrained from the urge, largely due to her self-conscious age, but she has never forgotten this moment. The connection was and remains very real.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Violet - President of Grgich Hills Estate and daughter of Napa Valley wine legend Miljenko “Mike” Grgić - last year, in November 2021, as Grgić Vina was celebrating the 25th anniversary of their first vintage. Such was the impact of the Covid pandemic on all our lives, that the anniversary had passed not just uncelebrated, but barely noticed.

Miljenko "Mike" Grgić
Miljenko "Mike" Grgić (© Grgich Hills Estate)

Her father’s story is, of course, well known, but it was a pleasure hearing it from Violet’s perspective. For those less familiar with it, he grew up in the small village of Desne, in Southern Dalmatia, at the time, home to just 200. Passionate about oenology, Mike moved to Zagreb, where he began his studies at the university. With the onset of Communism, and with it the realization that he would not be able to fulfil his professional dreams in his homeland, he made the tough decision to flee Croatia in 1954, and set off for the New World, passing through Germany and Canada en route to his final destination in Napa Valley, California.

Stepping into the vineyard on his first day working with Lee Stuart, the first grapes he saw transported him immediately back to home. “What on earth is Plavac Mali doing here?” He soon discovered that it was not Plavac Mali, but a grape known as Zinfandel with, at that time, unknown European origins. At this moment a seed was sown. A seed that would one day bloom into one of the proudest achievements of his life – the role he played in tracing Zinfandel’s roots back to Croatia: not in fact to Plavac Mali, but to one of its genetic parents, Tribidrag, also known as the tongue twisting Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Success was quick to follow in his footsteps. During his time with Robert Mondavi, his 1969 Cabernet quickly established him on the wine map, and contributed to his move to Chateau Montelena, where the creation of his 1973 Chardonnay would rock the wine world at the now infamous 1976 Judgment of Paris.

1976 Judgment of Paris - Judges Table
The Judges Table at the 1976 Judgment of Paris (© Grgich Hills Estate)

In those days, no one would ever have believed that a wine made in New World Napa, from Chardonnay – the darling grape of Burgundy – could possibly begin to compete with the great wines of that region, let alone beat them all in a blind tasting of the world’s best. The old world wine snob in me can’t help to point out that this New World wine was of course crafted in the hands of an Old World magician, but many would say that is beside the point! Whatever way you look at it one thing was clear - from this moment on, a legend was born.

Miljenko and Austin in the vineyards
Miljenko and Austin (© Grgich Hills Estate)

Hot on the heels of this achievement, he opened his own winery in Napa – Grgich Hills – in partnership with Austin E. Hills of the Hills Brothers coffee family, and things quickly took off. Fast forward almost 50 years and Grgich Hills wines are world famous and in high demand, each and every one of them bearing the red and white Croatian Coat of Arms on its label – a proud testament to the family’s heritage.

So how is it possible then, that the family winery in Croatia, Grgić Vina, remains such a hidden gem? I had to ask the question…

The truth is that “it was never part of the plan”. After arriving in America, Violet’s father never thought he would return home, let alone fulfil his lifelong dream of establishing a winery there. I was fascinated to learn that it was international events, totally out of his control, that drew him back to Croatia – events which, in fact, bring truth to the old adage that good things can come from bad situations.

The impact of Communism on the Balkan region is well known. Violet reinforced this, telling me how it had fundamentally changed Croatia, and how those with strong opinions who had successfully fled, grew wise to keeping their opinions to themselves, as, even in those days, big brother was always watching, and the consequences were real. The Croatian War of Independence (1991 – 1995) brought an end to the rule of Yugoslavia but it came at a high cost, with its devastating toll on the economy, infrastructure, loss of life and the large-scale displacement of refugees. Sadly, things that are all too familiar to us today, with the horrors taking place in Ukraine.

Once the war ended, and Croatia declared independence, Mike felt compelled to return home, not only to see his family but to try to understand what he could do to help the country in its recovery. Quite remarkably, it was a meeting with Franjo Tudjman, then President of Croatia, that provided the spark. This meeting allowed Mike to pose his question directly to the head of state, who simply encouraged him to do in Croatia what he did best overseas. And with that, Grgić Vina was born.

Grgic Vina - Trstenik, Croatia
Grgic Vina - Trstenik, Croatia (© Grgić Vina)

The original concept was to create a winery to assist in educational studies in the field of oenology and allow aspiring winemakers to benefit from his experience. In reality this concept never came to fruition, largely because Croatians typically do not like to be told how to do things! A trait I have witnessed and very much come to love about this proud nation! But what did come to pass was the creation of a winery, born out of a love for wine and country, with, at its core, the Grgić family’s winemaking vision, passion and principles.

The Grgić Family - Miljenko, Violet and Ivo
Miljenko, Violet and Ivo (© Grgich Hills Estate)

Grgić Vina was established in 1996 by Mike, Violet, and Ivo Jeramaz – Mike’s nephew – in Trstenik on the Pelješac peninsula, less than 50km from Mike’s birthplace. Their 2 Croatian wines are made in the Grgich Hills style, with notable commonalities, despite the different varietals. Mike has always had a passion for Plavac Mali, Dalmatia’s flagship red, and he wanted to also produce one white to strike a perfect balance. He chose Pošip which, in his qualified eyes, was a much under-rated varietal. Just like their Napa siblings, the Croatian wines are well balanced, food friendly wines with lively acidity and pronounced elegance.

“Plavac Mali just explodes in the mouth!” I could almost sense Violet’s mouth watering as she recalled the first Chef’s dinner they hosted after bringing their wines to the US, where a braised duck breast with a red raspberry balsamic reduction was served as its partner in crime. “It was the best food and wine pairing experience of my entire life – seamless, elevated and exquisite”. Any takers?

Grgić Vina Pošip and Plavac Mali
Grgić Vina Pošip and Plavac Mali (© Grgić Vina)

She eloquently describes it to me as an immensely food friendly wine with a lot of richness and flavour, with deep, dark berries and a dusty tannic quality. Big and bold, and relate-able to Zinfandel, but at the same time quite unique.

“Our Pošip transports me to sitting on the winery terrace overlooking the Adriatic.” I could see the very spot in Violet’s Zoom background, and I was close to being transported there myself! If you are familiar with Grgich Hills Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, then try to imagine these melded together into a glorious blend. This is how Violet describes their Croatian white: “a wine with crispness and floral aromatics, with a richness à la Chardonnay”. Undoubtedly patio-perfect!

Miljenko "Mike" Grgić
Miljenko "Mike" Grgić (© Grgich Hills Estate)

To say that Violet is proud of her father is an understatement. This pride is by no means just for his immense winemaking achievements but for the ultimate European gentleman that he is, and the impact that he visibly has on those lucky enough to cross paths with him. Today, at the ripe age of 99, his longevity is, and continues to be, a gift to many.

Of the many stories that she shared, one of my favourites speaks to the style of wines from both wineries that wine lovers around the world have the pleasure to enjoy today. Mike’s 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon that established Robert Mondavi winery on the national scene, was made leveraging the very latest in technology and innovation. Technology at that time, was starting to be a driving force in the industry. With this award-winning vintage in hand, Mike got together with some friends for dinner, confident that he would win their ritual wine challenge. When he saw the unfiltered, unfined, terrible looking wine that his friend had brought along, he smiled to himself – there would definitely be no contest tonight. The wines were poured, and the good friends settled in for the evening, telling stories, drinking, and telling more stories, absorbed in the great company and fine fare. It was only after a few hours that Mike realized he had not touched his own wine. The “terrible looking” creation of his friend was so good that he couldn’t stop drinking it: a pure wine, made with the very best grapes, not needing to be reliant on the “benefit” of ground-breaking technology. And just like that, the Grgić wine vision was born – to create wines that people can’t stop drinking and that have the power to cement lifelong friendships.

Now that’s a wine-making mantra to live by.

We are excited to carry both Grgić Vina Pošip and Plavac Mali in our portfolio.

Both are available by the bottle via our web shop, or as part of a unique Grgić Vina gift set.

Grgić Posip - $49.65

Grgić Gift Set - $130.29

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