As this year’s Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta Honorée of the Year, second-generation Napa Valley vintner Violet Grgich visits Santa Fe at the end of the month to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her family’s Grgich Hills Estate, while hosting wine-tasting events.
Violet is the daughter of Mike Grgich, a Vintners Hall of Fame inductee who famously won the historic 1976 Paris Tasting with his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Born Miljenko Grgić in 1923 into a winemaking family on Croatia’s coastal region of Dalmatia, Mike moved from Croatia to the Napa Valley with a single small suitcase. In Napa, he worked at Beaulieu Vineyard for nine years alongside the legendary Russian winemaker André Tchelistcheff. In 1968, Mike became the winemaker at Napa’s most innovative winery, the Robert Mondavi Winery, where he made his first Cabernet for Mondavi, introducing malolactic fermentation and other methods he had developed at Beaulieu.
In the early ’70s, Mike joined Chateau Montelena as winemaker and limited partner. The results of the aforementioned Paris Tasting simultaneously gave Mike international recognition and helped put Napa Valley on the map as the world-class winegrowing region it has become. And then there was the realization of Mike’s dream to own a winery. He partnered with Austin Hills of the Hills Bros. Coffee family, and created Grgich Hills Cellar, located in Rutherford, the heart of the Napa Valley.
Today, the winemaker’s famous beret, the suitcase he carried to America and a bottle of his 1973 Chardonnay are on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. While many other Napa wineries pursue strategies of expansion, Mike’s vision was to stay small. He retired from winemaking years ago and handed the reigns of the winery to his nephew Ivo Jermaz, who now makes the wines, and his daughter, Violet Grgich, who is the vice president of sales and marketing.
Violet’s passion for wine began at an early age, as she grew up accompanying her father in the vineyards and cellar. She spent her summers at the winery, doing everything from bottling on the line to laboratory analysis and working in the tasting room. Attending the University of California, Davis, Violet earned a BA in music while taking classes in biology, chemistry and enology. In 1988, after she received her Master of Music in harpsichord at Indiana University, she returned home to Grgich Hills to continue her education in the wine business, learning about daily operations of the winery from her father and taking over the day-to-day responsibilities of winery management.
Before her Wednesday-night dinner at Sazón and Thursday seminar and vertical tasting, we wanted to catch up with Violet for some background on the winery, the family and herself. This spring, Violet says, the winery “released an exclusive 40th Anniversary Chardonnay, a wine that embodies the Chardonnay my father, Miljenko ‘Mike’ Grgich, first made for Grgich Hills Estate 40 years ago, and illustrates the advancements we’ve made in vineyard and winemaking techniques over the past four decades.” This, and other estate wines will be featured at the seminar. We can’t wait to visit with Violet and taste the Grgich wines.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
My first winery memory was at Robert Mondavi Winery, going up the rickety wood stairs to the top of the tower where my dad’s office/lab was. I thought I was in a fairy tale castle.
What was it like growing up in Napa Valley?
It seemed normal to me! In those days, it was very quiet. This is before the boom of interest in Napa Valley because of the Paris Tasting, so there were no good restaurants, but it had a very small town feeling. I usually spent the weekends at the wineries where my dad worked. I loved going into the vineyards.
Who were some of your high school classmates in Napa?
Well, people you might have heard of––Lisa Sebastiani, Dan Zepponi, Kara Pecota, Roman Coppola, Nicholas Cage.
What did you learn from your father?
I always remember my father saying: “Every day, do your best, learn something new, and make a friend.” My dad insisted that in order to lead the winery, I needed to work at every single position, starting at the bottom.
When did you start hanging out in the family winery?
Maybe two to three years old. I started out in Robert Mondavi, then my father began working at Chateau Montelena, and then, of course, Grgich Hills. I worked every summer since 1977 with my father and Austin Hills, who founded Grgich Hills.
What were you doing when your dad won the Paris Tasting with his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay?
I’m not exactly sure. Mostly because my father didn’t quite believe it was true, so I didn’t know much about it when it happened. He first didn’t realize the importance to the Napa Valley, but the impact kept increasing over the years.
You’re of Croatian heritage. How does that affect your attitude toward wine?
I was raised as a Croatian, not as an American, in the fact that I’ve had wine every day since I was one year old. Wine was always on the table. When I was younger, it was half water, half wine. Or in the summer I would mix chenin blanc with lemonade. I called it a Grinchy. It was really sour and I loved the Grinch who stole Christmas.
What do you feel is the reason for the huge success of Grgich Hills?
A tiny amount of high-quality wine. But back when we got started in 1977, restaurants weren’t that interested in small wineries. If you couldn’t supply them with a year’s worth of wine, they didn’t want to talk to you. They only wanted to order wine once a year. But today, with a computer in every restaurant, ordering isn’t such an issue. High quality and small volume is all the rage today.
How has Grgich Hills changed since you started managing it in 1988?
We’ve been growing steadily over the years and doing really well. We produce about 60,000 cases of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Fume Blanc, Zinfandel and a sweet, late-harvest wine that’s my namesake––Violetta.
What is your perspective on the evolution of Napa Valley over the past 40 years?
The wine industry has grown but the valley remains green and covered with vineyards. There certainly are more tourists and more residents and more people with tiny brands. But the quality continues to rise.
Do you see more family owned wineries like yours, or do you feel that shifting?
There seems to be less small to medium family owned wineries, because of consolidation, but there are also lots of tiny brands from people who earned wealth elsewhere, and then wanted to get into the wine business.
As for Grgich Hills, we are grounded in great vineyards and family ownership and plan on being here for many generations. Many years ago, we had the opportunity to grow our production to over 95,000 cases, but we decided to focus on making less wine and pursue quality. 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, and those lots are sold bulk to ensure the highest quality in the wines that bear our name.
Is the next generation ready to continue the legacy at Grgich Hills Estate?
You bet––Austin Hills’s son Justin, Ivo’s daughter Maja, and my son Noel.
What will never change at Grgich Hills Estate?
Dedication, passion and hard work are always at the core of the winery’s values. This was passed on from generations of Grgićs in Croatia to my father, who taught every aspect of the wine business to me and Ivo.
If you were to produce wine outside of California where would that be?
We already do! Our Grgić Vina winery is perched on the Dalmatian coastline of Croatia.
What three wines would you recommend to a newbie wine drinker?
Fume Blanc, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Many people who don’t like red wines love our Zin because it’s light, soft, and yet rich with fruit and flavor. Complex, too, but easy drinking!
What wine are you most proud of that your family has produced?
I’m proud of all of them! They are just like my children. If I had to pick one, it would be Chardonnay. It’s truly a varietal that winemaking can transform, and it made Napa Valley famous.
Story by Greg O’Byrne