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Mike Grgich: you can go home again.

High in the literary pantheon of quotables is the chary imprecation from Thomas Wolfe, the oft-quoted title of his 1940 novel You Can't Go Home Again.

In baseball, getting "home" is the goal of the game. Ball players will employ trickery (curve balls), thuggery (scary wooden clubs - think Mark McGwire here) and outright theft (of bases) to achieve victory, to make their way "home."

Home has always been an important concept to Miljenko "Mike" Grgich. And for the longest time, he was fairly certain that he'd never be able to go home again to his beloved, war-ravaged, native Croatia.

"I came to Napa Valley to escape the Communists and to find freedom," says the wily, gnomish winemaker who etched his name in wine legend by fashioning the creamy 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that stunned the French at the famed "Judgment of Paris" in the year of the American hi-centennial. He went on to cement his name permanently in the books by extending his Chardonnay mastery at his own winery in Rutherford, Grgich Hills Cellar, then took dead aim at Cabernet Sauvignon. His 1994 Yountville Selection puts that variety securely into the all-time books as well.

Still, "home" has always been a prime topic of conversation with Mike, as he's known, despite the avid patriotism he brought to his adoptive America. Quick to chide those who failed to recognize the vast opportunity freedom availed and those who lagged in their duty to vote and serve, Grgich seized the opportunities he saw. With the instant success of his opulent, creamy, buttery, apple-rich Grgich Hills Chardonnays, winery production leapfrogged from 30,000 cases in 1985 to twice that a decade later, and 80,000 cases as the century closes.

But the production numbers that really get his juices going are "two thousand cases of each." What's he talking about? He's talking about the new winery he built in 1996 at Trstenik, on the Peljesac peninsula of Croatia (near Dubrovnik), facing Italy. The winery is called Grgic Vina (there's an accent mark over the "c" that gives the "ch" sound). The white wine is Posip and the red is Plavac Mali. Grgich is convinced that the latter is, if not the direct ancestor to the grape we know as Zinfandel, at least the closest of cousins.

"Here, look at the leaves," he says, pulling out two sets of dried grape leaves. "One set is Calistoga Zinfandel, the other is Plavac Mali. I claim no currency as ampelographer," and he laughs. But the leaves do look as if they could be interchanged without distress. "You look at the leaves, and you taste the wines, and they are identical," he says. "Or very, very similar."

Okay, if the leaves aren't proof of themselves, then to the wines. The 1996 Plavac Mali, from Mike's new winery's first release, does echo Zinfandel from beginning to end, with zippy blackberry and raspberry fruitiness, sharply accented by zingy black pepper and sandalwood spiciness that frames and heightens the fruit. "We get fruit from two locations there," Grgich explains. "In one, the tannin is quite like the tannin we see in California Zinfandel, in the other it's a bit softer. The soils are poor, and yields are just two pounds of fruit per vine, so that fruit is quite concentrated and quite intense."

The 1997 Plavac Mali has a similarly zingy blackberry and peppery spiciness, but is obviously younger and less integrated. "You can see the blue color of its youth," Grgich explains. "Actually, Plavac is the Croatian word for 'blue,' and Mali is our word for 'small,' as the berries are rather small. We pick these grapes in October, by hand, and ferment in stainless steel at about 75-80 [degrees] F. The must takes about 15 days, with the natural local yeast, to go dry. We then aged the wine in new French oak - Nevers - for six months before the wine was bottled in June of 1998."

Grgich says that when he began working for the original Souverain Winery (now Burgess Cellars) in 1958, he was taken with the startling similarity of Zinfandel in California to the Plavac Mali he had known from home. "When I was first able to return to Croatia in 1993," he says, "when the Communists had finally been ousted, I took samples of Zinfandel leaves, grape clusters and canes to compare the two varieties. I am convinced that the two are actually the same grape." And, even though the current genetic testing at Davis seems to deny that claim, Grgich just smiles his enigmatic, elfin smile and asks you to taste the wines. The similarities are undeniable, even if an exact DNA match continues to prove elusive. Kinship aside, the Plavac Mall is seriously tasty stuff.

The white ain't bad, either. "Posip is a grape variety that has been grown on the island of Korcula, in the Adriatic, for centuries," says Grgich. "Korcula is the island Marco Polo was born on. Did you know that? Anyway, Posip is unlike anything we have in America, so we're not running any genetic tests on it!"

Again, the 1996 vintage was the first wine produced. The aromatics are enticing, with violets and lime, with a chalky crispness in the finish that voicelessly demands food. "To me, it smells like the Mediterranean flowers," says Grgich. "Lavender, sage, bay leaf. I think it's a great aperitif for fish. It has that good acidity that activates the taste buds. As you say, Where's the food? We picked the '97 a little later because we wanted a little bit more body, a little less acid. The '96 was harvested at 21 [degrees] Brix, the '97 at 22 [degrees] Brix, and the '98 we picked at 21.5 [degrees] Brix. We're still learning the vineyards, kind of juggling to develop a style that reflects the grapes."

As he suggests, the 1997 Posip does have a bit more body, with still that peppermint-crisp tartness and sandalwood spiciness that invites anything from hors d'oeuvres to seafood.

"In the Adriatic, we have the gentle Mistral winds that cool the vineyards in the summer, keep the temperatures uniform so that the fruit can ripen without losing acidity," says Grgich. "We ferment the Posip in stainless steel tanks at 45-50 [degrees] to preserve aroma, then age the wine for about three months in new Limousin barrels for just a kiss of oak."

Grgich sees his return to Croatia as more than just a homecoming. He laughs when he talks about coming home to get his lost diploma, nearly cries when he talks about building his modern winery as a means of teaching and demonstrating how world-class wines can be made in a country that had been politically forced into mediocrity and not caring about quality and achievement.

"When I left in 1958, I left to choose freedom over my diploma at the University of Zagreb. For nearly 40 years, I have been dreaming a thousand times of finishing my studies and earning my diploma. Well, when I returned, and began making wine, I wrote my thesis, my 20-page dissertation on the new means of producing Posip in Croatia." On the 13th day of June 1997, in one of the proudest moments of his then 74 years, Miljenko Grgich was awarded his diploma by the University of Zagreb. (As it happens, both his winemaker at Vina Grgic and his latest assistant at Grgich Hills - grand nephew Ivo Jeramaz, who is part of the winemaking team and oversees winery operations - are Zagreb grads. Try and say that six times quickly.)

It is equally important that his Croatian winery - it sits just 100 feet above the rocky coast of the Adriatic - stand as a beacon to local winemaking that had been stagnating in a Communist backwater for more than four decades.

"The building was once a resort," he says with a smile. "There is a cellar, the winery is on the first floor, there are twelve rooms on the second floor, and we have two apartments on the third floor. I love to sit on one of the balconies in the evening when the moon is near full. The moonlight reflects almost florescently on the water. It is very beautiful.

"We bought the resort in 1995, refurbished it with tile floors, then put in stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. The bladder press has an interesting story. It is the press I used to make the 1973 Chardonnay at Montelena. When I left Montelena, we had just bought two new presses, so I bought the old one and brought it with me to Grgich Hills when we opened in 1977. By the time we were ready to open this winery in Trstenik, we no longer had need of it at Grgich Hills. So this press, she knows how to make good wines!"

He notes that he buys grapes from more than a dozen grape growers in the region. "They are happy to sell to me. The local cooperative doesn't pay. I pay!

"When the Communists lost the election in April of 1990, I went back to visit the president of Croatia. He told me that the economic conditions were very bad, and of course it got a lot worse the next year when the Serbs destroyed half of my country. So I feel that it is important for me to bring my know-how back to my country. I want this new winery - it will probably never make a profit - to be something of a school where young Croatian winemakers can learn how to make wines where quality matters, where they can take advantage of the modern innovations - the air conditioning, the French oak, the stainless steel

tanks, the clean, tiled floors - to enhance the art of winemaking, which they already have some knowledge of."

Mike makes it clear that there is always something to learn. "My father always told me, 'Do today the best you can ... then tomorrow do just a little bit better.' What that means is, you have 365 days each year in which to make 365 little improvements. As you know, Chardonnay is about half of our production at Grgich Hills, but we're always looking for ways to make it just a little bit better. Mostly that happens by trying new clones, by blending from an array of clones - we have seven different clones in our vineyards today - and by always looking for new sites that might just add a little something more complex, more interesting to the blend. That's why we bought new vineyard land in the Carneros and in Jamison Canyon [east of Napa Airport], to add that extra nuance to what was already a pretty good wine."

Grgich has always been stridently against "Private Reserve" designations. "All our wines are Private Reserve," he maintains. "We put everything we have into every wine we make."

That said, he has recently conceded a couple of "Selection" wines. The Chardonnay is a "Carneros Selection," and the 1992 vintage ($50) fairly jumps out of the glass with loads of butter, oak toastiness, and lots of spicy clove, cinnamon and vanillin. As always, no malolactic. "I like malic acid," he contends. "It's apple's acid, it's very fresh. But lactic acid is milk's acid. That's okay for kids, but we're not kids. Fruitiness in a wine is tied to malic acid, and that's why we do not allow Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Zinfandel to undergo malolactic fermentation."

The real jewel, though, is the Grgich Hills 1994 "Yountville Selection" Cabernet Sauvignon ($85), a wine that is already soft, silky and expansive in the mouth, but with loads and layers of cassis, currant, chocolate, blackberry and green olive fruit. "We know exactly what rows we wanted from our Yountville Vineyard, which surrounds my house there. Just the gravely part of the vineyard, where the berries and clusters are smaller and the fruit more concentrated."

At Mike's home. Figures.

[Richard Paul Hinkle of six wine books, Hinkle now offers his writing/editing/thinking/philosophy skills as a consultant for letters, speeches, brochures, newsletters, portfolios and books. He can be reached most quickly at hinklerich@ap.net.]
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Title Annotation:winemaker
Author:Hinkle, Richard Paul
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:2023
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