Grgich Hills  
Visiting California's Napa Valley, part 8


Ivo Jeramaz

Grgich Hills was started by Croatian-born winemaker Miljenko Grgić (whose name was anglicised as Mike Grgich when he moved to Canada in the 1950s) in 1977. Mike had previously been winemaker for Robert Mondavi and Château Montelena – indeed, it was Mike who made the famous Château 1973 Montelena Chardonnay that triumphed in the Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976.

I met with Mike’s grandnephew, Ivo Jeramaz, who began working with the winery in 1986 and is now the general manager. Ivo has taken the winery in the direction of biodynamics. ‘Mike grew up in Croatia and worked vineyards with his grandfather,’ says Ivo. ‘It was natural farming, with no chemicals, so he grew up understanding natural farming.’

Cover crop

‘In 2000 I started reading about biodynamics and was interested. I received an invitation from the Benzinger family to attend a seminar with Nicolas Joly. It really opened my eyes.’ So Ivo went to Mike to try to convince him to turn 5 acres over to biodynamics. ‘It took me three minutes to convince him, and instead of 5 acres, he said why not use 20?’ Ivo recalls.

Currently, Grgich have five different vineyards in Napa with 370 acres in all. They started out in Yountville, next to Dominus. The vineyard there, planted in 1959 was dying from virus. There were very low yields and the grapes struggled to ripen. ‘We’d be lucky to get to 22 Brix, and we had pink grapes,’ says Ivo. After three years of biodynamic treatments, the vineyard had rebounded dramatically, and it now makes their most expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. ‘There are fewer red leaves and the vineyard now wants to go to 30 Brix.’

Barrels on an oxo-line system

Ivo says that he cares about organic matter in the vineyard, and that humus in the soil is the crux of farming. They follow the vineyard soils by digging pits, and have seen much better structure in the biodynamically farmed soils.

Virus is a big problem in the Napa. ‘90% of the Napa Valley was replanted in the early 1990s,’ says Ivo. ‘We are only talking 18 years or less and vineyards have been pulled. Thousands of acres every year are pulled. For example, the grower over the road replanted everything on resistant rootstock between 1991 and 1994, and everything is dying. The professors from University of California Davis say that it is leaf roll virus. Why now? Why not 20 years ago? We love to blame bugs.’

Ivo continues: ‘We believe that they are looking in the wrong place. We think the problem is chemical farming. After 10–15 years the vines lose their natural ability to fight pests.’ He adds, ‘The plants can’t be diseased; the soil is diseased. There is no life in the soils.’

‘In Carneros we have a 100 acre vineyard. When we started planting in 1989 we used AXR1 rootstock.’ This was when phylloxera hit vines on this rootstock and so they didn’t fertilize and only irrigated occasionally, in long bursts. The roots grew further and reached sand. In 1992 they interplanted, shortening the cordon and making room for more plants. The expectation was that the AXR1-planted vines would die, but they didn’t. Now this vineyard is 20 years old, producing great Chardonnay. AXR1 is supposed to be dead, but it is still producing. ‘How is that vineyard alive?’ asks Ivo. ‘It is the farming that will determine the health of the plants and how long they live.’

‘We believe that biodynamic farming is the only way forward. Wine can be made like coca cola. That’s OK, but at the same time it can be a piece of art. I believe that wines are pieces of art: something that provokes feelings in you. In order to create that wine the only way forward is biodynamics: this is the only way you can achieve a sense of place and uniqueness.’

He thinks that compost is vital. ‘We make over 2000 tons of compost, using organic cows and straw from Sonoma.’ Three tons are applied per acre per year. ‘As soon as we harvest grapes we put compost in, by ploughing.’ One row is cultivated and the next row is sown to cover crop. It takes 10–11 months to make good compost. According to Ivo, the biodynamic preparations are ‘like seasoning on food: they restore vitality.’ They guide the elements into proper relationship. Grgich grow all the plants necessary and make their own preparations. ‘The peasants of 100 years ago had wisdom.’

‘A challenge in vineyards is that they are a monoculture, so we seed 10 different cover crop species,’ he says. ‘We are combating pests by biodiversity.’ Some of this cover crop, which can be a metre high by March, is ploughed under as a green manure.

‘One intangible benefit of biodynamics is the satisfaction I get from doing this. It has changed my life: it is a hobby, not work,’ says Ivo. ‘It is intuitive farming, just like raising kids.’

What does biodynamics do to the wines? Acidity levels have risen at the same Brix levels. For example, Sauvignon at 14% alcohol has 7.1 g acidity. ’20 years ago we ordered hundreds of pounds of tartaric acid, and had to add 2–3 g/litre to get good acidity. Now we get good acidity.’ He says that in Napa it is impossible to get good Cabernet at 13% alcohol. But he wants to achieve supple, soft tannins without extreme ripeness. Most Cabernets are 15–15.5% alcohol, but he’s found that he can achieve this with a degree less alcohol from biodynamic vineyards.

‘For us, sameness is a sin. We want uniqueness, typicity and a sense of place.’


Grgich Hills Napa Valley Fumé Blanc 2008
Tight and mineral with some reductive notes. Grassy with some herbal character, and a distinctive minerality. 89/100

Grgich Hills Chardonnay 2007
A blend of Carneros and Napa Valley fruit, with no malolactic. Bright fruity nose with a mineral edge and some herby notes. The palate is savoury and nutty with lovely texture and balance. 91/100

Grgich Hills Chardonnay  Carneros Selection 2006
This is a single block with the best clone (Wente), from 20 year old vines. Complex nutty nose with intense notes of peach, pear and figs. Restrained yet rich. The palate is textured with a mineral edge to the bold fruit. Hints of nuttiness. 92/100

Grgich Hills Zinfandel 2006
Intense, berryish nose showing fresh cherry, plum and raspberry notes. The palate shows bright berry fruits with a savoury edge. Restrained and delicious. 88/100

Grgich Hills Merlot 2005
Focused, bright berryish nose. The palate has savoury, spicy, mineral fruit with grippy tannins. A focused, fresh wine with vibrant fruit. 88/100

Grgich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
From Yountville and Rutherford. Nicely assertive, mineral, berryish nose. The palate is juicy and bright with a savoury mineral edge to the fresh berry fruits. 89/100

Grgich Hills Yountville Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
From a 50 year old block. Dense, firm, spicy wine with concentrated blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. Lovely density and savoury tannic structure. A primary wine with real presence. 93/100

Grgich Hills Miljenko’s Old Vines Zinfandel 2006
From 110 year old vines; 15.9% alcohol. Intense, sweet, well defined berry fruit on the nose. Taut and quite complex. The palate has lovely concentration with intense red fruits and some spicy structure. Carries the high alcohol well. 92/100

Grgich Hills Miljenko’s Vineyard Petite Syrah 2005
14.9% alcohol. Powerful and intense with dense, firm tannic fruit. It’s amazingly tannic with firm structure and lovely red and black fruits. 92/100


Photos from Napa Valley
Part 1, Cain
Part 2, Schramsberg

Part 3, Corison

Part 4, Saintsbury
Part 5, Lagier Meredith
Part 6, Trefethen
Part 7, Trinchero
Part 8, Grgich Hills
Part 9, Cakebread

Wines tasted as 11/09  
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