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The Reds Are Coming : Grgich Hills Now Makes Fine Whites and Cabernets

February 14, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

ON THE 4TH OF JULY,1977, in the Napa Valley, Miljenko (Mike) Grgich and Austin Hills launched their joint-venture winery, today internationally recognized as one of the finest producers of Chardonnay wines in the world. One of 11 children, Mike Grgich (that seemingly difficult-to-spell-and-pronounce name is really rather easy: grr , like a dog growling, and gitch ) was born in Croatia, now Yugoslavia. His father had a vineyard, and all the children helped with the vineyard and the wine making. He migrated to the United States in 1958, heading directly to the Napa Valley.

Several years ago he was sitting on the balcony terrace of his California winery, sipping a golden Chardonnay, lyrically rich and opulent, and looking out across acres of vines reaching to the benchlands of the Mayacamas in Rutherford. "Cabernet Sauvignon has always been my first love," he said. It was late September, 1982, and lugs of those midnight-blue-black grapes were tumbling into the crushes below to become Grgich's third Cabernet. "I was lucky," he said. "My first job was with Lee Stewart at Souverain Cellars." Stewart, a former meatpacker from Chicago, "taught me the pragmatic arts--cleanliness and sanitation." The late Lee Stewart had emphasized red wines and had produced prize-winning vintages of Zinfandel. "And then, for nine years, I worked with Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu. I joined Robert Mondavi in 1969, the year of that famous Cabernet that literally launched his new winery. He taught me the vital meaning of experimentation. In 1972, I moved to Chateau Montelena."

The Chardonnay he made at Montelena in 1973 was awarded first prize by an all-French jury at the 1976 Steven Spurrier tasting in Paris, besting the best of Burgundy.

"When I first came to this country," Grgich said, "I had dreams of finding a small, old winery I might buy, but even then, in the Napa Valley, the prices were beyond my reach. In 1977, I met Austin Hills. His grandfather and uncle were the Hills Bros. of that famous San Francisco coffee, tea and spice house. After graduating Stanford and getting his MBA from Columbia, Austin joined their firm in 1959 as a buyer of coffee beans, in charge of quality control. He planted a vineyard here in 1970, so when Hills Bros. was sold in 1976, he was receptive to a winery idea. We decided to start with Chardonnay and Fume Blanc, which, as white wines, wouldn't need long cellaring. Earlier cash flow. We began our Cabernet making in 1980 . . . small lots again, in 1981, but in this year of 1982, maybe 5,000 cases."

I recently tasted the Grgich Hills Cabernets of 1980, 1981 and the newly released 1982. All have received gold medals from our country's top competitions, the '82 from the 1987 Intervin International competition. All wines have similar rich intensity, with suggestions of black cherries and currants and hints of sandalwood from French and American oak aging. At better wine shops, you may find the Grgich Hills 1982 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for about $17. It is quite drinkable right now, but it will become more regal with five or six more years of aging.

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