Chardonnay ain’t what it used to be. Today, among other styles, we have the big, buttery California version that makes many wine lovers go “Ahhh!” Back in 1975, there was basically one model, one standard for excellence—the chardonnays from Burgundy, France. The following year, the status quo got a big kick in the backside.
To celebrate the United States Bicentennial, a tasting was set up in Paris that pitted six California chards against four acclaimed Burgundies. To everyone’s disbelief, especially the French judges, an American winery won. This historic event came to be known as the Judgment of Paris and it lit a fire under the fledgling California wine industry.
And who changed the face of chardonnay that day? Who made that monumental wine that unleashed chardonnay to all corners of the wine world? The chardonnay that came out on top that afternoon in May 1976 was the 1973 Chateau Montelena made by Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, a 50-year-old immigrant from Croatia.
Grgich’s life dramatically changed that day. He had previously won a couple similar tastings, but winning on French soil with French judges sealed it. Grgich became known as the King of Chardonnay. The acclaim that followed the Judgment of Paris allowed him to start his own winery, Grgich Hills—a partnership with Austin Hills of Hills Bros. Coffee—in Rutherford, Calif., the heart of the Napa Valley.
While the Paris tasting was nearly 40 years ago and Grgich was stomping on grapes in his father’s winery in Croatia 88 years ago, Grigich remains active with his winery. He turned 91 on April 1.
Grgich made his historic chardonnay almost single-handedly, these days he has some help. His nephew Ivo Jeramaz makes the wines and his daughter Violet Grgich sells and markets them.
Grgich interrupted a recent trip to Palm Desert, Calif., where he spends most of the winter, to talk about the current state of chardonnay and the seminal 1976 tasting.
“Around the late 1990s, the original, much-loved, dry, elegant chardonnay started to change to higher alcohol that scored high points resulting in the loss of its ‘balance.’ Lately some chardonnay is getting back to its classic, dry and well-balanced style, which is encouraging news.”
If Grgich lacked one thing when he was with Chateau Montelena, where he was a limited partner, it was help.
“One partner sent me his son and the other one sent me his son-in-law, and both had no knowledge in winemaking. As a result of lack of good help in the cellar, I had to use to the maximum my knowledge, experience, love and art of winemaking to make the best chardonnay in the world. I was able to make with my own hands and heart the 1973 chardonnay that beat the best of France.”
Grgich danced a Croatian dance in the middle of the winery when he received the news 38 years ago, but the winemaking icon has reasons to dance once again.
In addition to being part of the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s exhibit FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, which features the extraordinary 1973 chardonnay, Grgich is featured in the recently published The History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin.
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog