Miljenko Grgich's life in wine is an object lesson in courageous dedication to a philosophy, supported by empirical evidence, that some wines need no tinkering, and that adhering to old paradigms can create greatness.
As he celebrates his 90th birthday, the diminutive, beret-wearing winemaker everyone calls Mike reflected back on his accomplishments, assessed the acclaim he has rightfully gotten as a dedicated craftsman of chardonnay, and finally called himself little more than a shepherd of great grapes.
He just brings them in from the field and guides them to deliver.
An old Australian saying goes, "To make a great wine, get great grapes and don't trip on the mat." To a degree, it was this philosophy that drove Grgich to, first of all, craft a wine of balance that displayed the great fruit California grew, and then to stick to the style of wine despite pressure to join the forces of evil who transmogrified the grape into a parody of the original.
Grgich has made a wide array of stellar wines in his life, from great cabernet sauvignon to a sublime dessert wine named for his daughter. But it is chardonnay that has defined him since the one he made exactly 40 years ago, 15 years after he came to the United States from his native Croatia.
That wine, the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, ended up winning a blind tasting against famed white Burgundies in a 1976 tasting in Paris that rocketed California and Napa Valley into a vinous spotlight they have never relinquished.
The wine was a crowning achievement for Grgich and Montelena, and it followed the tradition of California's greatest winemaker, Russian expatriate Andre Tchelistcheff, with whom Grgich worked in the 1960s while Tchelistcheff was at Beaulieu Vineyard (BV).
It was at BV that Tchelistcheff and his lab assistant, Joe Heitz, conducted extensive research on bacterial cultures that convert the tart malic acid to the softer, more buttery lactic acid.
The procedure, then considered a spoilage element since it could not be controlled, is called malolactic fermentation (ML). BV under Tchelistcheff never employed the then-controversial practice on its chardonnays. He said the resulting wine would usually turn out to be deficient in acidity.
Grgich adopted Tchelistcheff's philosophy that the best style of chardonnay was one that featured good acidity so it would work with food -- its intended purpose. Mike believed that although ML-treated wine might be softer and more appealing to novices, his style was more valid. Not only that, but that non-ML chardonnays live longer and prosper.
As a proof of that theorem, at a birthday luncheon a week ago at his winery, Mike poured for 40 guests sips of his first California chardonnay, the 1972 Chateau Montelena, and the wine was still vibrantly scented, fresh, un-oxidized, and tasting as if it were 10 years old, not more than 40!
"I never would destroy the malic acid," he said when asked about his penchant for leaving his chardonnay unaffected by the ML process. "Malic acid is an antioxidant, and the wine lives longer" when ML is avoided.
The temptation to do ML fermentation in the 1980s was obvious. ML-rich chardonnays caught on with some consumers since they emphasized butter and oak. And such wines often sold at high prices.
Grgich and a number of older stalwarts instead stuck to their guns and resisted ML for their chardonnays. Among the finest that still do not force their chardonnays to undergo the indignity of ML are Far Niente, Chateau Montelena, Stony Hill, Freemark Abbey, Mayacamas, and others who know that time is on their side.