Napa Diary Day 11: From Europe to Napa at Grgich

“Everything is understated at Grgich, which is not necessarily the most popular style,” Ivo Jeramaz says. Ivo is Mike Grgich’s nephew, and came from Croatia to join his uncle when Mike set up his own winery in 1977. “What kind of wine do we want to make?” Ivo asks. “We want authentic wine… We are European, we believe in terroir not winemaking; winemakers are not artists. Of course, we have to be skillful, not to spoil the grapes, we like to say we raise our wines rather than make them.”

How have things changed at Grgich since I last visited, I asked. “The biggest change of my career was seeing the effects of regenerative farming. We’ve been organic for 20 years and became biodynamic in 2003, and we switched to regenerative farming in 2019. A major difference between organic and regenerative farming is not tilling the soil. I am fascinated by the microbes in the soil. Tilling means the microbes get killed by surface heat.” It’s too early to see all the effects, but Ivo says that already it’s been possible to reduce spraying for mildew by half.

In each of the major varieties, Grgich makes a range of styles. Essence is a top Sauvignon Blanc, made conventionally by whole cluster pressing, fermented in stainless steel, and then aged in neutral foudres. Skin Fermented is a new approach, treating the grapes like red wine winemaking, with fermentation including the skins (like an orange wine, but with maceration not long enough to get orange-like effects); the first vintage is about to be released. Essence is flavorful and the skin fermentation adds the sort of richness usually associated with barrel fermentation and new oak, but without the impressions of oak. 

“I judge Chardonnay on its minerality,” Ivo says, but he is a good enough winemaker to produce Chardonnay from Carneros, aged in neutral foudres resulting in a leaner style tending to salinity, as well as the Paris Commemorative Tasting Chardonnay from Napa, which is an attempt to reproduce the style of wine that Mike Grgich made at Château Montelena that won the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. This is fat, rich, and buttery, showing the use of new barriques. Chardonnay has become more precise since Ivo eliminated use of sulfur before fermentation and allows the phenols to oxidize. “They drop out and this reduces bitterness” he says.

“I would like our Cabernet to have more polished tannins,” Ivo says, and he has switched from racking the wine off immediately after malolactic fermentation to leaving it in the same barrel for 6 months before racking. The longer contact with the lees makes for more refined tannins. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Yountville, Rutherford, and Calistoga, including small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and has an approachable style with the slightly lifted aromatics that are typical of Napa. The Rutherford Cabernet is 100% varietal from the vineyard at the winery.

Grgich has a 25 acre vineyard in Yountville that has some of the oldest Cabernet in Napa, consisting of the Inglenook clone planted on St. George rootstock in 1959. This makes the Yountville Old Vines cuvée, a dark, brooding wine that is a real vin de garde; it may need several years to come around, but it gives the impression it will last for ever.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting Notes

Sauvignon Blanc

2020  Napa Valley Skin Fermented
Quite a reduced nose. Rich impression on palate with powerful sense of granular texture, more viscosity than Essence. Palate inclines to stone fruits. 92 Drink -2025

2019 Napa Valley Essence

Faintly reduced nose. Palate is full of flavor, more stone fruits than citrus (with some apricot impressions), very smooth on palate, faint sense of bitterness lends support on finish.    91 Drink -2025

2013 Napa Valley Essence
Faintly nutty notes have developed with age and the palate is richer than the current vintage. but the wine has stayed fresh. Fruits are mature moving towards beeswax (giving something of the impression you get from some Semillon, even though this is100% Sauvignon Blanc). Certainly makes Ivo’s point that Sauvignon Blanc can age.    91 Drink -2023

Chardonnay

2018 Carneros (Miljenkos Selection)
Lean style is quite Burgundian, with good acidity enhancing sense of salinity. The salinity has refreshing more-ish quality. Plays to elegance rather than power.    90 Drink -2027

2018 Napa Valley 
Label says Napa but Ivo says the grapes come from Carneros. Sweet ripe impressions with typical viscosity of Carneros. Good acidity with a touch of lime and a hint of exotic fruits. The ripe fruit character is certainly Napa but it’s not overblown. I suspect the exotic notes will take over with aging. 14.1%   Napa21 89 Drink -2025

2018 Napa (Paris Tasting Commemorative)
Restrained nose. Palate shows its acidity on opening. Rich fat style with impression that development will start quite soon. Already shows some faintly nutty impressions.    89 Drink -2024

2014 Carneros (Miljenkos Selection)
More restrained nose and an altogether leaner style than the Paris Napa cuvee. More a sense of salinity than minerality to the palate, still fresh, with lots of flavor variety, and still time to go. 14.1%    91 Drink -2023

2014 Napa (Paris Tasting Commemorative)
This has a typically Napa texture, fat and buttery, and you can see the effects of aging in barriques with some new oak, although the oak is no longer not directly obvious. The nose becomes a little nutty as it develops in the glass. Hints of tertiary notes on the palate suggest it is time to drink up. It’s a bit obvious. 14.1%    89 Drink -2021

Cabernet Sauvignon

2016  Yountville Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon

Round ripe black fruit nose with hint of piquancy. Deep intense blackberry palate with brambly fruits showing good freshness, and some bitter aromatics at the end. This really needs time for the tannins to resolve.    92 Drink 2026-2041

2013 Yountville Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon
Reserved nose with smoky notes on top of black fruits. Has softened only marginally by comparison with 2016 (although this vintage had the highest IPT ever recorded). Tannins are still suppressing the fruits on the palate, but you can see the intensity behind. Actually the palate is relatively soft with a long aftertaste, but the finish is still a bit bitter. Still a few years off being ready.    92 Drink 2024-2039

2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Faintly smoky notes and some mineral overtones on nose lead into brambly blackberry fruits. Nice sense of freshness with lifted aromatics showing black fruits tending towards cassis.   91 Drink -2030

2009  Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Softer impression to the nose than 2010, with minerality pushed more in the background. Smooth, ripe, and round on palate with soft viscous impression on finish. Not so aromatically lifted on palate, although fruits still in direction of blackcurrants.   91 Drink -2031

The Reality of Appellations in Napa

In Napa for the Barrel Auction this weekend, I spent Friday afternoon at a series of tasting events organized by the producers of several AVAs. My objective was to determine whether I could see any specificity to Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the  top three appellations of the valley floor: Rutherford, Oakville, and Stags Leap.

The Rutherford Dust group of producers takes its name from the supposed quality of Rutherford: a dusty note in the wines. Whether this is real or is a marketing ploy has been long debated. “The tannins of wines from Rutherford give the sensation you get by running your hand backwards along velvet,” was a description by one producer. Things started out well at the Rutherford Dust group tasting. The first three wines, Alpha Omega 2009, Faust 2009, and Grgich 2008 all showed a similar quality to their tannins. I would not describe it as dusty, more as a sort of slightly sharp tang to the tannins on the finish, but it was a distinctive tannic grip. Then inevitably came some wines to spoil the pattern, Hall Excellenz 2005 (massive tannins), Flora Springs Trilogy (tight and elegant), and then Rubicon Estate 2008 (firm and furry). But with the exception of Peju 2008 and 2001, whose wines were distinctly more aromatic than the others, there was a commonality, with firm tannins giving the wines a classic impression across several vintages.

Things also started well in Oakville, where the first few wines all seems to fit a pattern where taut black fruits were supported by fine grained tannins that reinforced the impression of elegance. Nickel and Nickel’s Branding Iron and Sullenger Vineyard 2008s, Ghost Block Estate 2009, Kelleher 2007, Far Niente 2009 all supported a view that Oakville plays St. Julien to Rutherford’s version of Pauillac. Bond St. Eden 2006 was much more reserved, but generally conformed to the elegant style.But then Harbison 2009, Plumpjack Estate 2009, and Paradigm 2008 all displayed a much softer style, with more overt, opulent black fruit aromatics extending from blackcurrants to cassis.

In Stags Leap District I got much less impression of consistency. Several wines were very soft, forward, and approachable, with soft black fruits on the palate, supported by nuts and vanillin on the finish, with tannins noticeable only as a soft, furry presence in the background. Clif Lede Poetry 2009 and 2004, Stags Leap SLV 2008 and 1997, Pine Ridge 2008 were nice enough wines if you would like something to drink in the immediate term, but I was left wondering how it represents Cabernet typicity as opposed to Merlot or Syrah to make wines that are so fruit-forward and lacking in tannic structure. Shafer One Point Five 2009 showed Shafer’s usual ripe, aromatic style, while Clos du Val 2007 and 1997 showed a more traditional approach, with good acidity supporting firm fruits and the tannins showing a structure halfway between the Rutherford grip and Oakville precision.

Where am I left? There may be a typicity that distinguishes the tannins of Rutherford and Oakville if you let it express itself; I reserve judgment about Stags Leap. In any of these appellations, however, you can make soft, forward, fruity, wines with lots of nutty vanillin to bump up the appeal, using appropriate winemaking techniques. Caveat terroir.