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

Judgment of Paris Wines: Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap

It seems ironic that on the day of the referendum in Britain, the Judgment of Paris tasting should be revisited in London. To celebrate the famous tasting of 1976—it doesn’t seem like 40 years ago—Chateau Montelena (which won the Chardonnay tasting with its 1973) and Stag’s Leap Winery (which won the red tasting) presented current and older vintages in London.

Today’s Chardonnay from Montelena comes from the Oak Knoll vineyard near the winery, but current winemaker, Matt Crafton revealed that the winning 1973 “was not at all a terroir wine. It came from grapes that were purchased to fit Montelena’s stylistic objectives, sources were all over the place.” Half of the grapes came from Russian River in Sonoma Valley, some came from Calistoga (the hot end of Napa valley), and a small proportion from Oak Knoll. What price terroir if this could beat Meursaults and Puligny Montrachets?

The question in my mind going through the 2001 and 2009 vintages of Montelena’s Chardonnay, three Cabernet Sauvignons from 2013 to 2005, and five vintages of Stag’s Leap SLV vineyard from 2013 to 1983, was whether their origins would be any more obvious in a blind tasting today than they were at the 1976 tasting in Paris. It has always seemed to me that the importance of the Judgment of Paris isn’t at all who “won,” but rather that the French judges were completely unable to distinguish whether the wines were Cabernet-based blends from Bordeaux compared with varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from California, or Chardonnays from Napa compared with Burgundy. That speaks to the success of the winemakers of the time in emulating French style.

SLVToday wines are richer all round, California has found its own style, and often enough the winemakers of Europe are trying to emulate New World richness. I think it’s fair to say that both Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Winery have relatively restrained styles for California: there is not much New World exuberance here. The Montelena Chardonnays remind me a bit of Meursault, but show more body and alcohol. I’m not sure I really see enough interesting development with age–but then with premox cutting off the lifespan of white Burgundy, I don’t very often see it there either. The Cabernets seem to get leaner as they age.

The Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon tasted in Paris in 1976 was the forerunner of today’s single vineyard bottlings. The two famous vineyards are adjacent but different in character. “Fay’s vineyard is softer and more perfumed, more elegant,” says current winemaker Marcus Notaro, “SLV is a bigger wine.” In another era, I might have said that Fay is more feminine and SLV more masculine. Spanning thirty years, the SLV vintages at this week’s tasting showed a common stylistic thread, with slightly spicy, slightly herbal overtones to the fruits. I would say they’re as much in the European tradition as in the New World mold, except that alcohol is higher and there’s a sense of warmth, for me showing as almost exotic fruit flavors, which suggests they don’t come from France. Would I confidently distinguish Fay Vineyard and SLV in a blind tasting with, say, Margaux and Pauillac? I’m not so sure.