It is perhaps a touch counterintuitive to picture a wine legend in his pajamas, especially when he is sitting across from you, dressed neatly in a blazer and a beret and about to host a tasting honoring his eponymous winery's 30th anniversary in a restaurant whose windows take in much of San Diego Harbor. But that is the image that Mike Grgich presents as emblematic of his career: "I have always been a babysitter -- a wine-sitter. Many times, I've come to the winery by night in my pajamas when the fermentation was going. I would think, 'Tank one might be overflowing,' and I would come to the winery and it would be overflowing. There are some forces you understand that you don't understand why you understand them."
Grgich is not claiming any mystical powers of insight; he's alluding to the wisdom of experience, wisdom gained over a lifetime of being there -- in the winery and in the vineyard. (The "lifetime" part is no exaggeration; at 84, he still approves every wine prior to its release, and as a boy, he stomped grapes at his father's winery in what was then Yugoslavia.) As he puts it, "They say in Napa Valley, 'The best fertilizer for the vineyard is the owner's footsteps.' You've got to be there. You've got to see and make decisions, not just make decisions because of something you hear."
For example: "In 1989, I saved 80 acres of Chardonnay vines in a Carneros vineyard," when phylloxera was ravaging American vines planted to UC Davis's disastrously chosen XR-1 rootstock. "It's because I was there when they were subsoiling the vineyard. I had noticed that they were going down about five feet, and there were two feet of soil, and below that, sand. When I was studying enology at the University of Zagreb, I learned that phylloxera cannot move through sand. Their skin is too sensitive; it hurts their skin. So when I saw phylloxera coming, I stopped watering the vines from above. That forced the root system to go down and search for the water in the sand." And if your root tips are buried in the sand, out of range of the rapacious root louse, you don't have to replant. "We had only two vines die; it's the last vineyard planted to XR-1 in Napa Valley."
For Grgich, experience and attention to particulars are paramount. Speaking with wine writer Robert Benson for the 1977 book Great Winemakers of California, he said, "I consider winemaking to be a combination lock. You have to know every number in order to unlock it. There are many people who know about winemaking, but they miss one number." Speaking today, he says, "You cannot go by books, you cannot go by science, you cannot go by technology -- you have to look at what has been done for eons, and you have to be willing to change every day if you see it is necessary." He characterizes his approach as a fusion between those of two early employers: André Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi. "Tchelistcheff was a scientist -- he came to America from the Pasteur Institute, very much an academic. Robert Mondavi was a dynamo -- one year, he had roto-tanks, the next he had a centrifuge, the next, diatomaceous earth. I came to synthesize out of these styles the most practical approach. That's how I came to be where I am, because I'm learning all the time."
"Practical" means accepting technology where it works -- "I think it's better to control fermentation with technology," Grgich told Benson -- but being careful about its application. "I have an exercise machine. The instructions say how much you can help yourself by proper exercise but also that you can hurt yourself. You can do good, but you can make big mistakes. You have to be more educated, more experienced."
The same can hold true for the sort of anti-technology presented by biodynamics, a system Grgich has embraced wholeheartedly. Still, he says, "You can overdo it. Somebody in France switched to biodynamics and spoiled the wine, because the vines grew too fast -- the clusters and the berries were too big." Grgich explains: after the XR-1 debacle, "There was an opportunity to plant new vines that were resistant to phylloxera and also to viruses." If you go and lavish those plants with loving biodynamic care, you can end up with "grapevines that shoot ten feet tall, that you have to cut down. But you can put the brakes on the growth. It requires more control than before, when the viruses controlled the growth, but we can do it. No irrigation unless it's really necessary." Limiting fertilizer applications. "But you yourself have to develop a feeling for what to do by watching and observing."
Grgich also holds those newer, healthier vines responsible for the surge in overall ripeness of California wines -- sugar levels that can produce "14, 15, 16 percent alcohol in wines." (Such ripeness is that much easier to achieve when you're tweaking things through irrigation and chemical fertilizers.) He is not a fan of the development, largely because he thinks many of those high-alcohol wines don't possess the acid levels they need to stay balanced. Such wines "overpower food instead of complementing it. And acid has to be there -- acid is giving crispness, giving fruitiness. The wine has to have reasonable acid to rinse the palate of the fat from the meat. From the beginning, I was in the middle of the road -- not too high or too low in alcohol, not too high or too low in acid. Balance -- balance produces complex wine. "
Balance became the perennial goal for Grgich, the defining element of his eponymous winery's style. "I never wanted to make Parker-style or Wine Spectator--style wines, because I knew they would change their style. Robert Parker never scored my wines well -- he would describe the wine beautifully, but the score was always low. We believe his time is over. I think people are realizing it was a mistake to make unbalanced wine...There are good wines on the market; people are coming back from the extremes. They're coming back to the elegance of wine, not the power."
Now, "As I'm gracefully maturing -- not aging, maturing -- I feel that my American dream has come true. After 30 years, we are changing our name to Grgich Hills Estate," to signify that the winery now owns all the vineyards that provide it with grapes. "I have my own land, my own vines. We make the wines, we bottle them, we ship them, we sell them. I have a second generation in place: my daughter Violet has taken over the winemaking, and my nephew Ivo is taking my job in the vineyard. Both of them have been with me for over 20 years. And I have made three wines which I know were above average: the '69 Robert Mondavi Cabernet, the '73 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, and the first Chardonnay I made at Grgich Hills." (There is a twinkle in his eye as he says "above average," and it's not hard to guess way -- all three wines were heavily lauded, and the '73 Montelena was the Chardonnay that beat out France's great White Burgundies in the famous Paris Tasting of '76.)
After decades of wine-sitting and vineyard-walking, Grgich is finally "free to go around and see the world" and to host the occasional harborside tasting. "I have accomplished much more than you can find in books," he concludes. "I have accomplished that I am happy with what I have done, and I have made many other people happy, and I have made some good wines."