Revisiting the 1980 Grgich Hills Taste-off


Miljenko “Mike” Grgich surveying his vineyards

Maybe you read the book about the tasting, written by the same eyewitness from thirty-plus years ago.  Or you saw the movie, which created composite characters and left some actual key players out of the story.  If you’re a certain age, you may remember the original Time article from 1976 describing the tasting often thought by oenophiles as the turning point in American wine.

But did you know that the winemaker who created that winning Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena at that iconic Paris showdown, actually defended his title at another taste-off four years later with a wine under his own name?  Right here in Chicago?

That was the event commemorated May 8 at a luncheon at Seven Lions.  Violet Grgich, daughter of founder Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, and currently Vice President of Sales and Marketing of Grgich Hills Estate, led us through a flight of their Chardonnays dating back to 1995.  The author of a Chicago Tribune article about the event, Craig Goldwyn, also shared his reflections.

Unlike the Paris tasting, where various Cabernet Sauvignons were also judged, the Chicago event was about Chardonnay only.  According to Mr. Goldwyn’s account, this tasting was to determine the best Chardonnay available in the Chicago market in the fall of 1980.  221 wines were represented in the taste-off, blindly tasted by twenty-five judges who were split into teams representing six different price points.


Grgich - Violet and Craig

Mr Grgich could not attend in person, but he was certainly there in spirit (standing with Violet Grgich and journalist Craig Goldwyn)

The Grgich Hills – 1977 Sonoma Chardonnay was declared the winner out of nineteen finalists culled from the initial tasting.  It’s price in 1980?  A almost-affordable $18.00!



Violet Grgich, speaking May 8, at Chicago’s “Croatian American Day”

Grgich - Me and the Wines

Your humble blogger studying the wines; so many different shades of yellow spanning twenty years!















While reading some press clips Mr. Goldwyn shared, I was surprised that the most expensive group of wines in competition started at only $19.50!  He also remarked that Grgich wines may now be even more “strictly allocated than Genentech stock” (I had to Google it too).  He also quoted one anonymous judge who opined about an unnamed wine “If I want to taste that much oak, I’ll go out and chew a door!”  The more things change . . .

And Ken Morris, the Communications and Marketing Manager for Grgich Hills emailed me after the tasting with more feedback on that Bottle Shock movie.  Remember the scene where the finished wine turned brown just before sending it to France?  Mr. Grgich said the wine was fine right out of the gate and the color change that gave the movie its title never happened!

Although Mr. Grgich himself could not attend the luncheon, he was kind enough to answer some questions through email about this milestone in his winemaking history:

After you won the 1976 French tasting, did your business change overnight, or did it take time for word to get out about your achievement?

After the 1976 Paris Tasting I decided to go on my own and I partnered with Mr. Austin Hills to open our own winery and named it Grgich Hills Cellar. I continued to make wine in the same style that I had done at Chateau Montelena and proof of that is that the first vintage of the Chardonnay we made at Grgich Hills Cellar entered the Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown. That event was the world’s largest Tasting of one variety – 221 Chardonnays from around the world. The 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay was the champion of the competition.

Were you all apprehensive to enter your wines in another taste-off, albeit this time on home court? 

I was happy to enter my wine in the Great Chicago Chardonnay Showdown. I also submitted our first vintage, the 1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay, in the 1980 Orange County Fair and it received a Gold Medal – the highest Award given at that time.

Thirty-plus years later, how does your winery continue to challenge itself to reach for greatness, rather than just reflect on its past history?

As I am still alive and remain actively involved with the winery, Grgich Hills Estate still continues to carry on the Mike Grgich style from the 1970s and 1980s – elegant, food-friendly wines that have consistency, balance and longevity.

We continue to strive to make great wines: that prompted us to begin buying our vineyards and by 2003 we were completely estate grown and all the vineyards are certified organic. We do not use any artificial pesticides or herbicides. This guarantees the quality of grapes.

We’ve also added new wines that we didn’t offer 30 years ago. You tasted the first vintage of the Miljenko’s Selection Chardonnay, the 2012 and the just-released 2012 Paris Tasting Commemorative Chardonnay. A few years ago we introduced our Essence of Napa Valley, a Sauvignon Blanc that we feel captures the true nature, the essence of our Sauvignon Blanc.

We also bottle a Petite Sirah from Calistoga and a Petit Verdot from our Yountville Vineyard and a single vineyard 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from our Rutherford Vineyard.

So, you can see, we have not rested on our accomplishments. We are always trying to craft the best wine in the world: we haven’t done it yet but that is our goal!


Interview – Erica Sandner of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Wine Auction

Happy new year!  It’s been a long time since I have written here.  Plenty going on my world; starting a new weekly video about wine, studying hard (as always) for my #Certified, and giving love to my baby sister blog, Still Searching For My First Growth.




Lyric Opera - On Stage


But Chicago Pinot is where info about Chicago wine people and events goes first, and I have an interview today with Erica Sandner, Chairman of the upcoming Lyric Opera of Chicago wine auction.  Ms. Sandner takes me backstage to describe the logistics in planning such a gala, and how you can participate in the auction even if unable to attend.




Lyric Opera - Place SettingYou can play the interview, which is linked to my public Google folder, here.  I’ll be volunteering at the event next Saturday, so please say hello if you see me.  And best of luck with your bidding!





Lyric Opera - Sizing up the Lots

Lyric Opera – 2015 Auction Catalog

Interview with Greg Gauthier of Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros

Bouchaine and Me #2

“Boring winemaker equals boring wine.”

Last month, I had the pleasure of tasting the wines of Bouchaine Vineyards in the company of Greg Gauthier, the winery’s Vice President of Wine Production & Sales.  We met at River North establishment ZED 451 on a busy Friday night, where arguably, the dim mood and pumping music made it hard to concentrate on what we were tasting.  But Mr. Gauthier, anything but boring, really helped each of us tune out our surroundings and focus simply on what was in the glass.Bouchaine - Pinot Noir

Any question asked, by myself, or one of the restaurant’s guests, could inspire an extended, quite opinionated response from Gauthier.  He passionately dismissed the use of Stelvin closures, sang the praises of 100 % Pinot Meunier or immediately pouring the same Chardonnay into two different sized/shaped glasses, just to observe my eyes when I discovered, “yes, the glassware does make a difference”, he is an ambassador for California wine, and someone always looking for new challenges (he seemed almost wistful when discussing Syrah – “It could have been it’s own thing in California”).

Gauthier grew up in Chicago and has stints with Rodney Strong Vineyards, Sutter Home and Sebastiani Vineyards.  Currently he wears two hats for Bouchaine; Vice President of Wine Production and Sales, and Wine Production Advisor.  He also bottles under his own name; from plots in Carneros, Yountville and Sonoma Coast; you can check out his website here.


Bouchaine - Chardonnay



Bouchaine - Pinot Meunier

You can access my interview with Mr. Gauthier from two different places:

My Google Drive link here:

and my Dropbox link here:

Please email me at if you have trouble accessing or listening to the audio!

Video Vault Interview – Steve Fennell of Sanford Winery & Vineyards

On April 18, I had the pleasure of accepting an invitation from Two Restaurant and Bar in the West Loop, to taste the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Sanford Winery & Vineyards and meet winemaker Steve Fennell.

The picture is obviously a little dim, but hopefully you can hear it all OK. Please click the link below!

Sanford - Three Pinots









Sanford - SRA 2009 Pinot Noir

Sanford - SRA 2010 in Glass













Video Vault Interview – with Lisa Hallgren of Ravines Wine Cellars

Finger Lakes Map.jpg

The Finger Lakes of Upper New York State. Ravines Wine Cellars owns property adjacent to Seneca and Keuka Lakes.

View of Ravines from Keuka Lake.jpg

The view of Ravines from Keuka Lake.

Over the next few weeks, both here and on my Little Sister blog, I will be posting some videos previously seen only on YouTube.  This first one is an interview with Lisa Hallgren, winemaker at Ravines Wine Cellars, in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.  We tasted her wines at Sips on Sherman, the former WineStyles located just north of Chicago, in Evanston.  The Finger Lakes region is especially strong on Riesling and Cabernet Franc, Ms. Hallgren makes wine from these varieties along with Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir. You can watch the video at my link here.


Ravines - 2010 Chardonnay.jpg

2010 was a very warm vintage for the Finger Lakes.  There’s only 10 percent new oak added, the creamy texture comes from the lees stirring.  Lots of melon, ripe pear and toast.



Ravines - 2012 Dry Riesling.jpg

Walking through the ravines of upper New York State:  “You can smell the wet stone”; it really comes out on this Riesling.



Ravines - 2010 Keuka Village.jpg

A warm, humid vintage; definitely picked up the walnut and manderin orange on this one.  Definitely picked up on the botrysized fruit!

Meet Brand Ambassador Lacey Burke of Ruinart

ruinart-blanc-de-blancs-brut-champagne-france-10568626LaceyBurke_791Inline image 1


In this week’s interview, Lacey Burke, U.S. Brand Ambassador for Ruinart, discusses the legendary Champagne house.  Ms. Burke worked in the restaurant business for over ten years, including sommelier positions in a few of NYC’s finest establishments including Grayz, Del Posto and Gotham Bar and Grill. In addition to working the floor as a sommelier, she also conducted educational seminars for private clients, and participated in tasting panels for Wine & Spirits magazine, and Eric Asimov’s New York Times column.


How and when did Ruinart begin and how has its style evolved over the generations?

Ruinart was founded in 1729 and although they have adjusted their winemaking techniques with the times, have always remained a house focused on fresh, elegant Champagne.

What is unique about its vineyard(s), soils, etc., compared to other Champagne houses?

We are known for our Blanc de Blancs, which is a very rare style of Champagne, since Chardonnay represents only about 30% Champagne vineyards. Over 55% of our supply is Chardonnay and a majority of our Chardonnay comes from Premiers Crus and Grands Crus vineyards.

What current styles does Ruinart make?  Are they all available in Chicago (any exclusive to restaurants?)

In the US you’ll find our NV Blanc de Blancs, Rose and vintage Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and Dom Ruinart rosé.

Do you produce vintage Champagnes every year?  What are some of the most memorable vintages for Ruinart?

We only produce vintage Champagnes in years that are not only great, but great for Chardonnay. 2002 is showing particularly well right now!

I have to ask, what happened in 2013?  How devastating were the storms in Champagne to the vineyards?

Growing vines in 2013 was no easy task in France as many wine regions got hit by poor weather conditions, hail, diseases, resulting in sometimes devastating results in terms of crop size and quality. But Champagne remained largely unscathed, thanks to a perfect summer and a equally nice fall.  And despite the unusually late harvest, the wines, especially those made from chardonnay, are very promising, according to our Chef de Caves. There might even be a 2013 Ruinart vintage!

Now let’s talk about you for a moment.  How does one prepare to take on the role of brand ambassador for such a famous brand?  What are the roles you take on to promote Ruinart?

I spent about five years as a sommelier in two of the best New York City fine dining restaurants. My passion and knowledge for Champagne grew in these environments. I focus on education, consumer tastings, staff trainings and events to create awareness and excitement about Ruinart.

Have you discovered any unique pairings with Ruinart Champagnes?

I tend to lean towards classic pairings, but some personal favorites are sushi and Asian cuisine in general, and of course, French fries! A specific paring I particularly liked, was a beautiful duck confit cassoulet by Michelle Bernstein, with our 1998 Dom Ruinart rose’. I wasn’t sure if it could stand up to such a rich dish, but the results were phenomenal!

​Thank you for those great answers, Ms. Burke!  And good luck to all sommeliers in the Chicago edition of the Ruinart Challenge, taking place May 13 here in Chicago – someone will win a trip to Champagne (can you take me with you?)