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

Event Preview – #Rueda Tasting June 12

I hope to meet many of you at this Thursday’s event celebrating the wines of the Rueda region of Spain!  It takes place this Thursday, June 12, at 6:00 p.m. at the Blue Star Wine Bar in West Town.  You can click the link below for tickets:

Rueda is located in North-Central Spain and is one of the nine DO’s (Denomination of Origin) of Castilla y Leon and the first one established in this region, in 1980.  The prominent grapes grown there are Verdejo, Viura and Sauvignon Blanc (there is also Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Garnacha planted here, but white plantings are dominant).

There is a spicy (think white pepper) and walnut flavor to these wines, based on the samples I tried this past weekend along with a grainy, almost pine-like texture.  The creamy but not too runny cheeses I paired with these wines brought out the flavors of both the wines and the cheeses.

Please say hello if you see me at the event or leave a comment below if you have any favorites from this region of Spain!  And check this website out for more information on Rueda:

100% Viura







Monte Enebro #2

The description of the cheese I paired my Verdejo (pictured above) at Bin 36.

Much More Golden!

The Finca Antigua, which I tasted at Bin 36 – 100% Viura and much darker in color than the 100% Verdejo I tasted at home.












Chicken Salad and 100% Verdejo

The salty, slightly vinegar-y potato chips definitely matched well with this Rueda wine; a 100% Verdejo.

My Certified Sommelier Experience – A First Growth Day

This is my dream.  You have to pass a three part exam to earn it.  One day I hope to wear this on my suit lapel while serving you a fine bottle!

This is my dream. You have to pass a three part exam to earn it. One day I hope to wear this on my suit lapel while serving you a fine bottle!

I am writing this the day of my niece’s graduation.  Such a special moment for Sonia!  She has worked very hard for today’s moment.  You could call this a First Growth Day for her; we all have days that mark special life milestones.  A graduation, a wedding, the first day of a new job; all events that allow us to celebrate, to reflect, to learn.

On June 2, I experienced a special day; my first attempt at the Certified Sommelier exam offered by the Court of Master Sommeliers.  This is the second in the series of four exams recognized by wine industry and restaurant professionals throughout the world.

I took my Level I (Introductory) course and exam last fall in Kentucky.  The Level I involves two days of lectures followed by a seventy question multiple choice exam.

Level I is basically a gift.  If you have read a comprehensive wine overview book before the class or highlight the PDF course guide the Court emails you before the class, you should easily pass Level I.

Level II is where the wine studying gets more intense.

Each of the three exams following Level I follow the same format:

Theory:  Multiple choice and short answer and matching questions (which is done orally at Level IV – Master Sommelier Exam).

Blind Tasting:  One red and one white at Level II; Three reds and three whites at Level III and IV (where you are reciting your analysis out loud, while being timed).

Service:  A twelve minute role play where you have to open a bottle of still or (more likely) sparkling wine, pour the contents into flutes on a wine tray and serve it to a Master Sommelier and his/her (imaginary) guests while being asked the most esoteric questions about food and wine pairing, cocktails, wine recommendations, etc.

Over the past year, I have been developing my tasting skills through a weekly study group (thank you Kendall College for hosting!)  And from my participation in WSET (a similar wine credentialing program that is very thorough, but de-emphasizes wine service), I was familiar with the types of questions that the Theory portion would include.

But I knew One Section of my test could keep me from achieving my Sommelier Dream.  The Tray.

Me and My Tray

Practicing with My Tray ($3.99 at Brown Elephant!)

I started to study wine store catalogs like the fancy one that Sherry-Lehmann puts out at Christmas (nice to know hard copy isn’t completely dead.)  You are expected to make wine recommendations at your Service exam and they should include name and location of the wine, the vintage, and why you believe in your choice.

And a couple of great friends who have already passed their Certified Exam offered their time to coach me and role play just like at the Real Thing.




You are asked to arrive at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Columbus, Ohio, by eight a.m.  Registration starts once there are about half a dozen of us tensely waiting.

There are only fourteen of us.  Nine guys, five women.  This is a much smaller group than typical for a Level II exam.  Perhaps many area wine students who thought they were prepared, took the Level II offered last February in Chicago.

(A quick word about the women at our test.  They all looked so sharp; they took the Court’s dress code very seriously.  Their suits were pressed, every hair was in place; just having them in the room forced you to bring your “A” game!)

We start promptly at 8:30 with our red and white wine tasting.  There’s a form to fill out where you are supposed to check off a certain number of descriptors but you are encouraged to elaborate more on your own (what KIND of stone fruit?  How LONG do you think the wine was aged in French oak?)

Technically, you are supposed to start your Theory exam after completing your tasting, but since you are given (I believe) forty-five minutes for both, you can spend more time on tasting if you think you’ll need it.  It seemed like enough time for me; I’m pretty sure we all finished both parts with time to spare.

When you turn in your test, you are given a time to return to the hotel ballroom (ever notice that all hotel ballrooms look exactly alike?) to get briefed for your Service exam.

You spend your free time pacing, looking up wine factoids on your Kindle (YES!  Salta IS in Argentina!) and debating with others the identity of the mystery wines (there seemed to be solid consensus that the white was Chardonnay and the red was Pinot Noir either from California or Oregon.)  But the actual wines will never be revealed by the examiners – a Court policy.

About twenty minutes past our scheduled time, three of us huddle with one of the Master Sommeliers administering the exam.  We are given some quick information about our “customer” and the wine he/she will be ordering, along with some last minute logistics about the Service exam.

Me at Certified

Striking my best sommelier pose before the Service finale of my exam. May I interest you in a 2011 . . . book?

We hold hands for a second or two, we double check our appearance (Is my suit buttoned?  Is my Level One pin on my lapel?) and then we enter the ballroom and report to our respective tables.

While inside, I try to remember everything my coaches taught me.  Always line your tray.  Always move clockwise around the table.  Don’t hit your imaginary guests with your all-too-real tray.  Smile, smile, smile!

And hopefully before your twelve minutes runs out, you are told your test is over.  You’re examiner tells you “Great Job”, and you can leave the ballroom while he/she writes notes about your performance.


We all return to the same ballroom at 1:30 p.m.  There’s some sparkling rose from Oregon waiting for us!  All of us are quietly stressing.  “If #1 wasn’t a Chardonnay, then WTF was it?”  At this point, if anyone in our group thought for sure they passed, they were keeping that to themselves.

The masters gather us in a circle.  We are congratulated for our hard work, and courage just for attempting this exam.  And then one by one, names of those who passed are revealed.  The last name read is always the highest score of the day, and this person receives a monetary gift from the online networking group Guild of Sommeliers.

Once we told there was just one name left to read, I knew my verdict.  I joined six of my fourteen colleagues in the “Not Pass” group (curiously, the Court never uses the word “Fail”).

I am disappointed with my test results, but am proud I passed Tasting and Theory on my first attempt.  I feel confident that as long as I consistently practice tasting and make new note cards about different wine regions, that I can ace those sections again.

Learning proper Service is my goal for the rest of this year.  My judge gave me several helpful nuggets of feedback.  The best note he wrote was “Great effort – love the passion!”  Hopefully I can moonlight at a wine bar or restaurant with a diverse wine program and can learn the basics of Service and how to move and react on the floor like a true wine professional.

Upon reflection, due to my lack of restaurant experience, I also would have “No Passed” me on my Service exam.   Nonetheless, I found the entire process over the last six months of blind tasting, studying, making note cards, even little things like not biting my nails and losing a few pounds so I would look more professional in my suit, I Loved All of It.  And I met thirteen very cool, very motivated folks, (one all the way from Vegas!) who took their best swing at this difficult exam.  I hope we meet up again, maybe at our Advanced Exam, or a future wine dinner or tasting.

Wine Bloggers Conference (#WBC11) Reflections

Wine Bloggers Conference logo

Monday night, I returned from the Wine Bloggers Conference, this year held in Charlottesville, Virginia.  This was my second time attending this event, now in its fourth year.

As a cost for benefit proposition, the Wine Bloggers Conference provides great information and value for its registration fee.  For $95.00, participants receive two dinners (one a buffet, the other a five course sit-down), a visit to two vineyards (transportation provided), the opportunity to hear two speakers with worldwide followings for their wine knowledge and at least half a dozen tasting events (and those are just the official ones).

Oh, and you can also meet in person over three hundred of the most enthused, knowledgeable, but non-snobby (most of them) writers on any given topic.  And their collective work can be revisited 24/7 online.

That’s probably my favorite aspect; the hugs, the trading of business cards, the placing of names with faces, especially those I have only known by names such as @willdrinkforwine.

Participants and readers of this blog should remember that many of the expenses of this weekend-long conference are paid for by sponsors.  That’s not inherently evil; but hopefully just declaring that fact will keep me from writing in too starstruck a tone when describing some of my favorite events.

Multi-day events such as WBC are only successful with the help of professional organizers and volunteers working together.  The company that created and oversees WBC is Zephyr Adventures, which has planned outdoor tours and conferences since 1997.  Maybe they have minions of elves working in the background, but I only counted three of their employees on site during the weekend.  It reminds me how much pre-planning must take place behind the scenes, from negotiating with a host hotel, (in our case, the reliably chilly and oddly shaped Omni) ensuring the Wi-Fi was working, reaching out to wineries and Chamber of Commerce types around the country, to ensuring comfortable sixty-eight degree weather in Charlottesville the entire weekend (OK, no one is perfect).  Just navigating the featured wines through the Commonwealth of Virginia’s legal thickets in one piece gives Zephyr additional brownie points, along with maintaining a website since last winter with updated WBC news and gossip.

Someone had to stuff all these bags!

And plenty of past conference attendees stepped up to help during the event, and to offer financial aid to bloggers in need of extra funds.  I am very grateful to have won a scholarship which paid for my Omni stay.  Thank you Thea Dwelle and the rest of the Scholarship Committee!  I promise to pay it forward in future years.

Here are some of my favorite memories of the past weekend:


Twelve wines, sixty minutes.  Five minutes maximum on each.

I tried to approach this from the perspective of a sommelier or wine buyer for my favorite store.  They have to make quick judgements on wine every day!  The next time I read a tweet from a wine director along the lines of “Tasting forty Burgundys back to back; only have room to add five to the list!”, I may feel a little sorry for her!  I tired to use my WSET Tasting Grid as a template (didn’t have one in front of me though), and focused on each wine’s main aspects (body, alcohol, ageability, main fruit characteristics, finish), and fit as much as I could into 140 Twitter letters.

And oh yes, I spit.  Up until now, I am a little ashamed to admit, my motto at wine events might have been “If I’m not driving, I’m drinking!”  But spitting actually helped keep my palate focused, and I learned that it helped me observe the finish even more clearly than if I swallowed.  My tasting notes will hopefully become more descriptive and accurate.

Here’s a suggestion for WBC if Speed Tasting returns next year.  Let’s try tasting the wines blind next time.  (And no talking to your tablemates while you’re tasting!)  Reveal all the wines at the end, and then give participants an hour to meet the winemakers and learn more specifics about what was poured.


This event was the first time I have tasted wines from “unfamiliar” wine areas such as Indiana (the white Traminette grape; very light-colored and light-bodied, is prominent there), Texas and Maryland.  From our host state, I enjoyed their representation of Cabernet Franc the most; the examples I tried on my tour from Jefferson Vineyards and Keswick Vineyards featured high acid and less of the green pepper and other vegatal notes I notice when I taste the same grape from the Loire Valley.  It reminded me that I should learn more about Illinois wines even if I couldn’t honestly champion my home state every time I try one.


Our Aroma Collection

On Friday, we chose two hour long sessions out of five offered.  My first choice was “Drinking Local”; a thorough look at the challenges, many of them legal, logistical, and philosophical, to encourage more consumers to support local wineries.  Next up was “Aromas of Wine”, hosted by Master of Wine Sheri Sauter Morano.  She gave us a fun exercise involving a tray of various items to smell, and a flight a wines to blind taste.  As you can see from my score sheet; I need a little more practice matching aromas to specific wines!

I need more practice, I guess!












Here’s the menu from our Saturday evening meal. 

After an afternoon of tasting, it felt a little overwhelming to face another table filled with wines to try.  A little palate fatigue had set in by five p.m. (I felt bad for the presenters of the Cognac tasting in the lobby).  I did enjoy how each of the winemakers who had a wine included in our meal was given a chance to introduce his or her contribution.

The authors of the best wine blog writing this past year were honored after dinner, hosted by a local sommelier.  I’m still stuck in neutral regarding my feelings about award ceremonies, but if we’re going to celebrate the best at our craft, let’s put on a real show!  Over three hundred wine bloggers in the house and not one Billy Crystal amongst us?  Please.  I have seen many of you late at night.  I can think of several bloggers who would make a great host for next year’s awards.  Maybe we can have newbie WBC attendees introduce each of the nominees.  How about less of a rush job next year?   

Here’s a link to this year’s winners, all well deserved!


To compete for one of the scholarship awards, I submitted a short essay with my reasons for wanting to attend.  In my composition, I expressed curiosity about Virginia wines, due to the bottles I have enjoyed when my sister from Alexandria visits during the holidays.  I was hopeful I could bring good tidings of all these local wines back to my sommelier and distributor friends.  I’ll still mention my favorites to them, but won’t get too disappointed if these wines don’t suddenly become available in Chicago wine stores.

I learned during the Drink Local discussion that Virginia wines are often a hard sell even in the greater Washington area (just two hours away).

Also, Virginia has only a finite land mass appropriate for grape growing (and of course, much smaller than California!)  Fine wine is not the same as great music or literature; you can’t just turn on a faucet or a printer and make more product.

I would love to see a statistic explaining what percentage of all wine bottles produced throughout the world is consumed less than one hundred miles from the wine’s source.  And how that percentage has changed over time.  Thanks to improved trading channels, I’m sure that number has declined but by how much?

If you’re curious about what grapes hold the most promise in Virginia, I hope you check out these sites:

and my upcoming blog post on the topic.  And encourage your state to enact more consumer-friendly policies on interstate wine shipping.

And consider at least a weekend retreat in Charlottesville, to drink some of their best wines right at the source.


The organizers of WBC did one of their jobs (keep things moving) almost too well.  Meaning, I wish they built some down time into the schedule.  There are several ways to accomplish this.

My first suggestion is admittedly a lightening rod.  But seriously consider dropping the keynote addresses.  WBC is enough of a brand name now that the absence of a celebrity speaker shouldn’t affect its box office too much.

Second, consider adding a fourth day to the conference.  I know there was an unofficial “pre-tasting” Thursday night, but I wouldn’t have minded some light discussion forum that afternoon/evening.  For those who don’t want to commit to an additional day of vacation, price each day separately (maybe offer Thursday and Sunday at half the price of Friday and Saturday, with the option of buying the whole weekend at a discount).

Have multiple events occurring at the same time.  As a blogger, it wouldn’t bother me that I couldn’t attend everything.  If WBC featured a themed tasting, a brainiac discussion about viticulture, and a look at some industry issue (“What the Wine Industry Can Learn From High School Juniors”) simultaneously, I could decide what interested me the most and (more importantly) socialize later on with attendees of the events I missed.

Maybe this is the wine nerd side of me coming out, but I would prefer more content created by bloggers, for bloggers.  And schedule them at multiple times.  Shorter, smaller, faster discussions on ideas the WBC Community suggest are a good way to break up the tastings.  Consider offering a small registration discount for the first twenty signups who submit an outline for a thirty minute presentation.


I’m excited about the location of next year’s conference (Portland, Oregon), but not sure yet if I’ll attend.  With my Advanced WSET level knocked off (finally!) I’m now more interested in the economic/scientific/sociological aspects of my favorite beverage (ironically, when I first heard about WBC in 2008, I was concerned the conference would be too academic for me!)  My next “fact-finding” wine vacation will probably have more focused a theme than the scattershot approach of WBC.  But if you’re a wine blogger who has never attended before, or are involved in the trade as a winemaker, importer or sommelier, you should definitely make your reservations for Portland from August 17-19, 2012.

Thirsty Girl Event Preview – May 13

A Scene from a previous ThirstyGirl Party!

Friday night, May 13, please join me for the first ThirstyGirl event.  Our host, Chicago native Leslie Sbrocco, is the author of Wine for Women, and she’s currently working on Adventures of a Thirsty Girl, due for release in 2012.

Both men and women are encouraged to mix and mingle at SushiSamba, enjoy their unique take on sushi and sashimi. and taste seven wines Leslie selected with thirsty girls (and guys!) in mind!  I am especially excited to try the Cambria Chardonnay, since I have enjoyed their Pinot Noir so much in the past.  Other wines featured will come from Clos du Bois, La Crema, Gloria Ferrer, Ravenswood, MatuaValley, and Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Our hostess is author and frequent Today Show guest, Leslie Sbrocco!

Time for the event is 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m., and the location for SushiSamba is 504 North Wells Street.  Tickets are available for $31.74 at  Use the code “TGME” for $5.00 off.

And please check out Leslie’s website at  Again, men as well as women are welcome!