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.
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!
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!