OBSERVATIONS IN THE VINEYARD
by managing partner, bret csencsitz
MORE THAN A LABEL
Last night we had the distinction of hosting a sold-out dinner with winemaker, Ivo Jeramaz, of Grgich Hills. The evening featured eight estate wines punctuated by a series of musings on winemaking, farming, and life in Napa Valley. For the past forty years, this storied winery has been a staple in Rutherford, a popular stop on the Napa Wine Train and a favorite among collectors. It wasn’t until we began planning the event that I came to understand the whole story of Grgich Hills, how it began and how it has evolved.
A FIELD TRIP
Earlier this month I made a trip to San Francisco with Pastry Chef, Ron Paprocki, to accept the 2019 GOOD FOOD AWARD for one of our new Artisan Series Chocolate Bars. (More on that in the coming weeks.) In anticipation of this wine dinner, I took the opportunity to visit Grgich Hills and meet with Ivo and his team.
Standing in the vineyard, next to a birdhouse — glowing from the award we had received the previous night — I was struck by just how much had changed in the three plus decades Gotham has been in business. The same, I thought, must be true for Grgich. Winemaking, Ivo insists, has more to do with farming than anything else. And farming is all about change. Navigating the seasons, weather, cultural tastes, and more. Change is inevitable.
I may be in the minority, but I believe change is a good thing.
THOSE MAGIC CHANGES
When Grgich Hills was founded in 1977 Napa was not the tourist destination we know today, but rather a sleepy agricultural town. The American palate still hadn’t quite taken to the taste of wine, and European tastes still favored the leaner style of their own homegrown wines.
In many ways, though, Grgich Hills was a lightning rod for Napa, helping to seal the valley’s place as a world-class wine region. This due in large part to celebrity winemaker, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, and the role he played in the famous “Judgement of Paris” in 1976. (Read the story HERE.)
The winery was founded with a deliberate focus on the craft of winemaking. It was going to be about the techniques and choices used to make the best wines possible. To Mike it was an American tale, one that celebrated the achievement of the individual above all else. This, from a man who struggled to escape Croatia in 1958, during what was a tumultuous time for Eastern Europe.
JUST BELOW THE SURFACE
Ivo Jeramaz, Grgich’s winemaker since 2003 and a Croatian immigrant himself, has a slightly different approach. Building upon his uncle’s achievements, he is doubling down on quality winemaking by embracing nature’s role in the process. He describes himself as a wine farmer, focusing on nurturing the vineyards, the soil, and the fruit. A remarkable task considering they’re one of the largest landowners in the valley.
Walk a hundred yards in any direction and what strikes you most are the birdhouses peppered among the rows of vines. The vineyards at Grgich are a place where bluebirds control the pests. To go a bit further, they’ve pioneered five different types of compost, which is the only fertilizer used on the property. Rain, the only water.
Jeramez is passionate about the vineyards, and with over 350 acres he spends more time here than anywhere else. He boasts about his soil’s microbial health, which he measures in terms of “activity.” Micro-organisms below the surface generate nutrition for plants, which he finds is a great indicator for quality in the final wine.
He explained how the Grgich soil is now about 5% organic matter, a 300% increase from before they began farming organically. Ivo laments the health of much of the US farmland soils due to the impact of fertilizers, pesticides, and poor irrigation practices. These “conventional” farming strategies, he states, have reduced the vitality of US farmland soils by 50% or more.
ABOUT LAST NIGHT
As the dinner progressed, I watched Ivo extol little bits of wisdom from his three plus decades at Grgich Hills. Our guests sat rapt, perhaps discovering what I had only weeks earlier. Not only are the wines incredible, but Ivo and his team are conducting themselves with an eye toward the health and future of the land. This was of particular interest to me, but also it seemed, to the 22 individuals who joined us for last night’s event.
A SPECIAL OFFER
For those who were unable to make it last night, we invite you to taste the Grgich Hills wines for yourself. You will find a variety of offerings at Chelsea Market. Use the code Gotham to receive a one time discount of 10%.
Gotham Experiences continues in February with our Caviar Dinner Series (Feb 11-17). Seating is strictly limited to 8 tables each night. You can reserve your table HERE.