From Mother’s Milk to Wine

Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Posted in category Wine

Tonight, while enjoying a glass of 2005 Stag’s Leap Cabernet, I spent an abundance of time researching one of my favorite winemakers, Mike “Miljenko” Grgich. Grgich, born in Croatia, is the proprietor and winemaker at Grgich Hills Estate winery in Napa, a place I visited less than two weeks ago as I made my way along the splendid Napa wine trail.

While visiting Grgich Hills, I spoke with his Mike’s daughter, Violet, who told me about a story that was completely unknown to me until I heard it from her and researched it further. Bottle Shock, produced by IPW, is a delightful movie that made its debut in 2008, and it explores the birth of the California wine industry, and particularly the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, when two California wines defeated French wines in a blind taste test. I broke open the Stag’s Leap Cabernet because it was one of the California wines (1973 vintage) that won at that competition. The other California wine that beat the French was a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay, and the principal winemaker of that wine was Mike Grgich. As far as I remember, the name of Mike Grgich was never mentioned in the film.

I had noticed the numerous copies of the book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine, written by George M. Tabor, in the wine tasting room at Grgich Hills. So I asked, “Why all the books?” His daughter told me that her father was the winemaker responsible for the winning Chardonnay, and that, no, Grgich was not mentioned in the film because he did not agree to the script as it was written. This story on explains things similar to the way it was told to me by Grgich’s daughter.

In an event in the script that Grgich has always said didn’t happen, Jim Barrett discovers one weekend that all of the famous Chardonnay — every bottle — has turned brown. (White wines can appear discolored temporarily when they are bottled with no exposure to oxygen.) Distraught, he takes the entire truckload of it to a local bar manned by Eliza Dushku) for recycling and drives to San Francisco to sign papers to get out of the wine business.

Meanwhile, Bo and Sam (Taylor) visit a UC Davis professor who assures them the wine will turn golden again on its own. They need to call Jim to prevent him from doing anything rash, but there were no cell phones in 1976. And their truck runs out of gas. What to do?

Sam pulls her top up beside the road, attracting a police officer. When he at first refuses to drive them to a pay phone, she pulls her top up again. Helpless, he gives them a ride while saying, “I don’t know much about Chardonnays, but I once tasted a 1953 Gruaud-Larose which was like God’s nectar. I’d leave my wife in the gutter for another taste of that voluptuous noble fluid with subtle hints of magnificent licorice and cooked ripe black currant.”

At least, that’s what the script says.

“Bottle shock” is a reaction in wine that occurs after bottling when oxygen is absorbed during the bottling process. The wine is “disturbed,” reducing its fruit flavors. However, this typically does not lead to oxidation or spent wine, but in the long run it recovers. It is often referred to as “bottle sickness” because, given time, the wine will recover during the aging process. According to Grgich’s daughter, this event did not occur. Grgich was a professional winemaker, and he knew his wine and understood the concept of bottle shock. After all, Grgich got his start with America’s great post-prohibition winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, and afterwards he worked with wine superstar Robert Mondavi, who was mentored by Tchelistcheff.

Hollywood, to make a story, wanted to write some good, old-fashioned American idiocy into the film. The movie was fun and enjoyable, but many facts were flat-out wrong or distorted in order to make the script more appealing.

Steve Spurrier (played by Alan Rickman), a Brit living in Paris, was the sommelier and wine shop owner in Paris who set up the blind tasting in order to introduce some fine California wines to the snooty French. Yet Spurrier contends that so much of the script is inaccurate or purely fictitious. In 2007, Spurrier had threatened producers of the film with a lawsuit because of its many misrepresentations. There is an interesting snippet in an article from about the movie and its made-up script that speaks well to libertarian principles in one paragraph:

Nadine Jolson, a spokeswoman for Bottle Shock, said that the film was about the same historic event, ‘and nobody owns the rights to that.’ She said filming would not stop – and added that their script was written in 2004, two years before Taber’s book about the event was finished.

Of course, no one should be able to own an “event” or the right to spin those events in a particular way, nor should they have the power of law to force others to terminate their own interpretations and twist of events. So the script goes on, Hollywood made a pretty entertaining movie, and unfortunately, a great winemaker gets lost in the brouhaha.

Grgich grew up under Communism, and is a man of peace. Grgich’s father was a winemaker, and Grgich has told the story of how his mother switched him from mother’s milk to wine when he was about two-and-a-half years old. Here is a fascinating 10-minute video of this standout individual and extraordinary winemaker.

The French government has always kept a tight, regulatory grip on its wine industry with its subsidies, protectionism, and laws governing production, labeling, yields, classifications, and quality. A point that is often forgotten about the Judgment of Paris is how instrumental the competition was in educating wine lovers, buyers, and connoisseurs that other countries, besides France, could make world-class wine. This spurred a monumental growth in global winemaking that, today, has reached levels no one could imagine, even after the Paris competition. It is also interesting to note that Steven Spurrier is the founder of l’Academie du Vin, France’s first non-government wine school.

I did not get to meet Mike Grgich that day at the winery because he apparently had just left the premises at the same time that I arrived. But I was promised that calling the winery to purchase the book from them, and requesting a specially signed book, is a request that Mike is always thrilled to fulfill.

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5 Responses to From Mother’s Milk to Wine

  1. Iluvatar says:

    October 20th, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    As a 2nd gen french man – my folks hailed from the Strasbourg area (under German and French hands so many times you can’t count them), I can only tell you this: They make a dry white wine there that I can actually drink. And this is very unusual – they make a RED wine that is to die for! (From the Metz/Nancy/Strasbourg area) – it kicks butt over Chateau Neuf Du Pape (literally castle 9 of the pope) – comes out of the Loire valley.

    We had that in Old Quebec at Le Château Frontenac. Great dinner too!

    But as a french man from these parts (north east) most of us drink beer – and there is some wonderful beer from these parts too!

    My tasting of Napa valley stuff in the late `80′s was not ready for prime time – good to hear that they have progressed.

    But I am still a beer drinker. I save the wine for a Quiche Lorraine at christmas time (yeah, I cook it)…

  2. PC says:

    October 21st, 2010 at 6:40 am

    Although a bit silly in parts, I really did enjoy the Bottle Shock movie especially Alan Rickman’s and Dennis Farina’s roles. I did not know the Mike Grgich story. I am going to order the Taber book right away. I guess you found an acceptable place to stay and passed on pastry shop B&Bs run by Oompah Loompahs.

  3. John Venlet says:

    October 21st, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Morning, Karen.

    Interesting post, thanks. Stag’s Leap bottles some fine reds. I know I enjoy them. If you have not sampled Shafer One Point Five, another cab, you should give it a try. I’ve noted it priced from $35 to $65, so it is not inexpensive, but the money spent will be well worth it.

  4. Paul says:

    October 21st, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I met Mr Grgich when we visited Napa a few years ago – just on a tour/tasting of his winery, he was in the tasting room talking with all of us.

    A very engaging man, who’s very passionate about everything wine. He was a gracious host.

    I’m not at all surprised the film (which was a fun movie) stretched the truth a bit, and I’m glad to see he stood his ground and didn’t sign off on something that wasn’t correct.

  5. Iluvatar says:

    October 25th, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    I apologize – I just read your bio that went w/ that @ LRC.

    You have have more bottles of wine that you have SHOES!?!?!?!?

    That is so outrageously funny!!

    I am still laughing…

    Be brave – and be different – rock ON!

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