Yesterday was Father’s Day. I am a father. Therefore, it was my day. In fact, I considered that the whole weekend was for fathers – and therefore, for me. It was glorious in Napa – blue skies, warm weather, nice breezes – so I asked my lovely wife to set up some leisurely winery visits. I’m not greedy, so I asked for one visit Saturday and one Sunday. Reasonable, right? She came through in a major way and set up Father’s Day weekend tastings at two of Napa’s best wineries – one an old favorite, where we are also members, and one that we have been wanting to visit since we moved to Napa two years ago.
Saturday’s wine tasting was at Robert Sinskey Vineyards on Silverado Trail. We joined RSV on my wife’s birthday back in 2014, shortly after moving to Napa. We loved the wine, the location, but also Sinskey’s commitment to sustainable farming. All of their wines are produced from organic grapes; also, they grow a number of fruits of vegetables on their property, also following organic practices. Many of the fruits and vegetables that they grow on their estate end up in the tasty morsels that Sinskey pairs with their wine tastings.
Ten years ago, buying organic wines often required a trade-off in terms of wine quality. Not today. Some of the best wines in Napa, and around the world, are being made from grapes that are the product of organic and biodynamic farming. When we share Sinskey wines with friends that have not experienced them before, they often tell us, “the wine tastes so clean.” We agree, and have been enjoying our monthly allocation of white and red wines for the past couple of years. Saturday’s tasting was a perfect mix of our favorite white and red wines.
Wine #1 was the Pinot Gris, which certainly lived up to the tasting note’s promise of aroma/flavor of melon, pear and apple. It was our first time tasting the Pinot Gris and it stood out as a high quality white wine. The fruit was obvious on both the nose and the palate but it was not a sweet wine – the fruit was balanced by acidity and minerality, making it a pleasant but complex white wine. We made our way through the menu, enjoying the Sinskey Abraxas, their unique blend of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer. The Abraxas was another beautifully made white wine that brings the fruit from each of the four varietals but also respects the terroir from which the grapes came. After the two whites we enjoyed three reds – a Pinot, Sinskey’s POV red blend, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe because it was Father’s Day weekend, our wine helper poured Sinskey’s Cabernet Franc as well – easily one of the top two or three Cab Franc wines in all of Napa.
The staff is extremely friendly at Sinskey, the location is unbeatable, and they have built one of the best tasting room environments we have ever experienced. If you want to taste inside, there is a long bar that can easily accommodate a couple dozen people. In addition, there are multiple tables inside for longer seated tastings. For us, the real treat at Sinskey is their outside tasting area, which is generally reserved for members. There are a variety of tables and lounge seating areas as well as a new indoor/outdoor patio which is shaded from the sun but still benefits from the outside breeze. We left Robert Sinskey Vineyards smiling and happy – not just because of the tasting experience, but because we were picking up a couple of months worth of wine club shipments.
After the Sinskey experience Saturday, I wasn’t sure that anything Sunday could match it, let alone top it. We had originally planned to visit a new winery in Sonoma but they had to cancel, leaving us with no firm plans. Out of the blue, my wife suggested that we visit Grgich Hills winery, famous for its founder, Miljenko (“Mike”) Grgich. Just over 40 years ago, as the winemaker for Chateau Montelena, Mike Grgich made a Chardonnay wine that beat the French in the now-famous 1976 Judgement of Paris. This feat was memorialized in the 2008 film “Bottleshock.” Luckily, Grgich Hills had an opening for a reservation at 3pm and we jumped at it. Because it was Father’s Day, I made our twin 19-year-olds come along as well, despite their complaints about being bored. Our wine steward, Karen, had set up a beautiful table with six wine glasses and a cheese board for pairing.
For us, the Grgich Hills wines were all new – we had not visited the winery nor do I recall ordering the wine at a restaurant or picking it up at a wine shop or supermarket. We loved all of the wines, in particular the Petit Verdot, which in France is almost exclusively used to blend with other wines (usually Cabernet Sauvignon). Another favorite was the 2013 Violetta Late Harvest. Grgich takes a minimalistic approach to wine making. He believes that wine is made in the vineyard; he is not a fan of the practice that is common in Napa and other wine making regions of manipulating the wine after the grapes have been harvested. The Grgich Hills approach is more European in style – wines with lower alcohol percentages and more balance (no “fruit bombs” at Grgich) between fruit and minerality.
I could tell you more about each of the wines but the descriptions in the tasting menu are pretty accurate. I was able to coax Karen into pouring a second glass of the Late Harvest and was enjoying when the door to our tasting room opened and a woman entered. “Mike would like to say hello,” she informed us. “Huh,” I muttered, as I sipped the wonderous Violetta. “Mike Grgich would like to say hello, if that’s okay.” Two thoughts came to mind. First, “it’s his winery, he can do whatever he wants.” Second, “of course it’s okay, he’s a legend!” Into our tasting room shuffled the icon himself, Miljenko (“Mike) Grgich, the diminutive David who slayed the French Goliath in 1976 and literally helped put Napa on the wine map. It’s difficult to imagine what Napa would be like today without that amazing moment in history. Mr. Grgich sat down at our table and spent 15-20 minutes regaling us with stories from his life and pearls of his wisdom.
Mr. Grgich has had a truly remarkable life. This spirited 93-year-old wine legend started life in Croatia and attended the University of Zagreb, where he studied enology and viticulture. By way of Germany and Canada, Grgich eventually found his way to Napa Valley. He told us how sad and homesick he was in California and wondered whether he had made the biggest mistake of his life. He left his family behind and was in the United States alone; he didn’t feel connected to anyone or anything. And then, as he put it, “Andre saved my life.” The Andre in question is Andre Tchelistcheff, a winemaker from Russia who is frequently referred to as the “dean of American winemaking.” His influence in Napa Valley cannot be overstated, although most people do not know his name and he is destined never to be a household name. For Grgich, though, Tchelistcheff was the mentor he was looking for, as well as someone he could relate to – a fellow immigrant, someone who could relate to his Slavic roots.
Grgich talked about the 1976 Judgement of Paris but also mentioned two other notable moments in history to which he contributed. The first was making a Cabernet Sauvignon for Robert Mondavi that was selected as the best Cab in all of California – and contributed to Mondavi becoming a powerhouse winery in Napa. The second occurred after the Judgement of Paris, after Grgich and his partner, Austin Hills, started their own winery, Grgich Hills. At the Great Chicago Showdown in 1980, Grgich Hills Chardonnay bested 221 other Chardonnay wines from around the world. Grgich remembered his three big moments with crystal clarity and evident pride. It was his parting shot of wisdom, however, that cracked us all up but also left us, we think, a little bit wiser. “The two most important things in life,” he told us, “start with the letter `W’.” Of course, one of the “W’s” is wine. The other? Women. A simple formula, but an unimpeachable one as well. I will take my two “W’s” any day, and feel very grateful that my Woman had the luck, or forethought, to set up a tasting on a day that Grgich would be visiting and have time to spend with us. By the time our tasting was over, we were lucky enough to taste more wines that just those on the tasting menu, including one of the best Merlot’s we have tried as well as a Zinfandel that inspired us to buy several bottles in addition to what we had already picked out.
We left Grgich Hills changed by the humbling experience of spending time with a true legend. Also, we left members of the Grgich Hills wine club. That may get me into trouble as my Woman and I have been operating under a self-imposed “no new wine clubs” rule for the past year or so. But I’m pretty sure when my wife gets the first shipment, with the Petit Verdot and the Merlot, she will forgive me.
John and Irene Ingersoll
Napa, California, June 19, 2016