2003 Grgich Hills Estate Merlot, Napa

Visitors to Napa Valley, even those on their first trip, have a hard time missing the Grgich Hills winery, which sits prominently on the west side of Highway 29, its flower beds almost pushed right up against the edge of the blacktop.

Of course, when the winery was established in the late 1970s there was a lot less traffic on that same highway, and founder Miljenko “Mike” Grgich was a young man. But despite his youth, this Croatian-born immigrant did not lack for experience or acclaim. Indeed, it was partly based on his success as the winemaker for the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay which performed so well at the famous 1976 Paris Tasting that Grgich, his friend Austin Hills, and Austin’s sister Mary Lee Strebl chose to begin what has become one of Napa’s most frequented wineries.

Grgich Hills attracts a lot of visitors by virtue of its location on the beaten path, so to speak, but even if it were tucked away in some cranny of the valley, there would likely be a steady stream of traffic to its doors simply for its reputation as a consistent producer of well-priced wines of good to excellent quality.

Increasingly the winery draws traffic for another reason: its recent move to 100% estate grown, biodynamic fruit, processed in a facility run 100% on solar power. Grgich, who is now in his 80’s but still makes every wine and oversees operations at the winery, along with his nephew Ivo Jeramaz, who most actively manages the vineyards, were some of Napa’s earliest converts to Biodynamics, the increasingly popular farming regimen which is based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. Though the initial move to Biodynamics was simply a decision based on the assessment that it produced higher quality fruit, Grgich Hills has embraced its emphasis on sustainability, a move which pays dividends of many kinds, including the ability to market themselves as such, to the pleasure of a growing population eco-conscious consumers.

Like many proponents of Biodynamics, Jeramaz and Grgich maintain with uncontestable conviction that they are making better wine as a result, and that’s pretty hard to argue with, no matter what misgivings I have about some aspects of the regimen. These guys, along with other prominent Biodynamic winemakers, certainly know “better” wine when they see it.

Now in its 30th year, Grgich Hills makes a well known and widely regarded Chardonnay, a Fume Blanc, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, this Merlot, and in some vintages, a dessert wine that blends Chardonnay and Riesling. Total production currently sits at slightly less than 70,000 cases, of which this Merlot makes up only about 4000. In an interesting side note, in recent years Grgich has also started a winery back in Croatia, which forms a base for his prominent role in helping to promote the quality and long tradition of the region’s winemaking.

The grapes for this wine seem to have fared very well in what was, for much of the valley, a rocky vintage in 2003. They were hand harvested in several passes through the vineyards over the course of many days, some of which had large gaps in between them as unseasonably cool weather made ripening uneven. This wine incorporates 100% Merlot fruit from four different regions of Napa: the cooler American Canyon and Carneros regions, and the warmer Yountville and Calistoga regions. The berries are hand sorted and destemmed and then fermented with indigenous yeasts before being aged for 18 months in French oak of which only 50% is new.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Somewhere between medium and dark ruby in color, this wine has an compelling, earthy nose of tobacco, wet earth, and dark plum aromas. In the mouth it offers smooth textured flavors of plum, earth, and a core of stony minerality that plays off against a nicely restrained hint of oak. The acid levels are good and the tannins are restrained to the point of being nearly imperceptible. A well put together package that lingers on the palate and suggests another sip. Likely to drink very well for the next few years, wines like this prove the idiocy of the anti-merlot backlash.

Food Pairing:
I’d enjoy this wine with a wide variety of meats and hearty dishes, including appropriately this Irish Beef Stew, a fitting culmination to today’s St. Patrick’s day celebration.

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $29

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.