When it comes to making world-class wines in the Napa Valley, few names carry the weight of the Grgich label. First made famous by the Paris Tasting of 1976, Miljenko "Mike" Grgich helped put California wine on the map. More than thirty years later, his pioneering spirit has extended to biodynamic winemaking, where Grgich Hills has been certified organic since 2006, with Demeter certification for biodynamics following just a year later. That leadership has also been passed on to Mike Grgich's nephew Ivo Jeramaz, who after coming from his native Croatia to the Napa Valley in 1986 to pursue a career in engineering, quickly discovered his own passion for the family business instead. Now its VP of Vineyards & Production, Ivo has been instrumental in the winery's transition to biodynamic methods. He recently sat down with DTE to share his insights and thoughts for the future.
1) Grgich Hills Estate has been organically farming all of its vineyards since 2000, and more recently became certified biodynamic. What were the primary reasons behind making this level of commitment to farming?
We believed that organic farming wasn’t enough. We think that by using biodynamic farming, we have the best chance for a healthy vineyard, which creates healthy vines and thus better grapes. Biodynamics allows for the best expression of the vineyard in our wines. We’ve also done studies of our soils, which show that we are improving the amount of the organic matter in our vineyards. Biodynamics work at feeding the soil, not the grapes. And, we test our grapes at harvest and have found that we are getting improved amounts of nutrients in the grapes themselves. This insures that they are ripe without picking at high sugar, which leads to higher alcohol.
2) Since making the switch to biodynamics, what do you think, if anything, has been the biggest change in your wines?
For our white wines we have more aromatics, and the texture has improved. We’ve moved away from bitterness (since the switch). For our red wines, again the aromatics have increased but most notable has been the improvement of the texture with supple tannins. The improvement is gradual, but we really see the difference in the 2007 wines.
3) How, if at all, do you think biodynamic practices have affected your wines’ ageability?
Our wines have always been crafted to be ageable, but we think that with (biodynamic) growing practices, they will have even more ageability. We now pick our grapes at a lower sugar level, since our growing practices help the grapes become physiologically ripe without having to have extended hang time, which leads to higher sugars, and, as a result, higher alcohol.
4) In 2006 you made the switch to solar power at the winery, anticipating that the project would pay for itself within five years. Now a little more than two years in, has this initiative met your expectations thus far?
Yes, very much so. And, with even more public awareness of global warming since the switch, we’re proud of our commitment. We’re looking at new ways in which we can use solar at the winery and in the vineyard; perhaps solar power to operate pumps for our reservoirs in the vineyards, for example. In the next few years we expect to see electric tractors as well.
5) A lot companies are touting green practices these days, creating much more clutter than there was even a few years ago. What advice would you give to wine consumers interested in making an informed buying choice about biodynamic or organic wines?
We chose to become biodynamic because we think it’s best for the vineyard, and will produce the best wine — not as a marketing talking point. We chose to become certified biodynamic by Demeter because a lot of people were talking about being sustainable, but not always following through. We’re committed to biodynamics and we became certified so we can put the Demeter symbol on the back label to prove our commitment. It doesn’t mean that it’s the best wine in the world — you still have to taste the wine to see if you like the style, but we think it’s important to be certified.
6) What is your favorite Grgich Hills Estate wine, and why?
I’m asked that all the time and my answer is always that our wines are like our children (Ivo has six). They all are different but we pay attention to all of them and they are each rewarding in their own way. We don’t have a lesser wine that we are not serious about making the best way possible.
Published December 22nd, 2008
Want to learn more? For more about Ivo, you can read his bio here. For more about Grgich Hills Estate wines, please visit their website.