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Oct 21, 2017

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Violet Grgich of Grgigh Hills Cellar
by Stewart Dorman
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 3.1

AGE - 30-something
Resides in Napa with her roses and hot tub


WINE - red zin
MUSIC - a really good dance band, 17th-century italian vocal music, 16th-century Flemish sacred polyphony
BAND - U2, The Dave Matthews Band, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and Pink Floyd
RESTAURANT OR FOOD - any place that has great sushi!
PLACE - Dalmatia, which is the coastal area of Croatia; Florence and Big Sur
MAGAZINE - Architectural Digest, Scientific American
HOBBIES - antique roses, cooking, reading
CLASS IN COLLEGE - philosophy
WEATHER - excessive - either very cold or exceptionally sunny

What comes to mind when I say Violet Grgich, Wine X and intense physical activity? Croquet, of course.

Violet Grgich is the daughter of famous winemaker Miljenko (Mike) Grgich of Grgich Hills Cellar in Napa Valley. She is known throughout the wine world as one of the most fierce croquet players in the business. So our publisher thought it was time to throw down the gauntlet and challenge her to a no-holds-barred, in-your-face, full contact, winner-take-all croquet match. And who would be her worthy opponent? The pride of Wine X, of course. No, not Chris the intern. Me! Our publisher had full confidence that I could take her. That and, well, the fact that I was the only one who had access to a croquet set.

The date, time and place were set. Wine X conceded home-court advantage to Grgich. Looking back, that was probably my first mistake.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and I was late. After profusely apologizing with a lot of groveling, we started the match (or mismatch as the case may be).

Violet: Stewart, where'd you find this croquet set, in an archeological dig?

Wine X: I rented it. I have to return it by six or they'll charge me double.

Violet: You guys really know how to show your appreciation.

Wine X: It's a gift. So where are the Grgich Hills anyway?

Violet: There aren't any. The name Grgich Hills comes from my dad's last name and his partner's last name, Austin Hills, of the Hills Brothers Coffee family.

Wine X: Oh. That explains why I couldn't find 'em on the map. So what's your official job title at the winery?

Violet: Sales & Marketing

Wine X: And this is something that you always wanted to do?

Violet: Actually I didn't think I'd be working at the winery when I grew up. But my dad had other ideas, so I started at UC Davis and took a winemaking class.

Wine X: One class?

Violet: Yeah. And the rest in music. That's my first love. I just finished my graduate degree in music at Indiana University. And so now I'm just getting back into the swing of things at the winery. Is this a croquet match or an interview?

Wine X: If I don't ask a few questions I can't write the mileage off on my truck as a business expense.

Violet: Okay, you can ask a few questions. But no fair distracting me.

Wine X: Wouldn't think of it. Do you wanna do one-potato two-potato to see who goes first?

Violet: If we must.

Wine X: How does that go again?

Violet: I'll go first.

Wine X: Right.


Wine X: Wow! Nice shot. Two hoops. So you studied music. How many instruments do you play?

Violet: Six -- the piano, flute, accordion and harpsichord. Oh, and uhh... recorder and viola da gamba. But badly. It's your turn.

WHACK! Meoooow!!

Wine X: Sorry. Lucky bounce off the cat though, huh?

Violet: We'll give him a glass of wine. He'll be fine.

Wine X: So what's your job like?

Violet: I travel a lot. On my last trip, in four days I conducted two vertical tastings, made sales calls all day each day and hosted three winemaker dinners. It's like being on tour.

Wine X: Anything embarrassing ever happen at these events?

Violet: I was doing a tasting for some sommeliers and one gentleman came up to me and said, "Well, you know, they're gonna ask some very difficult questions," which really bothered me. So at the beginning of the presentation I grabbed a glass of red wine (Grgich Hills cab) and started talking about the wine while swirling the wine around in the glass. Doing the swirl-sniff thing, something I've been doing since I was about 5 years old, I proceeded to swirl the wine right onto my cream-colored suit. I had a beautiful streak all the way down the front of my blouse, down my skirt, down my nylons and all the way to my toes. The world didn't end and nobody threw rotten vegetables at me, but...

Wine X: Hey, it happens all the time. Not to me of course, but... Whose shot is it?

Violet: Stewart, why are you wearing weight lifting gloves?

Wine X: So I don't get splinters.

Violet: You're the toughest Wine X had, huh?

Wine X: It's a small office. What's your basic philosophy at Grgich?

Violet: To write as few checks as possible.

Wine X: Mine too. What I mean is... What do you feel is the reason for the huge success of Grgich Hills?

Violet: A tiny amount of high-quality wine. But back when we got started in 1977, restaurants weren't that interested in small wineries. If you couldn't supply them with a year's worth of wine, they didn't want to talk to you. They only wanted to order wine once a year. But today, with a computer in every restaurant, ordering isn't such an issue. High quality and small volume is all the rage today.

Violet lines-up her shot. Whack! Oh great, another hoop. And she landed right next to me. She's going to send me. I know it. I know it.

Violet: We've been growing steadily over the years and doing really well. We produce about 60,000 cases of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, fume blanc, zinfandel and a sweet, late-harvest wine that's my namesake -- Violetta.

Wine X: Ahh. A sweet wine for a sweet lady.

Violet: Oh Stewart. Flattery will get you far.

Wine X: Really?

Violet: Yeah. This far!

WHACK! Wow. My ball's headed toward South America.

Violet: You know, you might just wanna concede and save yourself the embarrassment.

Wine X: I think I'm gettin' the hang of it. Really. So what do you think the average person thinks about wine?

Violet: People either have the idea that wine is about a bunch of wealthy people imbibing while living the life of luxury. Or, to the other extreme, wine is about a bum on the street drinking in an alley. Wine, in this country, is definitely not thought of as a part of people's everyday life. You find your ball there, Stew?

Wine X: Uh huh. You're of Croatian heritage. How does that affect your attitude toward wine?

Violet: I was raised as a Croatian, not as an American, in the fact that I've had wine every day since I was one year old. Wine was always on the table. When I was younger, it was half water, half wine. Or in the summer I would mix chenin blanc with lemonade. I called it a Grinchy. It was really sour and I loved the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Wine X: Trivia question: who was the voice of the Grinch?

Violet: You're trying to distract me.

Wine X: Is it working?

Violet: No.

WHACK! Damn, another hoop.

Wine X: Did you ever get a little silly after you had some wine as a kid?

Violet: I had too much to drink one night. My mom had to take us home. But it taught me to respect wine -- and alcohol -- and not to abuse it.

Wine X: What do you find to be the major difference between America and the Mediterranean?

Violet: In the Mediterranean, people eat slowly, drink wine, sing and share. In the United States, people eat fast and watch TV.

Wine X: Ouch.

Violet: It hurts, but it's the truth.

Wine X: No, I think I'm getting a blister. This game is brutal on the body.

I line up my shot. Whack! Finally, a hoop. I'm on a roll now.

Wine X: What do you think of the government warning on wine bottles?

Violet: I think the message is partially self-evident. Of course you'll get tipsy if you drink too much. Duh! And I thinks it's partially untrue. Cancer? What about the numerous studies showing that people who drink in moderation live longer and healthier -- and I'll certainly bet happier -- lives than those who abstain. And it messes up the design of our label of course.

Violet whacks another shot. Damn she's good. Looks like another long day.

I'll spare you the gory details, but let's just say that Violet retained her title. And I, well, I think that goes without saying. Anyway, after stowing our mallets we moved to the porch, poured a glass of Grgich chardonnay and continued the interview.

Wine X: What is wine to you?

Violet: Wine is sexy, exciting and delicious!

Wine X: What do you think of me?

Violet: What I said about wine?

Wine X: Yes...

Violet: The opposite.

Wine X: Guess I had that coming. Next question. When you're aging a wine, how do you know when it's time to open it?

Violet: Seeing how wine doesn't have a pop-up timer, I buy a case, open a bottle every year or so, and when it tastes best to me, I drink the rest.

Wine X: Where do you store your wine? Do you have like a big expensive temperature-controlled cellar?

Violet: No. I keep it in a central closet of my house. It's cool, dark and the temperature stays constant. That's the best place.

Wine X: You hear a lot about "complex" wines. What does the word complex mean to you?

Violet: Complex means when you smell and taste wine you may only get a couple aromas and flavors at first. But then, as the wine opens-up, you get more and different aromas and flavors. And before you know it you're heading down the path toward infinity. It's sort of like a good movie, I guess. Starts out one way, then develops over a period of time into something that's so much more, and keeps you marvelously entertained for quite a while. Like our 1992 Carneros chardonnay.

Wine X: You guys produce a great zinfandel. I heard that zinfandel might have its origins in Croatia.

Violet: In Croatia we grow a grape called plavac mali, which we think is zinfandel. It grows best along the Dalmatian coastline, in the nice warm climate. UC Davis is currently doing DNA testing to prove that mali plavac is zinfandel.

Wine X: Where's the weirdest place that you've done a wine tasting?

Violet: Did you plan these questions, or are you making 'em up as you go?

Wine X: Almost done.

Violet: The weirdest place I've done a wine tasting... In Oklahoma. At a mattress/furniture store. They thought zinfandel was a blush wine.

Wine X: All done. Thanks for the interview, er, match. Best outta seven next time?

Violet: Can your hands take it?

Wine X: Maybe you're right.

Violet: Yes I know. See you later. Oh, by the way, the voice of the Grinch was Boris Karloff.

Wine X: Yes, I know.

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