Wine labels are fascinating things. They often tell stories, although the stories can be hidden from view. So it is with the label for Grgich Hills Estate, the Rutherford winery founded by Mike Grgich. Actually, it is not true that Grgich founded the winery; he co-founded it with Austin E. Hills, a winery owner and executive and a member of the Hills Bros. coffee family. Thus, the name Grgich Hills.
A horse is in the lower right corner of the label; this is from the Hills family coat of arms. Bottom left is the red and white flag of Croatia, where Grgich was born and lived much of his life until immigrating to the U.S. in the early 1950s. You can hear the lingering influence of Croatia in every syllable the 91-year-old winemaker utters.
The label’s central image is a cluster of chardonnay grapes, fitting because it was Grgich, when he was with Chateau Montelena, who oversaw the creation of the Chardonnay that won the white wine competition at the 1976 Judgment of Paris and showed that the best California wines were on a par with the best of the French. But that’s not the entire story of the label; it was Margrit (Biever) Mondavi who helped design it! George Taber, writing in Judgment of Paris, explains:
Grgich got lots of help from the local wine fraternity in his venture. Margrit Biever, the special promotions director for Robert Mondavi who three years later would become his second wife, helped Grgich design his first label. It shows a cluster of Chardonnay grapes and has a symbol for each partner: a horse from his family coat of arms for Hills and the Croatian flag for Grgich.
The 6.0 earthquake that hit Napa last weekend is showing, once again, what a tiny island Napa Valley really is and how wineries and winemakers band together in times of need. Their products may compete with one another on store shelves but the people behind those products willingly exchange information and cooperate with one another if the situation warrants it. That was true with Mike Grgich when he was trying to get his winery up and running in the summer of 1977.
Not only did Margaret Biever help him with his label, her future husband and the founder of Robert Mondavi Winery played an even larger role. With “no winery, no vines [and] nothing but wild grass,” as Taber writes, Grgich wasn’t sure he was going to able to crush the grapes he was buying from local farmers to produce his first vintage. A friend and former employee of Mondavi’s, he asked his ex-boss if he could use his winery’s equipment if the construction Grgich was doing and the machinery he was buying wasn’t ready on time. Mondavi said yes and although Grgich ended up not needing it, Mondavi’s generosity helped buoy his spirits and lift him through a time of need.
Recently I visited both the Grgich Hills and Mondavi wineries and filed pieces on both of them. If you’d like to see what these wineries are like today, please see “Celebrating harvest at Grgich Hills” and “A Walk in the Vineyard at Robert Mondavi Winery” at Examiner.com.