In 1972, despairing of ever running his own place, he was offered the winemaker’s job at Montelena, which Mr. Barrett was just starting. Mr. Barrett, a Los Angeles lawyer, envisioned making a world-class cabernet sauvignon but was discouraged when Mr. Grgich explained to him that in planting a new vineyard, waiting for it to yield fruit and then aging a red wine, five years would pass before he would have any to sell.
To provide cash flow, Mr. Grgich suggested making a white. They would purchase grapes, make the wine and sell it after eight months’ aging or so. The heralded 1973 chardonnay was Montelena’s second vintage.
Despite his years in California, Mr. Grgich always considered his wine European in style.
“I know how to be a wine chemist, a wine microbiologist, a wine doctor, but I don’t want to be a wine doctor,” he said in 1977. “I give more attention to the art of winemaking than to the science.”
As part of his deal at Montelena, Mr. Grgich had signed a five-year contract and received a small piece of the ownership and some stock. As his contract ended, he sold his shares to raise money to create his own estate. It still wasn’t enough, so he entered what turned out to be an amiable and lasting partnership with Austin Hills, a vineyard owner and member of the Hills Brothers Coffee family, and Mr. Hills’ sister, Mary Lee Strebl. Grgich Hills was born.
Today, Grgich Hills farms more than 350 acres in Napa Valley and makes roughly 80,000 cases of wine a year. Mr. Grgich’s daughter, Violet Grgich, is now president, and a nephew, Ivo Jeramaz, is in charge of vineyards and winemaking.