For those who follow me on any social media platform, from the usual Instagram and Twitter to Vivino where I review wine and, for some reason, people really seem to dig it, you know I’ve been in Bosnia for several weeks now, doing research on the Siege of Sarajevo while not-so-quietly having a love affair with Balkan wine which I have generally found to be extraordinary. From Herzegovinan Vranac to Montenegran Cabernet Sauvignon to Serbian Riesling and so many more, my general impressions of wine from the former Yugoslavia is that it can be–and often is–mind-blowingly good. So yesterday, after nearly two weeks of running around non-stop, presenting at conferences and walking the streets of Sarajevo in search of the elusive and rapidly-disappearing “Sarajevo Roses” (check out @rosesofsarajevo on Twitter or Instagram for more on that) I took a little holiday and struck out for Croatia, just for one day, with the goal of getting my feet wet in the world of Croatian wine.
The one winery that I absolutely knew I had to visit was Grgic Vina. Founded in 1996 by Miljenko Grgic, known widely as Mike Grgich, this is the Croatian winery started by the man who made the 1973 Chateau Montelena that won the Judgement of Paris. That wine, victorious in the white wine category in 1976, forever changing the world of wine. Along with Warren Winiarski’s Cab Sauv, it tore down the walls of French superiority, creating export markets and helping consumers to realize that world-class wines can come from anywhere in the world. My book on the Judgement of Paris is due out from The History Press in May of 2023, and I wanted to be sure to include this part of the legendary Croatian-American winemaker’s legacy therein. I have such a profound respect for Grgic(h), who barely escaped Yugoslavia with his life only to enter the US via Germany and Canada, and to not only become one of the most important winemakers in the world but also then to return to Croatia and give back to it profoundly. If I didn’t do anything else all day, it would be a good day so long as I got to visit Grgic Vina.
Upon arriving, I was greeted warmly by the entire staff, and Drazena graciously showed me into the barrel room. The entirety of Grgic Vina is on par with the greatest wineries of Napa, Sonoma, Vouvray, and any other region I have visited. Drazena then had me take a seat on the stunning outdoor patio, overlooking the aquamarine waters of the Adriatic. She brought me beautiful wines–including Mike’s Napa rose’ which I’ve always loved and which was a perfect wine for the environs, along with Posip and Plavac Mali. She explained that Miljenko only wished to make wines from native Croatian grapes at the winery. I found them both to be truly exceptional, and only wished that I had my wife and some travel companions with us that we might buy a bottle and enjoy the views together. In truth, between the incredible hospitality and the incredible wine, I might have been Odysseus on Circe’s Island–what reason could I possibly find to leave?
Perhaps somewhat predictably however, once I’d had a taste of this amazing Croatian wine, I wanted more. It was early in the afternoon, and I’d driven nearly five hours to reach the Dalmatian Coast; surely I could find another winery to visit. Only a short drive from Grgic Vina I passed by Bezek Winery, which I’d noticed on our drive in. Walking in, I met a delightful woman who was eager to share the phenomenal wines that her brother, Ivan, was making. The winery was an old horse stable, she told me, with thick stone walls and a rustic yet warm and inviting feel. When she asked what I’d like to try, I resisted the urge to say “everything” and instead requested to try the reds. The interest I expressed in them soon led to more bottles being opened, however, and soon I think that I had tasted through the entire Bezek portfolio.
Like those of Miljenko Grgic, the wines of Ivan Bezek and his family are genuinely exceptional. I was quite taken by the Plavac Mali, also with the dry rose’ Ivan made from that varietal, and in the end I bought a bottle of rose’ for my hotel room and a bottle of Plavac Mali as a gift for a friend. When I asked how much wine the small winery produced annually, I learned that the answer varied wildly depending upon harvest yields, but upon further investigation and some quick metric conversions, I discovered that in a good year Bezek probably produces a thousand cases of wine in total. They do absolutely no exporting, but a few local restaurants do carry their wines. Enamored, I considered shipping a case across the ocean, then remembered it was a balmy ninety-something degrees on the Dalmatian Cost that day, and contented myself to purchase the two bottles with the hope that I would one day return to this most charming of wineries. I also purchased some local artisan wares that benefit the disabled in this tiny community, and was thankful for the opportunity to be at least a tiny bit useful in this way. Upon departing I asked Ms. Bezek the question that I have asked so many hundreds of times before, and which has almost never steered me wrong: “If you were going to visit another winery right now, just one more, where would you go?”
Less than five minutes later I stepped through the doors at EdivO, which reminded me a great deal of many wineries I’ve visited in Napa, Sonoma, Nebraska, South Dakota–it had the feel of a rural tasting room, inviting and open, but with a serious twist. EdivO touts themselves as the world’s first underwater winery. Their phenomenal wines often undergo a sort of “treatment” in the calm inlet of the Adriatic just past the tasting room where we had passed a small horde of sunbathers on our way to Grgic Vina. The wines are submerged in the saltwater for two years, some in bottles, and some in amphorae, then removed later by divers, de-barnacled, and shared. They lost half their wine the first time they tried it, but over time they’ve nailed the process. Nikolina, the wonderful woman behind the bar, showed me down to the barrel room, then let me taste the same wine three times: once aged only in oak, once aged in a bottle that was submerged under the sea two years, and once in amphorae aged the same period.
I was flabbergasted. The distinctions between the three wines–which were in reality the same wine–were profound. All were made from Plavac Mali, the preferred red grape of excellent Croatian winemakers I was fast discovering, yet each might as well have been made from the juice of moon rocks they were so foreign, so exotic, so utterly exciting and fascinating. The traces of oak were evident on each, but the 2015 was vibrant and youthful while the one aged underseas in bottle reminded me a bit of some older Cab Sauvs made by Randy Dunn that I had the pleasure of trying one time. The one aged in amphorae, well, if you’d told me you just pulled it from a perfectly-preserved shipwreck dated to the fourth century B.C. I’d have been like “Oh, yeah, that makes sense, I can kinda taste the Argonauts,” it was so mysterious and unique.
In the end, my day of Croatian wine-tasting was so phenomenal that it left me–as every great trip to California Wine Country has done–simply wanting more. I don’t know when I’ll make it back to Hvartska, as the Croatians refer to their country, but I know that I’m excited to do so. I also know that the Croatians, much like their neighbors in Herzegovina, Bosnia, Albania, Slovenia, and Montenegro, don’t get nearly the credit they deserve for producing world-class wine. I pinged Jeb Dunnuck on Twitter and told him I wanted to be his correspondent for the area, but until the unlikely moment that he acquiesces to that, I guess I’m just going to have to make time to write a book about Balkan wine one day. Doing the research would be wonderful.
The Adriatic is a stunning place, perhaps as naturally beautiful as any other region of this amazing world that I’ve visited. Violet Grgich, Miljenko’s daughter, urged me to get seafood while I was there. “You’ll be spoiled forever!” she told me, and as I put away a fabulous oyster soup in fish stock and a mixed seafood risotto with juuuust the right amount of tentacles in it, I knew that she was so very right. If you like wine even a little bit, I strongly encourage you to visit Croatia. The views, the history, and the food only add to the experience. And while you could try to do things your own way, I hope you’ll forgive me for saying that if you don’t just steal my itinerary and visit Grgic Vina, Bezek, and EdivO, well, then you’re a damn fool! There have been years that I’ve spent nearly 10% of my time in California, tasting amazing wine and reviewing it as I did, and while I am and always will remain madly in love with the Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma, I’ll gladly admit that I’ve never had a better day of wine tasting in my life than I did yesterday in Croatia. I hope you find your way there soon!
NOTE: I apologize for not using proper Croatian letters; I am not familiar enough with them to get them correct and thought it better to defer to the English alphabet than to misuse the Croatian accent markings. I hope I may be forgiven, especially in the instance of names. Thank you.
PS: Here’s a little something to help you start planning your own trip to Croatian wine country: