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Celebrating harvest at Grgich Hills with music and blessings

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Two days before the shock and sudden gloom of the Napa earthquake, they held a happy ceremony at Grgich Hills Estate. They have been performing this ritual for 37 years—through good times and bad, through earthquakes, drought and war. It was the annual blessing of the grapes to mark the start of harvest.

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Some 50 people attended the ceremony, and Mike Grgich, the cofounder of the Rutherford winery and one of Napa Valley’s most celebrated winemakers, spoke. “I am so happy that we have so many friends,” he said, standing at a podium with a hand-held microphone, his voice thick with the accent of his native Croatia.

“If you make, every day, at least one new friend, in 365 days you will have 365 friends,” he continued. “No money can buy that. And so it makes me really happy that so many friends are here today.”

Sporting a natty brown pinstriped suit with a blue shirt that complimented his trademark dark blue beret, the 91-year-old made jokes and smiled often, the audience smiling and laughing with him. When he arrived at the ceremony, using a walker to support himself, he personally greeted as many attendees as he could, shaking hands with the men and kissing most every woman he met on the cheek. This last he seemed to enjoy most of all.

People held glasses of the 2012 Fume Blanc poured for them by Grgich Hills employees. Steps away were bins of light green sauvignon blanc grapes freshly picked from nearby vineyards in Carneros and American Canyon. Soon these grapes would be crushed and pressed for the 2014 vintage.

In her welcoming remarks, Violet Grgich, Mike’s daughter who is the vice president of sales and marketing, said “it seemed like only yesterday” when her father and financier Austin E. Hills broke ground on their joint venture on July 4, 1977. Not quite a teenager then, she remembers pouring a bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay into the first hole that was dug on the site, an act that was a kind of blessing in itself.

That chardonnay, of course, is one of the most famous ever made. It won the white wine side of the 1976 Judgment of Paris, in which California wines outpointed the best from Burgundy and Bordeaux and, in the words of Robert M. Parker Jr., “destroyed the myth of French supremacy and marked the democratization of the wine world.” It also sealed the reputation of the man who created that status quo-destroying chardonnay, Mike Grgich.

Grgich was the winemaker for Calistoga’s Chateau Montelena. His Paris triumph enabled him to hang up his own shingle, and every year since then Grgich Hills Estate, like wineries all around the world, have been bringing in the grapes with prayers of blessings and gratitude.

Dressed in white clerical garb, Father Andrew Metcalf, a retired priest from the Diocese of Santa Rosa, did the honors, explaining that the ritual blessing always occurs in August around the same time as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the day Catholics believe that Christ’s mother entered Heaven. “And so in Europe that’s the day they begin to gather the harvest and bless it,” he said.

“For these fruitful blessings of the earth and for all it gives, we are truly thankful,” he said in his blessing. “We bless our brothers and sisters who work in the vineyards, who on this day make merry too. We too rejoice in this year’s harvest of grapes.”

After finishing his remarks he sprinkled holy water on the grapes in the bins, using a vessel carried by Ivo Jeramaz, the Grgich Hills winemaker who, like his mentor, is also a native of the Republic of Croatia. Then the priest walked around the gathering lightly tossing holy water on all of those who were present. “You’re all going to be holy people,” he joked.

The morning ended with two of Mike’s favorite songs, “You Are My Sunshine” and “Que Sera, Sera.” Lyrics of the songs were distributed so that everyone could sing along. Musical accompaniment was provided by Violet on accordion and her husband Colin Shipman on stand-up bass. Kathryn Fletcher, a Grgich employee, sang the Doris Day part on “Que Sera, Sera.” Afterwards the group adjourned to a patio for cold cuts and appetizers and more generous pouring of the liquids that are formed from those blessed grapes.

The Grgich Hills Estate would seem a nice place to visit even when they’re not blessing the grapes. It is a stop on the Napa Wine Train. Its new ranch house, which also received a blessing on this day, is open for group and corporate events. Tours and tastings $20-$90. Open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. 1829 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford. 707-963-2784.

For a fuller presentation of Mike Grgich’s remarks on this day and the complete text of Father Metcalf’s blessing of the grapes, please see "Giving Thanks, Saying Blessings" at Kevin Nelson Writer.

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