By Linda Runyan

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There must be something to synchronicity after all, something that may explain how a visionary landscape designer of Italian descent came to be the creator, realizer of a visionary Croatian wine maker’s very earthy dream. Sound a bit lofty? Well, come down to earth and drive up Highway 29 to Grgich Hills Estate Winery in Rutherford, where you’ll see the terra and affirm how affinities, born in the Mediterranean, can blend and bear fruit in the Mediterranean clime of the sprawling Napa Valley.

“When I thought of my grandfather Antonio’s Sonoma garden--very Italian, very Mediterranean, with its fruit trees and olive trees and roses, all biodynamically grown--I knew that was the model I would follow in designing the gardens at Grigch,” explains Gary Ronoconi of Ronconi Landscaping in nearby Glen Ellen. In 1977, the same year that a young Ronconi hung out his designer’s shingle, the 54-year-old wine-making maestro Miljenko (Mike) Grgich, combined with Austin Hills of The Hills Bros. coffee family to set up Grgich Hills—a Napa Valley legend that has won so many prestigious wine awards they’ve almost run out of walls to put them on.

Mike Grgich is the man behind all the accolades and everything else at Grgich Hills Estate. Ever aware of his responsibilities and roots, Grgich, an 85-year-old son of Croatia, wanted the exterior of his world-class winery to reflect his beliefs, his genius, his earthy-etheral ethos and, naturally, his native land. He and his daughter Violet wanted, in short, “something very organic yet Old World-influenced, nothing that looked new and modern,” sums up Ronconi, harkening back to his own simple but solid Mediterranean roots.

“The Grgich garden was developed in an informal way; the Grgichs wanted it to be natural,” points out Ronconi, “to be as connected to the earth as much as possible, especially from a biodynamic standpoint since all 366 of their vineyard acres are biodynamically farmed in a sustainable way. We attempted to recreate that in the living landscaping.”

Attempt accomplished, thanks to the trained, attuned eye of designer Ronconi, who expanded and enhanced, reshaped and reimagined the Grgich grounds, untouched since the winery opened for business in 1977. For starters, the front of the winery on Hwy. 29, got a much-needed facelift, one made even brighter by new, signage and a profusion of red and yellow blooms—Croatian colors. Ronconi, who worked in conjunction with Robert Martinez of Vista Landscapes, also devised a dramatic new main entrance, a pathway through an aromatic vineyard framed by two flanking Italian Cypress and two stone pillars, capped with flagstone. 

These pillars are just one of many unifying themes that Ronconi used to tie together the various elements and areas of the Grgich property. All bespeak place, a sense of place which conveys old worlds and old wines that are forever young. Nowhere is that historical context more obvious than in the gardens themselves which boast an array of plants and flowers native to both Napa and Croatia. There’s Lavendar and Salvia, Gazenias and roses by the hundreds of the Heritage variety, all selected by Violet Grginch. “Her help with the garden and roses was invaluable,” confirms Ronconi who sprinkled throughout the distinctive irregular-edged Burburus “to give an informal look that fuses the garden together.”

But what sets off the whole pristine package, the jewels, if you will, in the Grgich grounds-crown are the Ronconi-designed water features, three in all, that add fresh energy and new life to Old World charm. The queen of them all, the fountain in the private main courtyard, serves as its focal point. Set in the middle of a 30x8 foot stone wall, the flowing centerpiece, ensconced in Napa Valley rock, consists of a water wier with a ten-foot sheer cascade descent. The wall, bearing the checkerboard flag of Croatia at one end and the unicorned family crest of Austin Hills at the other, cleverly screens off the service parking area so all you see is a green fringe of leafy vines and the majestic Mt. St. Helena. The entire garden courtyard, all 90x30 feet of it, is reserved for VIP events, opening as it does directly into Grgich Estate’s private hosting rooms.

 In order to enlarge and add depth and dimension to this courtyard, Ronconi was compelled to take out a row of vines. “That was a surprise,” laughs Ronconi, “but a good one when you see the end result.” Directly perpendicular to this garden-courtyard will be a smaller VIP terrace garden where Grgich Hills Estate will hold special musical evenings and other events. The famous family has once again commissioned Ronconi Landscaping to bring out the magic and music of this sequestered spot.

Ronconi made his second splash in the smaller public courtyard, just outside the bigger private courtyard. Separated by wooden doors, this area is flag-stoned and visitor-friendly. Its masonry fountain, trimmed out in the checkerboard of the Croatia flag and that two-leaf, two-grape cluster that’s the Grgich Hills Estate label/logo, lends sparkle to the space and additional trellising offers mottled shade. All the stone artwork was done by Sonoma’s renown artist Katherine Zsolt of KZ Studios. Ronconi brought Zsolt onboard, watching as she painstakingly carved, sculpted and created the molds and special pouring techniques that would make the Grgich symbols come vividly alive. 

Which is also what Ronconi himself did all over the 5,000 sq. ft. Grgich site: enliven, invigorate, invest history with spirit, landscape with living, earthy legacy with enriching experience as ultimately satisfying as wine itself. In bringing all the old and new elements into concert, Ronconi faced his biggest challenge. “The most difficult thing was integrating the pre-existing configuration of the gardens with the new elements, particularly the water features. Creating a presence at the front of the winery that defined and melded the garden and building space was also at the top of my more difficult ‘Must Do’s.’”

Done. Did. Ronconi masterminded and orchestrated a landscape, a winescape, worthy of Mike Grgich, the maestro himself who just celebrated fifty years of fine wine making in Napa Valley. With care and flair, Ronconi fashioned sparkling new facets at the traditional old winery, annexing off small areas where people can gawk and walk and gather, lacing into the terrain more trellising, more decomposed-granite and flagstone walkways, more low-level stone walls, some meandering, some straight, one leading all the way down to the Grgich front gate. Close by, a small turnout where a penny fountain--with more water--was installed and will be dedicated with some fanfare come September 11. Governor Arnold Swarznegger and other dignitaries will be on hand to give a hand to Roots of Peace, a San Rafael-based non-profit that is helping Crotia replace its old land mines with new grape vines.

Of course Croatia’s favorite son and Roots supporter Mike Grgich is sure to be on hand, blue beret and all. And so is his landscape muse Gary Ronconi, the dream-designing man who slightly, significantly reblended, redrew the contrasts and contours of Grgich Hills Estates’ terra firma. It was a matter of harmonizing, balancing the best of several worlds, and, to my way of thinking, it was a matter of Mediterranean meeting Mediterranean in a Mediterranean clime, a clear case of mutual affinities, simple synchronicity waiting to happen. 

 A journalist on the beat for 20 years in Washington, D.C., and New York, Sonoma writer Linda Runyan displays her craft and art as a writing teacher at Napa Valley College, St. Helena. She is currently hard at work on a scandalous novel.