Our interview with Dick Grace at Grace Family Vineyards

10 years ago by Tim

During our last trip, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet Dick Grace, the owner of Grace Family Vineyards. He is a fascinating man with a fascinating story, and he just happens to produce one of California's best wines. On the surface, Mr. Grace is a study in paradoxes. He makes one of the most sought after California wines, but doesn't drink it. He is immensely concerned with how much his wine sells for, but donates a significant amount of his profits to charity.

After leaving the Marines due to a training injury, he began what would amount to a very lucrative career in the investment business in 1964. As he started making significant money, he says he soon became obsessed with acquiring things. Eventually burned out by the life he had in San Francisco, Dick and his wife Ann ended up buying an abandoned (and allegedly haunted) 1910 Victorian house in St. Helena during a weekend trip in 1975. They knew it was home, he says, the minute they walked in.

Michael Richmond, who founded Acacia Winery and was among the first to produce vineyard-designated wines in California, convinced the Graces that their front yard would produce great grapes, and in 1976 they planted 1.1 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. The first harvest in 1978, worked by five family members and seven friends, was sold to Caymus and intended to be blended with their other fruit. However, the late Charlie Wagner thought the four station wagons of Grace Family fruit were special and decided to vinify it separately, producing two barrels of wine bearing the Caymus label and the Grace Family Vineyard designation.

With that, Caymus produced what would shortly become California's first "cult wine".

But just as the winery was growing in prestige, Mr. Grace started struggling with his own demons. The son of an alcoholic father, he found himself addicted to painkillers and drinking too much. He had everything but was still deeply unhappy. Grace started attending Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober since 1988. Though he still battles depression, this change was the catalyst for him to find a new mission in life, and charity has become a major part of the Grace Family Vineyards story. The Graces donate a significant portion of the winery's profit, though the Grace Family Foundation, to support the underserved, particularly children in Nepal, Tibet and India. The winery is merely the hub which allows them to give back - and kept him interested in the winery to this day. If it was just about his ego, he says, he would have lost interest long ago.

To be clear, Mr. Grace never intended on making a "cult wine" and the term itself is one that he does not like to use. At the time the first bottle of Grace Family became available in 1981, there was little competition for ultra-premium California wines and Grace Family hit the market for an unprecedented $25 per bottle. With soaring demand and small production, accessibility to the wine became a matter of pride for collectors. Today, despite greater production and greater competition, Grace Family wines remain highly sought after and highly allocated.

It helps that the wine itself is phenomenal. Mr. Grace is not a fan of contest wines - or as he puts it, "those highly-extracted, sexy wines that you aren't sure you want to spend 30 years with". Instead, he strives for elegant, beautiful and balanced wines. For lack of a better term, he wants his wines to be marriage material. Given their restrained style, it's probably no surprise that Grace Family wines haven't received top scores from some critics or that Mr. Grace is not a fan of the critical process in general. I think it's easy for more soft-spoken wines to be lost amid a sea of showy wines, especially when tasted in succession - a phenomenon I've experienced recently with two other top California wines, a 2005 Harlan Estate and a 2002 Verite La Joie.

The 2011 Grace Family Vineyard echoes the class, structure and finesse of a First Growth Bordeaux - a feminine, elegant and beautifully aromatic Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2012 tasted from barrel was a bit more lush and fruit-forward, as you might expect from the riper vintage, but still displayed impressive restraint compared to others we've tasted. The 2012 Blank Vineyard, also tasted from barrel, had distinct and lovely herbal aromas and will be sure to drink exceptionally well upon release.

Mr. Grace has also been fortunate to have a lineage of star winemakers bringing the most out of his terroir. Gary Brookman took over from Heidi Barrett in 2001, who took over for Gary Galleron in 1995. Brookman, who previously spent 13 years at Joseph Phelps, is also the head winemaker at Miner Family Vineyards. Heidi Barrett has, of course, been associated with countless "cult" wines including Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle, and Gary Galleron was owner of Whitehall Lane and winemaker at Chateau Montelena, Vineyard 29, Del Dotto and Hartwell, among others. Production has grown to 1,000 cases of wine total, with 500 from both the Estate Vineyard and the Blank Vineyard. Blank Vineyard was planted from Estate Vineyard clippings, and both are managed by their eldest son Kirk.

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