Dick and Ann Grace did not set out to create the world-class Cabernet Sauvignon that would become the first “cult” wine in America. Neither had viticulture training—he was a successful stockbroker, she a busy mother of three—so how did they do it? Is there something in Dick’s family lineage, which goes back 175 years in Hawaii that explains it? Was the first seed planted in 1954, when Ann asked Dick to go to a high school dance as her date? That may have been an early happy accident, but if that was indeed a lucky break for Dick, it was also an early example of him making the right choice. After all, he said yes. Over the intervening 60 years, there have been many such moments, in both their lives, when good luck and wise decisions have intersected.
One of the most important bursts of serendipity occurred in 1976, when the couple took a trip to the Napa Valley for a wine tasting. Ned Smith, the proprietor of the newly opened Wine Country Inn, where they were staying, stopped by to chat on his way out the door to “do some real estate.” What made him come back to their table and invite them to see a property that had just come on the market we may never know. But come back he did, and though the Graces were not looking to acquire property, and Dick certainly didn’t need a two-hour commute to his job at Smith Barney in San Francisco, they were curious, so they piled into Smith’s truck. After walking around the rundown property for 15 minutes, and after about 60 seconds of discussion, they decided to buy the old 1881 Victorian house on 3.5 acres. They moved their family from the upscale Bay Area neighborhood of Orinda to the agricultural Napa Valley.
That relocation set in motion a series of events, the sum total of which adds up to one of American wine’s treasures. Dick says he followed his intuition at every fork in the road, but the number of good guesses he’s made defies all odds. The person who told them that the former olive grove in front of their property might make a nice vineyard was Mike Richmond, then working at Napa Cabernet Sauvignon pioneer Freemark Abbey. (The Graces had thought they’d have a garden; they knew nothing about growing grapes.) Richmond went on to suggest that the vines be spaced much more closely than was conventional at the time. When Dick asked him why, his response struck a chord: “Grapevines are like people,” Richmond said. “If they struggle and make it out the other side, they have finer character.” That appealed to the Marine in him (there are no ex-Marines), and since the vineyard was just a hobby, the added labor that cultivating closely spaced vines would require didn’t faze him. After all, they had three strong kids! Additionally Dick made the wise choice to keep pesticides and herbicides out of the vineyard. He now admits that at that time he didn’t even know the word organic it just made sense.
The first harvest, in 1978, even though it was just an acre of vines, took quite a bit longer to pick than anticipated as it was picked by family and friends. That turned out to be lucky as well, since the plan had been to deliver the fruit to Caymus for blending into their highly regarded Cab. Because the convoy of station wagons filled with grapes arrived four hours later than it was supposed to, Caymus’ owner, Charlie Wagner, happened to be at the winery. When Wagner saw and tasted the quality of their grapes he decided on the spot to ferment them separately. At the time there were very few vineyard-designated wines, but when the roughly 50 cases of Caymus’ 1978 Grace Family Vineyards was released, in 1981, at the then-outrageous price of $25 a bottle, it sold out immediately.
Though intuition has played a large part in the success of Grace Family Vineyards, Dick and Ann are obviously strong believers in talent. Some of California’s best winemakers have made their wine over the years, starting with Wagner (1978-1986), of course, but also Gary Galleron (1987-1995), Heidi Peterson Barrett (1995-2001), and Gary Brookman (2001-2014). The latest to ascend to that position, Helen Keplinger, first ran into Dick and Ann on a mountain in Nepal on the way to Everest Base Camp in 1997. At that time they shared a cup of coffee in a tiny and spartan café.
Grace Family Vineyards wine is sought out by collectors around the world, but it’s important to Dick and Ann not because it gives them entrée into high society. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The wine allows them to live a comfortable life and to help others—particularly children—have better lives through the Grace Family Vineyards Foundation they’ve established.