GIFT OF GRACE
Napa Cabernet producer Dick Grace saves children with his spiritual philanthropy
Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 2004
This is, in part, a love story. Not about a man and woman, not about a man and wine; not about a man and money, country, truth, not even God, although it includes all of those. It is about a man who learned to love himself, and in doing so, found himself on the edge, a place he likes, and in a world of children, especially those on the edge.
Dick Grace, head of Grace Family Vineyards, the first “cult” Cabernet Sauvignon producer in Napa Valley, is an enigma. He’s a former Marine, yet he’s a student of Buddhism. He doesn’t make his wine and he does not even drink it, yet his Cabernets, since the first vintage of 1978, always sell out, and single bottles of his wine have fetched as much as $100,000 at auction.
He has carved a singular path out of the splashy lifestyle around wine galas and recast wine auctioning onto a different stage. In a sense, he has revolutionized philanthropy, or at least turned it on its ear. If cynics say winemakers host lavish fund-raising parties and then “oh, by the way” take out their checkbooks to throw money at charities because it’s good self-promotion, then this man says, “Wine is the catalyst for healing the planet.”
As the Napa Valley Wine Auction begins this week in St. Helena, and huge sums will be raised ($6.6 million last year), it’s appropriate to revisit Dick Grace, now 66, whose name, as it turns out, is a synonym for charity.
Grace admits he’s led a charmed life. A football player, Marine captain and a senior vice president at investment company Smith Barney in San Francisco, he happened upon the vineyard that now carries his name.
In 1975, he and his wife, Ann, were considering a rural home for their young family. They looked at an abandoned Victorian house in St. Helena and bought it as well as the surrounding acre of land. Someone mentioned to him that it was good grapegrowing acreage and that vines grown close together make superior wines because they compete with each other for water and nutrients and thus produce more intense flavors.
Grapes to Caymus
So Grace, who had never farmed before, planted 1,100 Cabernet Sauvignon vines instead of the conventional 570. In 1978, the family hand-picked the grapes and delivered them to Caymus Vineyards to sell them. Charles Wagner, owner of Caymus, happened to be receiving the trucks. He tasted the grapes and declared he would not use them for blending, but crush them separately and make a Grace Family Vineyards-designated wine under the Caymus label.
In 1983, Grace began producing his own wine, at Caymus, and by 1987 he had his own winery and estate-bottled Cabernet Sauvignon. The ‘78 vintage presaged all other vintages — it sold out and it commanded the highest prices back then, $25 (it’s $165 now to mailing-list customers). To this day, only subscribers receive a limited amount per year. Currently, Grace Family Vineyards sells to 435 customers and keeps 4,000 on a waiting list. In 1988, Grace expanded his planting to include a second contiguous acre. Currently the winery also makes a Cabernet Sauvignon for another small grower under its own label, so the total Grace vineyards output is from 3 acres.
“We make the amount of wine that other wineries evaporate,” he says.
When disease struck and the first vines were ripped out in 1994, Grace planted the new vines even more closely, at 3,400 per acre. That’s six times the standard at the time in Napa Valley and three times more than Grace started with in 1976. The vineyard has always been organic (and is now biodynamic) and hand-picked, and Grace has had some of the best winemakers working for him (including Gary Galleron, Heidi Peterson Barrett and Gary Brookman). The wine, 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, is typically quite complex and elegant in the way of classic Bordeaux wines, with subtle black fruit aromas and flavors and sublime balance.
It’s one of Grace’s hallmarks that he aims high and risks high.
“I like risk,” he says. It explains Grace’s spiritual journey. Chance plays a big role in his success as he tells it, but he recognizes stress as the quality that lifts what is ordinary and extracts out of it something extraordinary and rare. Inner stresses transformed Grace himself, and stress in others lifted out of him the desire to help them.
Grace lets loose with a high volume of words, gifts, stories and promotional materials as soon as you meet him. One is a watch whose face includes his motto, “Be optimystic.” The “y” is perhaps cutesy, but intentional and Gracian. He also shows snapshots of the Tibetans he has met and helped. Those snapshots tell of the human spirit shining under stress.
The man, who is a cross between Bob Barker, Billy Graham and someone else who’s hard to pinpoint, was transformed through the test of life. By the early 1980s, Grace was depressed and dependent on painkillers prescribed for a football injury; he also had an alcohol problem. Calling on what wife Ann labels a ramrod-hard will, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has stayed sober for 16 years. (Ed. note: 26 years as of 2014)
As a vintner dabbling in charity fund-raisers, he attended an event in 1988 that gives terminally ill kids their dream wish. In Alabama he befriended Anthony Frasier, age 9. Grace took Anthony to the zoo, and for the next six months, called him once a week until the boy died. Grace delivered Anthony’s eulogy.
That was his epiphany. “I was a drunk and I needed a reminder,” he says. Anthony was that reminder. “I kind of felt I deserved this place, that I built it.” Then it dawned on him that his winery “is a gift and should be used wisely.”
By 1988, Grace fashioned an intense spiritual path of giving that rode on his business savvy and connections.
“I wanted a different course for the winery,” Grace says. “Through wineries pass the most considerate, compassionate people. They are also wealthy and they are generous beyond comprehension.” These people, he says, “are just waiting to hear a message of kindness.”
So Grace delivers it, with vigor.
Depression, alcoholism and children are his teachers, he says, adding, “My gurus come from unusual places.” Grace bombards people with an infinite store of tales of those who have touched him; in addition to Anthony Frasier, there is a 9 year old he calls John Karma, whom Grace found, lice-ridden and abandoned in a handbasket off a trail in the Himalayas. Grace refused to leave him, cleaned him and eventually found him a home. Like dozens of boys and girls he has met, Grace is committed to bringing John Karma to college in this country.
What was Grace like at age 9?
I was a hell-raiser and a risk-taker,” he says, laughing. That boy lurks in him still, along with the zealot, the promoter and the businessman. But the enigmas and complexities go even further. Dressed neatly, as you would expect of an ex-Marine, in a polo shirt, Grace wears Tibetan beads on a string around his wrist.
“I need reminders of this world,” he says. “Otherwise, I’m going to think Napa Valley is the real world.”
It seems he is succeeding. Although Grace gives speeches in a neutral, almost military tone, when he tells the stories of Anthony Frasier or John Karma, he tears up at almost each telling.
Since his retirement from Smith Barney four years ago, Grace makes three trips a year with Ann to the Himalayan region, traveling three to four months a year. There are those who say that Ann, married to him for 45 years, is what grounds Dick Grace and makes all he does possible. They are building a mobile hospital for the Himalyan region for $250,000, which, he never forgets to tell you, is what a few bottles of auctioned wine can make.
The Graces’ three grown children and their families participate in harvesting the grapes on the property. Son Kirk is vineyard manager. All of them support outreach programs in their communities, Grace says.
All are fair game
Taking himself to the cradle of Eastern spirituality is not his only aim. Grace has taken anyone he can hook, from “cocktail waitresses to CEOs.” On the next trip to Tibet, he has already invited the principals from several Silicon Valley firms.
“I take people into the wilds because they can’t come away unchanged,” he says. “People can do so much with so little. What I sell for a bottle can clothe, shelter, feed and educate one child in Nepal for a year.”
To date, the Grace Foundation supports causes in Nepal, Tibet, Mexico, California, Hawaii, Alabama, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The face time that lies at the heart of Grace’s own giving feeds his voracious energy.
“When he drank, he drank with real fervor, and when he stopped, he stopped with fervor,” says David Reynolds, a wine auctioneer and longtime friend.
Grace urges benefactors to experience the same personal time with their beneficiaries. He is intensively active in many other auctions, donating large lots of wine as well as cash, and he follows them by spending time with the children they serve. While he’s proud of his colleagues’ dollar gifts — “I’d be shocked if our industry doesn’t give $200 million for the disenfranchised per year” — his biggest challenge is to engage them, transform them and invite them to see the inner stress.
Giving cash to charity is only half of the equation. Grace is out to “build capital” for the underserved by changing hearts and minds. Dick and Ann donate between 20 to 22 percent of the vineyard’s revenues to philanthropy. He estimates conservatively that the winery has raised $20 million at charitable events; the estimate does not include the number of the wealthy whom he has brought to auctions to spend their own money. By the reckoning of his peers, when Grace involves himself in an event or charity, donations and good will — like money bid for the bottles of Grace wine — explode exponentially.
Impatient with inefficiency, he does away with bureaucracy and runs the Grace Foundation from his own desk at home. Along with writing checks, he holds lepers in India, he befriends teenagers in rehabilitation in Napa at Our Family, Inc., and he visits and maintains relationships with cancer-stricken children at Family House in San Francisco.
The directors and teachers of those private projects in Napa and San Francisco all attest to his endearing, genuine genius with the children. Says Christina Layman, a teacher at Our Family: “They sit and listen to Dick and they will not even move. They just know he tells the truth.”
Those on the philanthropy circuit know that Grace won’t raise money for the opera or symphony, but he will for a children’s foundation. He can insist that a wine event include a children’s organization as beneficiary — and get his way. And then, he tops it by working relentlessly to bring the haves to the have-nots for face time.
Wine as a catalyst
The philanthropy Grace defines can make some uncomfortable.
For Dick, wine is part of a crusade. He really believes the phrase that wine is a catalyst and he puts his money where his mouth is,” says Reynolds, who has known Grace for 20 years. “He donates an enormous amount of wine and not only that, an enormous amount of money.”
And he uses his power and the experience of 30 years in stockbrokerage where it counts.
“If Dick gets involved in a wine event, he gets everybody involved,” Reynolds says. However, “I could not do the Mother Theresa thing. Not everyone wants to trek up to the Himalayas.”
Reynolds says Grace can “create havoc” by giving speeches about activism and insisting that a children’s charity be included, that beneficiaries be present at events and that the donors meet the beneficiaries. There are donors who “live in terror of him,” according to Reynolds. Lavish auctions and large donations are part of the philanthropic scene, says Reynolds.
“All these events are wretched excesses,” he says. “The charitable part excuses an awful lot, but they’re still wretched excesses.” Yet he agrees with Grace that auctions are an immense potential audience and should be addressed.
“You get a couple thousand wealthy people in one room to do good, and if you don’t take the opportunity to get them involved on a long-term basis, you’ve wasted something. The group could change the world.”
That’s when Grace’s stories and speeches make a difference. Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards, also an active donor in Napa Valley, can only admire Grace and calls him a “consummate salesman. I don’t fault his style. It’s intense and focused and he is clear about what he’s trying to do.” Grace is outspoken, she says, but he has the record and experience to back it up.
No one who knows Grace, including Ann, denies he has an ego. It perhaps explains Grace’s attraction to Eastern spirituality, which downplays individuality. Once a believer, he now feels let down by “organized religion, politics, corporate America, the legal profession, the military, the judiciary and the medical establishment.”
He has met some of the most revered Eastern spiritual teachers. By most accounts, he and the Dalai Lama have an unusual friendship, one in which Grace tells His Holiness that his monks should do less sitting around and that he should re-think his stance of homosexuals. Grace uses the language of Buddhism easily, and so rarely uses the “L” word. But he has found love for himself and for the universe. People are good and generous, he says, and so it behooves him “to use the vehicle (the winery) wisely. I have to be vigilant,” so that success doesn’t steer him off course.
The goal is simple: “I just want to be there for a kid.”
Whether he succeeds in changing the world or not, “I’ve just been given the loveliest gift to know I’ve got a shot at making a difference.”