Unlike most local winemakers, David Grega of Napa is no stranger to fighting for his life in a combat zone.
After serving from 2005 to 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq, in Operation Iraqi Freedom III, Grega launched the Carlotta Cellars wine label in 2008 with his business partner, Aran Healy. Today, Grega, an Army tanker and gunner turned certified sommelier and winemaker, is splitting his time between two professional pursuits: running his growing wine label and helping fellow veterans make the difficult transition from life in the war zone to civilian ventures.
As a veteran, Grega, 26, saw events firsthand that most people cannot imagine living through.
“When one of your own is killed, it changes you forever,” he said. “I saluted the Kevlar and rifle of one of our guys who was killed in action on my 20th birthday in Baghdad. Other than that, I would have to say living through an attack was a tough thing to do. After your adrenaline dump is over, the realization that someone just tried to kill you is a tough one to swallow.”
Patriotic and humble, Grega said the bond he shares with fellow veterans is fueling his desire to link them to resources through the GI Bill, small business loan programs, and other service-related benefits. Grega — who, with his business partner, has several jobs including consulting gigs in the wine industry — put his veteran’s benefits to work to help jump-start their wine label. (The winemakers named their business Carlotta Cellars in a nod to Healy’s mother, Charlotte, their first investor.)
These days, Grega is working with other veterans and local officials in hopes of opening a veterans’ resource center in Napa.
“It’s a personal mission I’ve taken on since some of the benefits available to vets made such a positive impact on my life,” he said. “I want to share that with others.”
Services intended to ease the transition back to civilian life are invaluable, Grega said. Some veterans returning to their pre-combat lives after living through the horrors of war are unaware of available resources. Others are reluctant to seek assistance. Moreover, servicemen and women setting their feet back on American soil after experiencing the visceral realities of war can have trouble reconnecting with non-veterans, Grega said.
“I had been through so much and none of them could really understand,” he said. “I felt more at home in a Veterans of Foreign Wars bar than I did back home. For a guy who loves his family and friends so much, that’s a tough thing to come to terms with.”
Despite his challenges, Grega is an up-and-coming entrepreneur in an industry requiring a refined palate and a strong business head.
Both certified sommeliers through the Court of Master Sommeliers, Grega and Healy became fast friends in early 2008 while attending what is today the French Culinary Institute in Campbell. Originally from Sacramento, Grega moved to Napa almost four years ago, and Saratoga is Healy’s home.
The men make their wines in Napa and in San Francisco, and most of their grapes come from Lake and Mendocino counties, Grega said. Healy and Grega are aiming to produce 1,000 cases of wine in the spring — about double their current release.
Creating meaningful relationships while working in the wine industry is proving a rewarding new chapter in Grega’s career.
“Wine, at its core, is really just about people. … The wine lifestyle, being surrounded by amazing people, focusing on being an entrepreneur, these are all ways I deal with the things I’ve been through.”
Grega’s family, like his wine label, is expanding. He and his wife, Jessica, are expecting a son in early December.