Post-fire note: This article was written prior to the fires. The Grace Vineyards and home in St. Helena were not damaged, but a member of their vineyard team, Kendall Smith, lost her Napa home to the fires. Smith lived at the White Rock Vineyards with her husband, Michael Vandendriessche, and his parents, Henri and Claire. They have lost their homes, as well as the property’s barns and sheds, all of which burned to the ground.

“Fortunately we have friends with an extra house in the Yountville area for the next month or so that all of us can stay at, including my in-laws,” Smith said. “Then we will try to figure it out and see where we want to land, but I know we want to get back out there (to the property) as soon as possible. The Graces have also offered us their guesthouse, but because our daughters go to school in Carneros that would be such a commute. At the moment we are just taking it one day at a time.”

In December, I’ll follow up with Smith to see how she’s doing then. But before the fires, she had worked with the team to replant the Graces’ vineyard. Here’s that story.

For Helen Keplinger to become one of the Napa Valley’s pre-eminent winemakers she first needed to embrace an entirely new career path. A chance encounter triggered that change and turned out to be fortuitous for everyone involved.

The year was 1997. Both Keplinger and Dick and Ann Grace, owners of Grace Family Vineyards in St. Helena, had made their way to the tiny Himalayan village of Khumjung, Nepal, not far from Mount Everest. One day found them all in a modest coffee shop that was touted as the highest-elevation bakery on the planet. They’d come from different worlds to the same place, each on a different journey.

Epic journey

“When I saw them sitting at the next table with a bottle of wine, I thought, ‘Oh my god, they have a bottle of Grace Family Cabernet,” Keplinger said. “I was so excited that the friends I was with suggested that I go over and talk to them, and that’s when I learned it was actually their wine.”

Keplinger had gone to the remote village after a year of teaching English in Thailand.

“When I saw them there with their bottle of wine I was reminded how much I really loved wine,” Keplinger said. “I’d been making $250 a month, so there was no way I was drinking Napa cabs at that point, but I knew the wine and I was delighted by Dick and Ann.”

Within a year of getting back to the states, Keplinger decided to skip medical school and instead applied to the master’s program in winemaking at UC Davis.

“It’s funny that 20 years later I am now making wine at Grace,” she said.

Whereas Keplinger had come to the bakery on her way to climb Gokyo Ri, a 17,575-foot-high peak in the Khumbu region of the Nepal Himalayas, the Graces had come on a different type of mission.

“We had gone to Khumjung to stand in kinship with our brothers and sisters at Sir Edmund Hillary’s school and clinic,” Dick Grace said. “We’d brought a bottle of our wine as a gift of gratitude to those involved in the effort. I had forgotten that we’d first met Helen then, but when we were interviewing for our new winemaker she reminded me, and that — along with her amazing talent for making wine — convinced me that she was the right fit for what we are attempting to do here.”

Having Grace use the phrase “what we are attempting to do here” highlights his fascinating and complex approach to life. On the one hand, here is a former Marine turned senior vice president for Salomon Smith Barney turned vintner who has been able to consistently produce one of the finest Napa cabernets since their first vintage in 1978. On the other hand, here is a man who calls the Dalai Lama a close friend and who spends much of his time and resources both near and far in what seems a frenetic philanthropic fervor. Yet he finds the time and has the interest to be deeply involved in the recent replant of their iconic St. Helena vineyard.

“I’m not sure Dick is capable of doing anything halfway,” Keplinger said, “which is wonderful as a winemaker. This tendency has been on display since I joined a few years back and has been instrumental in helping bring together a stellar team that I am proud to work with.”

Vineyards normally have to be replanted because of old age or a pest infestation or virus infection, any of which can lead to weak or dead vines. But for the Grace vineyard another issue had inspired the final decision — a broken septic system under the vineyard.

“Nothing is permanent,” Grace said, and then smiled. “We took this opportunity, along with Helen, our family and the entire team, to come up with what we think is the best vineyard possible for this site, given what we’ve learned and current best practices. We’ve always farmed organically, but I am excited about our new vineyard and approach to winemaking.”

When speaking with Dick — or anyone associated with Grace Family Vineyards — words such as “team,” “impermanence,” “intuition” and “kinship” flow like, well, wine.

“Dick has lots of ideas and tons of enthusiasm,” said Kendall Smith, master gardener and the viticulturist involved in the replant. “He really cares about everyone and encourages others to share ideas. The new vineyard has been created by the team to function not as a separate entity of the property but instead as a part of a broader living ecosystem. To do that, we’ve shifted the row orientation to around 30 degrees true north, and we are planting an insectary that will include many species that support a wide range of beneficial insects, including bees. Vines are self-pollinating so they don’t need bees per se, but bees are critical for many of the other plants and pollinators. We took years to plan this, and it’s wonderful to see it coming together.”

Seeking perfection

“For the last two years, we’ve flagged the vines that produced the finest-tasting fruit,” Keplinger said. “Once flagged, we then tested each for virus, and those that came back clean we used as the budwood for the new vineyard, which maintains what is now often referred to as the Grace-Bosche clone. We changed the rootstock to 420a because it has a deep taproot that can handle most water stresses and produces high-quality fruit. We are also modifying the strict VSP (vertical shoot positioning) to help manage sunlight on the clusters, all of which will help us preserve the integrity and respect the history of this wonderful vineyard.”

The original clone planted on Grace’s 1-acre vineyard came from the cuttings of the Bosche Vineyard in Rutherford, which is bottled under the Freemark Abbey label. It’s a vineyard that has historically produced long-lived, elegant but voluptuous wines.

Grace wines

The wines tasted included the 2014 Grace Family Vineyards Cabernet ($285 per bottle, about 200 cases produced) and their Blank Cabernet ($165 per bottle, about 200 cases produced), which comes from the same clone but is grown on the Blank Family Vineyard in Rutherford. Each of these wines is rare, and the Grace Cabernet wines will become rarer still until the replant takes hold (according to Keplinger, wines from the new vineyard should start with the 2019 vintage to be released in spring 2022). However, finding these wines is worth the effort. The Blank has minty aromas with brambly black-fruit overtones and a meatiness that boarders on duck confit.

The Grace is a quintessential Napa Valley cabernet, with deep red fruit, sweet pipe smoke, cinnamon, vanilla and white truffle all intertwined with silky tannins and a finish that lasts for minutes, allowing one to savor as the vineyard’s voice echoes and morphs in the wine, uncovering new complexities and nuances such as saffron and toffee.

Finding Grace

When Keplinger found the Graces, she was reminded of how much she loved wine. Most other people who meet the Graces seem to walk away somehow changed, or at least inspired.

Because wines are largely a function of both the vineyard and the people who produce them, wines like those produced at the Grace Family Vineyards highlight many of the best elements of the Napa Valley — generosity, high quality, and a quest for something fine and meaningful. However, like any human story, there is another side, too — in this case a darker side, one in which an uncompromising emphasis on building a meaningful legacy has had its costs.

“I am an alcoholic,” Grace said. “I have been sober for 29 and a half years. I have also had many times in my life filled with deep depression. These are things that I’ve needed to deal with over my life, but I believe in four words: Trust me there’s hope.”

Perhaps as a result of these serious conditions, there have been times when Grace’s approach has created an environment considered stifling and difficult by some. But like a fine cabernet wine, he appears to be softening, and with the recent inclusion of Keplinger and Smith on an already strong team, fresh energy and ideas are flowing anew into what has all the makings of becoming an even more important wine in the coming years.

As small wineries are sold and more wineries find themselves unable to resist growing beyond their ability to produce excellent wines, it will remain to the dedicated and fearless (and often quirky and challenging) to keep fighting the good fight.

His book, “The Opened Heart — Dick Grace in His Own Words,” highlights his unique approach to life: “...my philosophy is to examine intention and motivation, and if it’s as pure as possible, do it. Just do it. If you have made a mistake, you can correct it. But if you haven’t done it, you don’t have anything. So I would rather make an error and subsequently correct it than sit on my ass and do nothing.”

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