Some people collect stamps or coins, but Thomas and Victoria Wargovich, owners of Gratus Vineyards in the Pope Valley, collect trees. On their remote Napa County ranch, the couple has planted 10 acres of vineyard but also more than 1,000 different kinds of trees, many of which are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s critically endangered species list.
Thomas Wargovich purchased the property in 2001, intent on becoming a vintner and building a dream retirement sanctuary. At the time, he had not yet met Victoria, and no one was living on the property, which had never been planted to vineyards but did have a small pond and acres of rolling hills dotted with oaks.
A lifelong passion
“The vision was always to build a place where I might live out my life in balance with nature,” Wargovich said. “For years I’ve loved wine, but the trees are a lifelong passion. And I thought, what could be better than living in a botanical garden or an arboretum — that would be my dream.”
While gathering the needed permits to plant vineyards, he started planting trees around the property a few at a time. His undergraduate degree from West Virginia University had been in botany/biology, and although he’d go on to become a cardiac surgeon, his childhood interest in plants was once again rekindled.
“It’s an ideal place to plant nearly anything,” he said about his property and the surrounding region. “Many people don’t understand that Pope Valley is often cooler than the floor of the Napa Valley. My collection of trees has grown over time, and now I have one of the biggest collections of conifers on the West Coast.”
According to Wargovich, there are 30 different native species of conifers (cone-bearing seed plants) on the West Coast, whereas he has planted more than 300 types, including the Wollemi Pine, a species that was once thought extinct until being discovered in 1994 in a wilderness area of the Wollemi National Park in the New South Wales region of Australia.
“I’ve become a collector over the years,” he said. “For example, we have 50 species of oaks. And I think there are like 30 types of Cypress trees in the world and I have 29. Basically anything that can live in a temperate zone, be it Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Asia or the Americas — all of them can grow here. Tropical plants don’t do well here, but nearly anything else — it’s an amazing place.”
“We hope to do a lot for the preservation of species,” he said. “But there are challenges. Just getting the plant material can be tough. There are many nurseries that can ship live plants, but they need a special license. Others ship seeds or even cuttings.”
Becoming a vintner
Wanting to understand what it means to be a hands-on vintner, Wargovich completed the two-year viticulture and enology program at the Napa Valley College, worked at GeoVit (a small Napa-based vineyard management and irrigation services company) and interned with winemaker Sean Capiaux at O’Shaughnessy Estate.
As the permits began to arrive, Wargovich went to work planting vineyards. By then, he’d married Victoria and they both went about planting much of the vineyards themselves. Now they grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Sirah, a tiny block of Cabernet Franc and several white Rhône varietals, including Grenache Blanc, Marsanne Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier.
By 2012, the vineyards were producing fruit, the trees had grown into what is now an adolescent forest and the couple’s home and barn were complete.
Capiaux had introduced them to winemaker Robbie Meyer (co-owner of Peirson Meyer Wines and previously with Lewis Cellars, Peter Michael, Jericho Canyon and others), and he was hired to make the wine.
“It all starts in the vineyard,” said Phil Burton, the Wargoviches’ neighbor and owner of Barrel Builders, a winery supply business that furnishes barrels and tanks to wineries.
“Tom and Vickie started with raw land and built a showplace vineyard, doing most all the backbreaking labor themselves — not like some ‘vintners’ whose hands never get dirty,” Burton said. “I’ve been impressed over and over again since they’ve started as to how much of the endless labor they handle themselves. People don’t often mention love as a contributing factor to grape quality, but in this case, it’s obvious. One look at the vineyard and you’ll agree. Their love of the land and the vineyard may not be unique, but it’s awfully refreshing to see in these days of factory farming.”
The quality of the wines resonates with Burton’s words. I tasted three of them: The 2016 Gratus Vineyards White Blend (200 cases made, $29 a bottle), the 2014 Malbec (50 cases made, $45 a bottle) and their 2014 Flagship Red Blend, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine (125 cases made, $65 a bottle).
The White Blend was a delicious Southern French-style blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier. This straw-gold wine was vibrant with candied citrus, honeycomb, cardamom and green mango, and it is an excellent example of why these particular Rhone grapes should be planted more widely in the region. The Malbec was clean and soft with voluminous dark fruit, smoky pencil shavings and finished with dark cherry and sage. The Red Blend was big and meaty with brambly blackberry, sweet vanilla, nutmeg, a hint of mint and black pepper in what was a lovely long finish. All the wines would compete well with many of the more expensive Napa Valley offerings from the valley floor.
“We found the Gratus Red Blend to be absolutely perfect for our ‘Under the Radar’ wine club last July when we first discovered it,” said Karen Williams, owner of ACME wines in St. Helena. “A blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with touches of Malbec and Petit Verdot, it’s ample and complex fruit balanced with a dash of spice, along with the pleasing tannins, completely drew us in, making our decision easy when selecting which wine was best suited for our members who are always looking to discover affordable Cabernet whose quality sits high above its price range.”
During our tour of the property, Wargovich and I had talked about trees, wine and the future. Gratus, Latin for grateful, is the name of their brand, but it also speaks to their being grateful for the opportunity to become a part of the Napa Valley community, grateful to have provided a place for endangered trees to thrive and grateful for the chance to play a part in Pope Valley’s growing reputation for producing excellent wines.
But there had also been a thread of concern about what the future might hold.
“I’m sure you know the pressures that small vintners labor under,” Burton wrote in an email. “It takes love, skill and an incredible amount of work to make a great wine, and this the Wargoviches have done. However, if you can’t sell your product you’re doomed, and this takes a different skill set which is often at odds with the farm ethic. In my years of being in the wine business I’ve seen so many small brands fail — not because of wine quality but because distributors cotton to the big producers, and there are so many brands these days that it takes a superhuman effort and a lot of luck to market a micro-producer. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve seen as the wine industry has ‘matured.’”
When the Wargoviches imagined their future property, they pictured a verdant landscape full of trees, vineyards and animals, a lush farm that, with enough work, could sustain itself over time and provide a pleasant life for them and their descendants.
“My hope was that our three shared daughters might one day take over the operations. But given the fact that it’s very expensive to live here and because of the restrictions of having people come up and visit to taste wine, I just don’t know if that will ever happen,” he said.
Wargovich worries that without the ability of small farmers to make a living wage from their land, they’ll be forced to sell, most often to large corporations that are the only ones able to purchase and maintain an expensive endeavor.
“I’m concerned about what might happen to our small communities if everything is owned by large companies and the younger generations are being pushed out because they can’t afford to live here,” Wargovich said. “I mean, who’s going to sit on the local school boards and volunteer as firefighters?”
We had ended the tour in his wine cellar, where one small window’s light beamed down on a tray of recently sprouted conifer seedlings. As we sat, Wargovich fiddled with the young trees, shifting them out of the direct sunlight as he checked their soil for moisture.
“I just don’t know,” he said, looking back down at the delicate saplings, “but I imagined things would be a little easier at this point.”
Gratus wines can be purchased from their website, www.gratusvineyards.com, or locally at Sam’s Social in Calistoga, ACME Fine Wines in St. Helena and at R&D Kitchen in Yountville. Tastings can be arranged by appointment at the winery where their production takes place, which is just south of Calistoga.