Don McGrath, longtime Napa Valley vintner, electric-car pioneer, metallurgist, and world traveler passed away July 22nd in San Diego County after a brief battle with cancer at age 88. Born January 8, 1931, in Cleveland, Ohio to Mac and Emma McGrath, Don attended Alliance High School where graduated valedictorian. He also attended and graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston with a Bachelor’s degree in Metallurgical Engineering. He was a member of MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He crewed on the rowing team and was a Kappa Sigma. Don served in the army during the Korean war as a lieutenant stationed in Japan in 1955, along with his brother Stanley who was killed in a military vehicle accident. Don provided a military escort for his brother from Okinawa back to Alliance, Ohio.
He received his post-graduate degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute-where he met his wife Lidia, a native of Barcelona, who introduced him to a Mediterranean lifestyle, which included wine with most meals. They set up their first home near Lake Pocotopaug in Connecticut where Don was employed by Pratt and Whitney aircraft. After relocating to Torrance in southern California in the early1960s , Don worked as a metallurgical engineer in the aerospace industry, while further developing his interest, in winemaking. Eventually he purchased a five-acre ranch in Napa Valley’s quaint town of St. Helena in 1977. Don divided his time between growing grapes in northern California and working full-time in the southern part of the state. Eventually, the commute demanded he make a choice and he chose to be a vintner, taking early retirement from Garrett AiResearch to grow grapes and make wine full time. He built a winery on the St. Helena property and founded Villa Helena Winery in 1984, which he operated until 2001. As with other interests and endeavors, Don immersed himself in the culture of the wine business, taking pertinent courses at UC Davis and became active in the winemaking community. He was able to apply his intellect in chemistry to his winemaking skills, which resulted in earning him gold medals and distinction. He eventually became a judge at various wine tasting competitions. McGrath served as president of the prestigious Napa Valley Wine Library Association and remained an active member and attendee of the annual Library Tasting Event. A fan of Rhone varietal wines and grapes, Don was a founding member and served as treasurer of the Rhone Rangers in the 1990s.
Despite his success in winemaking, Don’s curiosity and sense of adventure inspired him to pursue other challenges, which included being a pioneer and intellectual contributor and writer in the early years of the development of electric vehicles. In 2002, as a hobby project, he converted a vintage 1975 Fiat X 1-9 from gas to an EV. He was one of the first consumers to buy a Sparrow, the world’s first single passenger EV. Don was also a member of the North Bay Electric Auto Association, (an affiliate of the national Electric Auto Association).
His passion for making wine never waned, even after selling Villa Helena Winery, Don partnered with a St. Helena neighbor to launch Tesouro Port Cellars and continued to enjoy making wine.
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Don’s other interests and accomplishments include presiding over the MIT Club of Southern California as president, being a reporter for EV News and extensive travel throughout his life. Considered a renaissance man for his many talents and life experiences Mr. McGrath was a great storyteller and generous host to his friends and family.
Don is survived by his wife of 60 years, Lidia, son Douglas, daughter Laura (Mike) Fracchiolla, sister Jean Thomas, granddaughters Erin and Colleen, nephew Matt Thomas, nieces Emily Thomas, Carah Thomas-Maskell and Leah Thomas.
Don is predeceased by his mother, father, younger brother Stanley and nephew Eric Thomas.
A Celebration of Life service is planned for September 5, 2019, at 10:00 AM at Grand Traditions Gardens and Estates located at 220 Grand Tradition Way in Fallbrook, California.