Exploring the evolution of one of Napa’s original cult estates, Grace Family Vineyards
Talking to Shawn DeMartino is a breath of fresh air. The whip-smart 30-year-old is a whirlwind of energy. Conversation is double-pace, with an enthusiasm that is energising and infectious. It’s easy to see how he has wound up managing one of Napa’s original cult names, Grace Family Vineyards, at such a young age.
“I’ve been spoiled by prior experience to know how high the bar can be, and now I strive to live up to that example,” he tells me. “There’s just an enormous amount of craftsmanship and teamwork between a great idea and a great wine.” And his prior experience does set the bar high – his resume is ridiculous. He worked at Screaming Eagle and Harlan before deciding to work freelance as a consultant, then being lured to Grace full-time.
If you haven’t heard of Grace, it’s not that surprising. Until recently, the estate was a tiny two acres, producing a mere 200 cases a year – most of which went to their mailing list. It’s never been open to the public, quietly tucked away off Highway 29, just north of St Helena. But the alumni of this property include the likes of Randy Dunn, Heidi Anderson Barrett and David Abreu.
A coincidental cult: the history of Grace Family Vineyards
Dick and Ann Grace bought the property in the early 1970s and replaced a one-acre olive grove with Cabernet Sauvignon in 1976. Dick was a stockbroker and knew nothing about wine, so turned to Charlie Wagner at Caymus for advice (the couple enjoyed his wines, and Dick had done some business with him previously). Wagner ended up buying the first crop of grapes in 1978 (which was picked by the Graces’ family and friends). When he realised the quality of the fruit, Wagner bottled it separately, as Grace Family Cabernet* – and continued to do so for several years, with the last Caymus bottling of Grace made in 1982.
Soon Dick and Ann decided to start their own label, converting their barn into a winery. The 1983 vintage was their first release, but it was in 1985 that Grace was catapulted to fame. That year, they offered a lot of 1981 Cabernet at the Napa Valley Wine Auction. When the hammer eventually fell, the final bid was $10,000, making it the highest-priced lot in the auction. The cult was born.
But the cult was almost an accident – a fluke born of various factors.
When the couple planted that first vineyard (now known as the upper block), they planted it at 1,100 vines per acre – an unusually high density for the time – having been told that it was good for quality. Their neighbours thought they were mad. In 1988, they planted a second acre (the lower block) at similarly high density and when phylloxera struck the original acre in 1994, they replanted at 3,400 vines per acre – six times the average for the time.
They inadvertently farmed organically, choosing not to use herbicides or pesticides, just because they didn’t want to, shifting to more official organic farming over time.
The vine material from the Bosché vineyard – a site originally planted by a San Francisco attorney, John Bosché in the mid-1960s. Sitting between Beaulieu Vineyard and Inglenook in Rutherford, Freemark Abbey used the fruit and it became known for age-worthy and elegant Cabernet.
This clone, now referenced as the Grace clone, combined with the unusual vineyard density and management, created something special – and a wine that became one of the region’s most sought-after. Early vintages of Grace were sold for $25 a bottle – considerably more than many of their neighbours. Although such pricing is a distant memory today, there’s a years-long waitlist for an allocation.
Dick and Ann still live on the property, in the house they bought back in 1976, built in 1881 and sandwiched between the two vineyards. Over the years, the couple has became known for their philanthropy – creating the Grace Family Foundation and working in particular with children’s charities, and charities in Nepal – after Dick developed a relationship with the Dalai Lama. Reportedly over 20% of the profits from Grace were donated to charity. But as they got older (now both in their 80s), they didn’t have anyone to take on their legacy, with their children not interested. Enter, the Greens.
A new era for Grace
Strategy consultant Kate Green met Dick and Ann after employing Helen Keplinger (Grace winemaker since 2014) to help replant vineyards Kate had bought in 2015. Heath Canyon, this 50-acre property (with seven dedicated to vines) had originally belonged to the Van Asperens, the founders of Round Hill wines and Rutherford Ranch Winery. Helen introduced Kate – and her English husband Jeremy – to Dick and Ann, and they hit it off. Dick and Ann saw the Greens as a fellow family willing to take a long-term view and nurture their legacy. In 2019, Kate Green bought Grace (reportedly paying over $5 million for the original estate vineyards alone).
At the same time, the already tiny volumes produced at Grace were temporarily slashed, after the Graces took the difficult decision to replant the lower block in its entirety in 2017 – making as little as 80 cases a year. “Rarity is seen as desirable around here, but at Grace we really understand the flipside of the scarcity coin,” Shawn tells me, half-jokingly.
But there was a pipeline for more fruit. The Greens had been in conversation with the Corbetts – owners of a neighbouring parcel to Heath Canyon. The Corbett family had been farming these vineyards since the 1900s, with Cornelius (Connie) Corbett the most recent steward. After leasing grapes, the Greens managed to persuade Connie to sell them this 40-acre parcel (with 22 acres of vineyard), which was another slice of the original Van Asperen property.
This site – now known as Cornelius Grove – is tucked away on the western side of St Helena, just a stone’s throw from suburbia. Here, 30 acres of vines sit in amongst 60 more of forest (another thing for Shawn to manage), forming an undulating amphitheatre with a remarkable range of soils and microclimates at the foot of the Mayacamas.
On the southern edge of Cornelius Grove is a hill with charmingly wonky terraces (currently being re-planted), atop which perches an old redwood tank that was converted into a tiny house. But in another twist of fate, it is this “round hill” that appears on the labels of and gave its name to Round Hill – the label created by the Van Asperens.
The Grace of the future
As if there weren’t enough hints of destiny in Grace’s story, Helen Keplinger gave Shawn his first job in the industry. He worked as an intern in 2015, helping bottle the 2014 vintage of Grace. Returning six years later was, for him, “a little like coming home”. Although originally hired as a consultant, it soon became clear that turning round and incorporating the Corbett vineyards, the ongoing replant of the original site, not to mention building the brand and its distribution, was going to be a full-time project – and one that needed attention and commitment for at least a decade.
“I’ve been given an amazing amount of freedom, but it’s a long game and there’s a lot to get right,” he says, laughing. There won’t be any sudden about-turns, but it’s clear that there’s an evolution taking place – and one that will be exciting to watch.
Having worked with Cory Empting at Harlan, his mentorship seems to have had a significant impact, with a focus on building a relationship between the team, the land and the wine. There is a team of six working in the vineyards, but every Friday the crew is given the day to do what they feel needs doing. Although Grace has long been known for paying its crew well above the minimum, empowering vineyard workers with such freedom remains radical.
The original winery was a converted barn, and while it’s a special space – with its stained-glass window bearing the estate’s trademark “G” and renovated relatively recently – it is far too small. In fact, the wines are currently being made elsewhere, largely because the 2020 fires came right up to the property and they can no longer get fire insurance. Alongside everything else, Shawn is working on a fire suppression system to protect the original estate.
The change in ownership is also bringing a shift to the range. The family had previously made a wine from 1.7 acres of the Blank Vineyard in Rutherford (the Blanks were friends of the Graces). The wine was a source of confusion, another single-vineyard bottling rather than a second wine, and bearing a drastically different appearance, with the front label not even mentioning Grace. The 2018 vintage was the last bottled, with the 2020 made as a rosé, needing to pick it early ahead of the fires.
The original, flagship Grace Family Estate will continue to be made from the original vineyards, of course, but this will be complemented by two new wines, with both produced for the first time in 2019.
Cornelius Grove – named in honour of Connie Corbett, who still currently lives on the property – will be made with fruit from the Corbett vineyards. One gnarly 0.7-acre old-vine plot from this site – 70-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon with a sprinkling of Gamay interplanted – is going to be bottled separately (in fact this was first made in 2018, producing just 25 cases).
At present, the lower block of the original Grace Estate isn’t yet back on stream after its replanting – although a portion will be included in the 2021 vintage which will be blended and bottled in the coming months. Shawn explains how they used the slow-developing 420A rootstock, and they’re trying to resist watering and fertilising it to try and hurry it up. The two original blocks are significantly different – the upper block is more volcanic, creating a more linear, structured and almost severe style of wine that is complemented by the lower block’s fleshier profile from deeper, loam-rich soils. Despite being less than 100 metres apart, the difference is extraordinary.
Tasting the 2019 Grace Estate and Cornelius Grove with Shawn, he clearly feels the absence of the lower block in the property’s flagship wine, but perhaps is biased by his knowledge of the two together. Tasting the upper block iteration of Grace Estate, you can see how the lower block would fit in, but I loved the more strict style of Cabernet. Samantha Cole-Johnson (writer extraordinaire, fellow MW student and a good friend who arranged the visit) favoured the Cornelius Grove. I loved the way she described its “gravel riverbed” character and “unravelling” palate, yet for me the Grace Estate is the one I’d want in my cellar. It might not be showing itself fully now, but I’ve got no doubt that it will be beautiful in 20 years’ time.
Talking to Shawn is invigorating – and I left Grace feeling like this is the start of a new chapter for the property. There’s plenty of history here and a great legacy to protect, but the future seems to hold even more promise – but Shawn is quick to make sure I’m aware that there’s an entire team behind, shaping Grace’s tale. “People talk a lot about culture,” he tells me, “but in truth, real culture emerges from the values of the people that make up and build an organisation. Grace has this kind of culture in spades, and this is perhaps its greatest legacy.”
The Grace Family Vineyard wines
- 2019 Grace Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon: Made exclusively with the one-acre upper block, just 80 cases were produced. This is for me a wine of perfume and precision – there’s a punch of oak spice at this youthful stage, sweet and toasty, yet beneath that is an intense, savoury and rich power. Concentrated and firm, with the structure of these volcanic soils, you can see where the fleshier lower block would fit in, yet there’s a velveteen feel, and I love the purity here, with herbal layers and a lightness that feels at odds with the depth. If you’re lucky enough to get a bottle, hold onto it.
- 2019 Grace Family Vineyards, Cornelius Grove Cabernet Sauvignon: This is more floral with sweeter fruit, but a distinct graphite edge. The fruit is darker, with a plushness – richer and rounder than the Grace Estate, its fleshiness making it feel more approachable. The oak dominates still here, but brings a creamy sweetness and texture to the mid-palate, with more delicate notes playing on the long finish.
*The wine was actually made by Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards.
Thank you to Samantha Cole-Johnson for introducing me to Shawn and Grace