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Grace Cabernet: Short in Supply, Long in Demand

June 22, 1989|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

ST. HELENA, Calif. — Basic economic theory says that if the supply of an item is limited, the demand will be high and thus price is sure to be high.

When the product is one of the best Cabernet Sauvignons made in the world, the price usually reflects its quality; in this rarefied atmosphere, wine lovers ignore the price and hock their cars to get some of the precious nectar.

Such is the case with the Cabernets of Dick and Ann Grace, the wines of the Grace Family Vineyard, a tiny Napa Valley winery whose wines are not only next to impossible to find but so good that they command ludicrously high prices at auction.

Two weeks ago, 12 bottles of varying sizes of Grace Cabernet, each with hand-painted labels, sold for $42,000 at the ninth Napa Valley Wine Auction. The buyer, a Florida wine shop owner, said he would put them on display.

To be sure, these items are collectibles and, as one-of-a-kind, defy the traditional supply/demand equation. So the prices are somewhat artificial. But all the rest of the Graces' production fits the equation perfectly.

Measured in Bottles

That's because the entirety of the Grace Cabernet world is measured in bottles, not cases. In 1986, for example, the Graces made only 1,380 bottles of wine off their 1.05 acres of land. This wine is not actually commercially available. The 290 persons on the Grace mailing list who are permitted to buy wine directly from the winery all buy the maximum permissible: four bottles.

And at $50 a bottle. Even though the price is elevated, most folks on the mailing list would happily buy a case or two if permitted. Moreover, 600 other names are on a waiting list to get a few bottles of magic from this miracle vineyard.

There is another way to get a bottle of this wine. Paul Smith of Northridge Hills Liquor, David Breitstein of Duke of Bourbon in Canoga Park, Steve Wallace of Wally's in Westwood, and Doug Margerum of the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara all carry a few bottles of Grace Cabernet. They sell them only to their best customers, a bottle at a time, usually at prices higher than Grace's.

Dick Grace himself is a curiosity--self-effacing on one hand and proud to the point of egotism on the other. The pride is in the wine he makes from vines he planted himself as a family project; the modesty flows from his dedication to his adopted valley and to his family.

It began for Dick and Ann as fear. The fear was that they were too successful. At the time, in 1975, they were in Orinda, living the good life.

He was a stock broker, a star at Smith Barney in San Francisco, one of that firm's top-10 salesmen every year in a company that had more than 2,000 sales people. His life consisted of hard work followed by party time.

"I was concerned that the kids would leave home and think that life consisted of tennis, golf and cocktail parties," said Dick. "I wanted to give them something more."

In 1976, on a trip to the Napa Valley, the Graces found a 3.5-acre parcel of land on the west side of Highway 29 north of St. Helena on which sat a run-down Victorian home and old olive trees. After a quick tour of the land, they wrote out a $1,000 check as a deposit and bought the place.

Mike Richmond and Laurie Wood, both then with Freemark Abbey Winery across the road, helped Grace decide what variety of grape to plant. "We didn't want to plant what we wanted, but what the land wanted," said Dick Grace.

Wood, Freemark Abbey's viticulturist, and Richmond, now with Acacia Winery, both said Cabernet was appropriate.

So over the next year, the family planted. The three kids who might have seen little more than the inside of a country club now lived in the country, and on weekends they lined up stakes and drove them into the ground, strung wires, dug holes and planted vines.

"We had no idea we would make wine," said Grace. "It was a family project, that's all. We didn't know what we'd do with the grapes."

Today his attitude has changed: "I'm just the custodian for the valley. We have to preserve this area or we'll lose it."

To some degree, this vineyard has saved Dick Grace's life.

It is a life that to some seemed inordinately successful. In his best year, Grace earned an extremely handsome salary. Yet his life was lived at rat-race pace and led to what Grace perceived as weakness.

He thought that he was drinking too much alcohol. Even after he moved to the idyllic Napa Valley, the pace of his life merely got more hectic.

"My typical day was, I was up at 4:05, on the road at 4:25, into my office by 5:45," he said. Then, armed with two double espressos, he would push hard without a break from 6:10 a.m. through the end of the Wall Street day.

"I was addicted to adrenalin. I did not leave the office, even to take a coffee break, until the stock market closed," he said. "After work, at about 1:30 p.m., I'd have a small lunch--and four or five beers."

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