Earlier this year, Vanity Fair published a profoundly humane
article by Sebastian Junger, “The Never-Ending War: The Bonds of Battle.” In
it, Junger posits that vets with PTSD often find their condition amplified when
they return home. Having left the tribal-life culture of combat – wherein your
brothers-in-arms all sleep together, protect one another, eat together, laugh
together, salute fallen combat brothers together,
barely-make-it-out-alive-together – returning to our fractured, nuclear society
often plunges them towards a downward spiral of alienation and
desperation. Junger quotes
anthropologist, Sharon Abramowitz, who says, “We are not good to each other.
Our tribalism is about an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our
spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and
mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others,
and our society does not allow for that.”
After reading it, my thoughts turned to David Grega, a
winemaker I’d not yet met, but whom had been mentioned to me by several
winemakers. Grega had fought in the Iraq war and had returned with PTSD, TBI’s
(traumatic brain injuries) and other injuries. His colleagues told me that
Grega had healed himself by becoming a winemaker. I wanted to meet with Grega
and hear his story. Doing so through the prism of wine seemed natural, so I
phoned him up and we made a date to spend some time together.
“War is life multiplied my some number that no one has ever
The weather in the Napa Valley is rarely inhospitable, but it
is on the day I meet up with David Grega. It’s still early in the morning when
he meets me at my car outside a production facility in Yountville, but it’s
already sweltering hot and humid, and his forehead is drenched in sweat as he
shakes my hand.
Grega has startling blue eyes that catch me a little off
guard when we first meet. His gaze is so intense, yet oddly vulnerable, that
instead of meeting it head on, I find myself staring over at a nearby hedgerow.
Before long, though, Grega is apologizing for the long-ish walk
over to the barrel storage room, and in so doing disarms me with his good
manners. Soon we’re in a cool cellar tasting some of the wines that Grega,
along with his boss Jeff Ames, are responsible for making – TOR Kenward Family
wines, Rudius Wine, Anthem Cellars, Boich Family Cellars and Nemerever Cellars.
In Junger’s article, he posits that we would all do well to
go beyond just sharing the “thank you for your service”’ platitude with service
men and women, and instead offer them real, tangible support upon their return
home. But I’m uncertain about how to jump into a conversation with Grega about
his service, so, instead, we immediately start tasting wine.
There is a continuum of structure, great texture and length,
astride a ribbon of elegance that pulsates throughout the wines that I taste
with Grega. I’m intrigued by their innate balance.
“I like to make wines that are like LeBron James, or Dwayne
Johnson,” Grega says. “Take ‘The Rock’ (Dwayne Johnson), for example: you’ve got a guy that’s 6
ft. 5 inches, 260 pounds. The guy is incredibly athletic. He has great hand-eye
coordination. Great stability. Great agility. Amazing flexibility. Probably
more flexible and agile than most people, but he’s also larger than most
people. He is an example of someone who has a lot of mass and power, but who is
symmetric, proportionate and balanced, and in that, he also possesses
athleticism, charisma and intelligence – all of that. Even grace.
“LeBron James is another great example – size, strength,
agility, intelligence, personality, leadership skills. Most people above
6-feet-5 are clumsy. Many people that are 260 pounds are not terribly flexible
“At our level of winemaking, what we’re looking for are those
types of wines – the Dwayne Johnsons and the LeBron Jameses. Those are the
kinds of wines I want to be making – wines of grace, power and balance."
“He is like me – a wine geek. Some folks get into wine for
the science, some for other reasons. My favorite people in production are the
ones who get into it because they just love wine and that love of wine drives
them into the business. He loves barrel tasting, blending, blind tasting...I
call him a wine geek in the best possible sense.”
–Winemaker Jeff Ames on David Grega
I ask Grega how he approaches tasting these wines with
colleagues and members of the trade, particularly since, among some sommeliers,
these wines would be considered too “big” to be balanced and enjoyable.
“I’m a Certified Sommelier,” he responds, confidently. “For 3
years I was training very diligently and frequently. In fact, the other members
of my original tasting group have all become Master Somms… Sur Lucero, Dennis
Kelly, Jason Heller, Yoon Ha.
“Our attitude was, ‘If you killed it today, you better be
even better tomorrow.’ It lit this fire in me. I really got into that somm
world and I’m very comfortable in it. There’s often a huge disconnect between
winemakers and somms. A lot of winemakers just have a different view of sensory
analysis than somms do. For me, I feel very comfortable around both and I feel
very comfortable with myself as a taster because I’ve worked very hard to
develop that talent. I also have no issue disagreeing with somms and calling
them out if they’re just posturing.
“I like to taste with people who have a maturity about them,
an ability to step back and take things into context, to look at a wine without
bias. I can have a glass of champagne and I can have a glass of Napa Valley
Cabernet, and I can find things I like about both. A lot of people will say,
‘If you like this, how can you like that?’
“I can have an Hermitage, and then a Bordeaux and then a
light Burgundy, you know? I can handle that! I can understand the difference in
regions and styles. I can appreciate each for what they are. I can ask, ‘Is
this a poor example of that region, or a good example?’ I can ask these types
of questions. I can handle that! [He laughs heartily every time he says ‘I can
handle that!’, and I start to, as well]. I don’t have to get so upset and so
roweled up. I guess some people think if they don’t have a stance, they’ll just
be drifting in the wind. Personally, I think that’s the wrong way to look at
“There’s a lot of insecurity in the somm world. Most of those
personalities are very strong. If you show any weakness, those guys are going
to come down on you… ‘How could you think this is a Pinot Gris...?!!?’ It’s
often attack, attack, attack. Lots of posturing going on. I don’t feel bad when
I’m wrong about something. I just say, ‘Well I was wrong, but I’ve learned the
right answer.’ I’m okay with that, and I like to taste with people who have a
similar mind set.”
During a private tasting he gives to Canadian visitors in the
afternoon, it is apparent Grega’s favorite part of the presentation is
discussing sensory evaluation with consumers. I ask him why, and this leads us
to a long, meandering, often poignant conversation of how sensory evaluation
helped Grega rejoin civilian life after he returned home. It’s this aspect of
winemaking and wine appreciation that Grega credits with having healed him.
“I was really into cigars in the Army – studying what the
soil types were like in Pino Ardel Rio in Cuba…why does that place grow good tobacco?
What are the different terroirs in Cuba…? The aging, fermenting, and blending
processes all interested me. I took a lot of tasting notes. I would write cigar
tasting notes in on-line forums, and some of these forums also included wine
and port tasting notes, so I’d read those, too.
“When I returned to civilian life, I could no longer smoke
because my time in the military also messed up my lungs, so I started to taste
wines and then I started to post my wine tasting notes online. Eventually, I
started to make some wine with a friend and also work for a fine wine retailer
in Yountville. It was there that I met Jeff Ames. I was selling his wines and
he offered me a job in his cellar.
“Basically, with sensory evaluation, it’s how I’ve taught
myself to stay present. Literally, stopping to smell the roses can make life so
much better! It’s fascinating how memory is connected to the sense of smell.
Those neuro-pathways between smell and memory are so cool. Just the way a
fragrance can totally take you back to a very specific memory. If you stop and
notice fragrances, it really improves your life. It’s not so much about just
smelling wine; it’s about stopping to be present enough to smell one’s
surroundings. You’re creating memories when you do that.
“A lot of people don’t remember their lives even just three
years ago and that’s because they’re rarely present. They’re always mired in
the past or worried about the future. If you make yourself be present, your
life becomes much fuller and more memorable. One way of doing that is to
evaluate your surroundings in a sensory way, and I love to do that with my
sense of smell…flowers, tea, wine, nature, wind. Stopping to smell nature and
your surroundings can change your life! Those kinds of moments just make life
more exhilarating, more heightened. One becomes more aware of the Now, and
ultimately, more appreciative of life. The living experience becomes so much
more valuable when you absorb life through the senses. That has really helped
me to slow down, and that process of slowing down has healed me.
“I feel much more at peace these days. I’m much more thankful
for the Now. I spend a lot of time just observing…even observing how leaves
move in the wind. You know? Instead of stressing out, or feeling anger, or
getting worked up about this or that, I just try and stay present in the
moment. I’m not perfect at living in the now, but I’m getting a lot better at
Grega enlisted in the Army in 2003, determined to “help my
country out in some way,” he says now. He was a sophomore in high school when the
Twin Towers fell in New York City on 9/11. “That had a profound effect on me. I
just felt I had to do something. I had to do my part.” He served a total of 3
years as an Army tanker and gunner, positioned mostly in Baghdad, Iraq.
“I was in the Army for 3 years. I served from 2004 to 2007. I
was in Baghdad for a year, beginning in January 2005 to January 2006.
Technically, it was called OIF III, and there were 11 or 12 OIF’s…it was a long
“I served at the tail end of the early years of the Iraq war.
When we were there, sectarian violence was a huge issue. By the time we
arrived, it was no longer going to be a short-term war. The insurgency was
well-funded and well-trained. IED’s were terrible in our year – one of the
worst. We hadn’t quite caught on at that time how to counter or defend from
IED’s, and the insurgents were getting very technical and good at blowing us
up. It was a dangerous time.
"In Baghdad, I was based at Forward Operating Base Falcon and
it was right on what’s called ‘Route Irish’, which is on Hwy. 88 – the main
road that runs north and south through Bagdad. My beat was what was called
‘Airport Road’…also known as ‘IED Alley’ or the ‘most dangerous road in the
world.’ That was the Northern Border; Route Irish and Airport Road. Reflecting
on things now, we thought systems would be lot more structured and set up than
they were when we got there; it was the Wild West. Even people at the top were
just making stuff up.
“I felt that pull to darkness when I returned to civilian life.
And it’s alarming to see how even very strong people can get sucked under and
get lost in that dark place. So I try to speak very openly and candidly about
having PTSD with other veterans. I’ve been able to have a full life despite the
challenges of PTSD. I tell vets, ‘Seek help if you need help. You’re not weak
if you seek help.
“On the other hand, at the end of the day, we volunteered for
service. I mean, what did you expect? If you join the military, especially if
you’re joining a combat arms group, you need to understand that – even if you
signed a 3- or 4-year contract – if you go to war, you’ll end up carrying that
with you for some time…maybe for the rest of your life. And that’s part of the
“Unfortunately, I think here are a lot of veterans who take
advantage of the hospitality and good will and help that is being offered. This
is true for anything else; with combat vets…there are good combat vets, and
there are shitty combat vets. Yes, they may have gone and served, but they still
make mistakes, like everybody else. And there are people who take advantage of
the system. Unfortunately, there is a lot of money being spent right now…guys who
don’t really need it take freebie stuff, and are milking the system. It leaves
a bad taste in my mouth. So I’m constantly trying to walk a fine line between
talking about it and acknowledging my service, but I don’t want people to feel
bad for me. I am not a victim. I signed up for my service. I am proud of my service.
Proud of my battle buddies. My connection to them means a lot to me.”
We’ve been together now since the early morning hours, and
the sun is starting to set, so Grega and I start to think about what to have
for dinner. We begin the descent from St. Helena down into Napa, where Grega
lives, and end up at the Oxbow food market where we grab dinner and some cold
As I start to hover protectively over my bowl of Pho and my
pint of Guinness, I lob an easy question at Grega, expecting an easy answer:
What’s the best thing about being a winemaker?
“I don’t define myself as a winemaker. I’m alive. I love
life. I love wine and enjoy making it and I believe in it, but I also enjoy a
lot of other things, and I love a lot of other things. That just doesn’t
describe who I am.
“I’m really interested in people; I love psychology,
philosophy and inter-personal communications. I really love just watching
people relate to one another. This industry allows me to come into contact with
so many different kinds of people – both on the consumer side, and the business
side. There’s just no other industry I’d rather be in. The quality of life is
amazing. I learned from the military that life is short; you have to make the
most of every day. Just thinking about it almost moves me to tears. I just feel
We shoot the breeze about life, kids (Grega is divorced and
has a young son named Maverick), wine and career goals. After a while, I’m a
bit taken aback by Grega’s claim that he wants to be “the best.” I find this
kind of hyperbolic self-promotion off-putting, and it runs so counter to what I
feel I already know about the humble, yet dynamic Grega that I dive in deep
with him about this pronouncement.
“So, you really think you can be The Best?”
“I don’t think that I’m some gift from God that’s been
bestowed upon this earth to show my awesomeness, like I have some special
talent or something. It’s more about loving what I do and wanting to be the
best,” Grega clarifies.
“Whatever it takes I will do. I am willing to work harder
than people who have more advantages than me. I’m not afraid – and this is
where the combat mind-frame comes into play – I’m not afraid to die trying. I
am not afraid to commit that much. If you and I are going after the same thing,
and you have more talent than I do and more advantages than I do, I won’t
sleep, but you will. And while you’re sleeping, I’ll be getting better. And if
that’s what it takes for me to beat you, than that’s what I’m going to do. I
will die before I look in the mirror and have to tell myself, ‘you did not give
that as much effort as you could have.’
“I have been scared in my life. I’ve been scared for my life,
but I made the choice – I found something inside myself that made the choice –
for the greater good, for the betterment of my combat buddies around me, to put
my best effort forward, my best foot forward, and to not be scared – TO SHOW
UP. I’m not afraid to put that type of commitment behind something. I’ve put my
life on the line before for my battle buddies, and I’ve learned to respect that
level of dedication, that level of commitment. If you apply that to everything
you do…well, that’s a very powerful thing.
“Like, you have to wonder…when ball players were sitting next
to Joe DiMaggio or Lou Gehrig on the bench, did they look over at them and say,
‘Hey, that guy…he’s got something special.’ Could they tell? I mean, for every
Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Gehrig, there were thousands of guys who played alongside
them that never reached those heights. I feel like I’m surrounded in the wine
business by guys like those great, legendary ball players. It feels so cool to
be around these people. They inspire me. I don’t want to go to sleep because I
have to grow in many ways to be more like them. I can’t just wake up and be
better than them; they’re very talented and very hard working. So, they hold me
to a high standard with the example they set.”
So, when will you know when you’re the best, I ask him?
“There will never be a time when I can say that, actually.
It’s all relative in the end. The point of me saying that, and then believing
it, is this: that’s the kind of momentum it’s going to take for me to be the
best version of myself. If I believe that this impossible goal – to be the best
– is attainable, than that will set me on this trajectory that becomes
unstoppable. If I believed that I can just be a good winemaker, then I’m more
likely to quit more easily…the first major stumbling block that comes along,
I’ll make some kind of compromise to my vision. But if I tell myself, ‘You’re
going to be the best,’ then I’ll never stop giving everything my best effort. I
want to help push things forward in the wine business so that those who come
after me can push it ever further. In order to do that, I have to believe that
I can achieve this impossible thing. That’s what makes me push through. You
have to believe in the impossible.”
The Guinness is loosening my lips, and I throw a considerably
bigger question at Grega: Do you believe in God?
“I am not a religious person, though I grew up Catholic and
attended a Jesuit high school. I definitely believe in inter-connectedness.
Some people say “God”…I would also call it “love.” We’re all connected and
we’re all a part of the Universe, so we really are the source and the power, as
well. I guess I’m more spiritual than anything else.
“There’s an energy field that we’re all a part of. You can
have two molecules and separate them by a thousand miles, and if you stimulate
one, then simultaneously, without delay, the other reacts as well. Without
delay! As if they were right next to each other or on top of each other. At a
molecular level we are all connected and we’re all energy, and matter is
energy. If you create the right conditions for yourself and focus your energies
on what you need help with, for example, or what you want to achieve, it’s
almost as if you’re being plugged into this universal main frame and sometimes
you get the guidance and help you need.”
After dinner we start to wind down. I’m feeling the effects
of a long day of stimulating conversation, lots of fresh air, wine tasting and
sunshine, so my last question to Grega is stripped down and simple.
So, how are you feeling about life, then, these days?
“How do I feel? I feel colossal,” Grega says, before standing
up from the dinner table at the same time as I do, but not without helping me pack
up my tape recorder and note books, making our day even a little more
What’s on his nightstand?
Grega recommends a few of the books he’s currently reading:
1) The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle
An absolute must read. Learn how to tap into the power of
your own “being” or consciousness.
2) Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard
I had no idea how incredible the story of James Garfield was
until I read this book. His story involves a number of key players in history,
intertwined in a dramatic story that would not be believable if it were
3) A Life Worth Breathing, by Max Strom
A great supplement to the Power of Now, Max relays the
message of mindfulness in an easy to understand, holistic way that is soothing
4) Emerson, The Mind on Fire, by Robert Richardson
Very long, but worth every second of reading. Details
Emerson's entire life and allows us front row seats to the building of an
American literary legend.
5) A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
I’ve always identified with Hemingway’s writing style and
life. This book is a beautiful look at the early years of Hemingway’s career
while living in Paris with his first wife.
6) The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard
Did you know Theodore Roosevelt led an expedition to map and
explore one of the last major unknown rivers in the world know as The River of
Doubt? I didn’t until I read this thrilling account of his journey though one
of the last unexplored parts of the Amazon, which nearly cost him his life.
-- R.H. Drexel