Feeling Colossal

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 heard of.”

Sebastian Junger

__________________________________________________________________

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 and agile.

“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 wine.

“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 it.”

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 war.

“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 deal.

“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 beers.

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 so lucky.”

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 civilized.

____________________________________________________

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 fiction.

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 and powerful.

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