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THOMPSON: My wine brother from another mother

November 25, 2019 - 12:00 PM

OPINION


Last week, I found a long-lost brother…not a biological brother mind you. Rather, a brother from a different mother. Quite frankly, I have scores of these brothers - and some sisters - around the world. Many are alive…and sadly…a few live only in my memories.

While we don’t share parentage...my brothers and sisters do share a passion…for wine. I don’t mean simply drinking the stuff…which my brothers, sisters and I all do reasonably well…and often. No, our passion runs deeper than the roots of any vines giving us the fruit for our favourite beverages.

Like my most recent brother - Thomas Wargovich - invariably we meet quite by accident. There’s no ancestry website or DNA test kit involved…just sheer dumb luck. Well, it’s not entirely random. We always improve our odds by frequenting vineyards, wine stores and restaurants. It might take years…but often our paths cross.

So it was with Thomas. We met at Dorn’s, a wine store in Gainesville, FL, when a friend of mine - James Shaefer Lloyd - on path to become a Master Sommelier - put together a private tasting. My wife, Bonnie, and I often meet friends there to taste wine in a convivial setting.

Thomas Wargovich, proprietor of Gratus Vineyards.
Thomas Wargovich, proprietor of Gratus Vineyards.
Image Credit: Gratus Vineyards

My extended family of brothers and sisters lives in the U.S., Italy, France, Spain, Australia, Germany and Canada…wherever varietal grapes are grown…and wine is made…and enjoyed.

Thomas owns a winery near St. Helena in the heart of Napa Valley…Gratus Vineyards. Gratus (grah-tus) - Latin for grateful - reflects perfectly Thomas and his family. They realize all too well that their endeavours today are a reality only because of the dreams of immigrant grandparents and parents.

Perhaps destiny brought Thomas to Napa Valley…a long-standing, irrepressible desire…call it a reverence…for what grows. It is a passion the Wargovich family has cultivated - excuse the pun - for generations.

Since coming to America through Ellis Island…the family born in the U.S. is chock full of doctors, lawyers and scientists…people with disciplined minds…and with hearts that appreciate a certain beauty best delivered by nature.

Even though Thomas and I met only recently, our paths had crossed at different times. At 69, I’m slightly longer in the tooth than Thomas, who at 63, is a retired physician…but is in no way retired. Vineyard owners don’t ever really retire.

We both were at the University of Florida…I as a journalism student a few years before he finished a fellowship in interventional cardiology…and eventually joined the faculty at UF’s Medical School. Before that he worked in the same hospital in Ocala  - 35 miles south of the university - where I was born.

About 20 years ago, while in California for a medical meeting, Thomas found 27 acres off the beaten path of touring wine enthusiasts just east of Calistoga in Pope Valley. It was old ranch land…and at nearly 1,000 feet off the valley floor, the hot and dry summer days and surprisingly cool nights was perfect for a vineyard…and more.

Besides his dream of a vineyard, Thomas - who studied botany and biology as an undergraduate at West Virginia University - envisioned an arboretum. Now, Thomas
and his family have both.

They planted and grow ten-acres of varietal grapes…Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc…as well as Grenache Blanc, Marsanne Blanc, Rousanne and Viognier…all white - and sadly often overlooked - Rhône varietals.

The vines and conifers of Gratus Vineyards.
The vines and conifers of Gratus Vineyards.
Image Credit: Gratus Vineyards

Spread around the remaining acreage, Thomas planted more than 300 varieties of conifers…he  grows 29 of the world’s 30 species of Oak trees. The words on his website - gratusvineyards.com - tell a story of wine and horticulture…with photos a proud papa might show.

Thomas did not simply buy his way into making wine…he finished a two-year program on viticulture and enology at Napa Valley College, worked for a vineyard management and irrigation services company in Napa, and served as an older-than-usual intern with winemaker Sean Capiaux at O’Shaughnessy Estate. He would not be an absentee vineyard owner…he would eat, sleep and breathe his new life.

Last Sunday, as we stood tasting his wines…each a fine example of winemaking…his eyes danced as he voiced joyously about those things he cares about most…family, his vineyard and his trees.

One of his daughters, Lauren, was there with her husband Aaron, along with my Sommelier friend Shaefer - one of my younger brothers - and John, another wine enthusiast, and Bonnie and I. We all chatted amiably…enjoying the wines and food.

Thomas and I talked on and on throughout the evening. We were different in obvious ways…he talked in tones above a whisper but as though he was telling me secrets…while I spoke with greater volume and animation. And yet, the conversation between such brothers is never strained…it flowed like the wine we enjoyed.

Had the evening continued even later Thomas and I would have no doubt plunged into even greater depths of clonal varieties and pump over techniques and barrels and a dozen other topics that might bore so many people to tears. It did not matter to us in the least.

Thomas is a bit of a throwback…small family wineries in California are an endangered species. He realizes just how precarious tending a vineyard and making wines can be. Long ago, another brother and vintner told me that “making great wine combines art, science and a little bit of voodoo.” My brother was right.

After all, vintners are farmers…toiling the land and living with the occasional harsh realities of Mother Nature…harsher government regulations…and the challenges of getting a product from field to shelf in a crowded marketplace at a price that makes sense to those who drink the stuff…and still squeeze out enough profit to make next year’s vintage…all before consumer drinking patterns shift whimsically.

Thomas and I will meet again, of course…in Florida…California…and here in the Okanagan…where he will no doubt discover more brothers…Canadian winemakers and vintners.

Meanwhile, I root for the success of Gratus Vineyards and Thomas. That’s what brothers do.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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