Toast to a Cause

Socially conscious winemakers give new meaning to drinking responsibly



After losing his wife of 48 years to cancer in 2005, the co-owner of Tulip Hill Winery in Nice turned his anger into action, buying Napa’s Cleavage Creek wine label as a tool to raise money for cancer research.

“You buy my wine, I contribute 10 per-cent off the top to some type of cutting-edge technology to find a cure, and everyone benefits,” Budge Brown says.

Released in October, Cleavage Creek’s 2005 vintages include petite syrah, cabernet sauvignon, a cabernet-syrah blend, chardonnay, and “secret” red and white wines. The labels feature pictures of breast cancer survivors, whose stories are told on the winery’s Web site: www.cleavagecreek.com.

“If it wasn’t for my wife dying of breast cancer, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Brown says. “In order to make money to donate it, I have to have a product. … I don’t have to do this; I have a passion to do it.”

Philanthropic wineries such as Cleavage Creek make it easy not only to feel good drinking wine, but also to feel good about buying it. Like Brown, their owners have chosen to channel profits into causes that mean something to them personally.

Bart and Barb O’Brien, owners of O’Brien Family Vineyard in Napa Valley, support gay rights and HIV/AIDS organizations. Bart recalls meeting gay police officers who talked about the discrimination they felt.

“I never thought about what it was like to be gay and be an oppressed community,” he says. “Our founding fathers guaranteed us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with no asterisk — only if you are white, male, straight, and own property.”

O’Brien hired a gay marketing firm to find the right recipient for his support. “I wanted an organization that had credibility in the gay community,” he explains. “I wanted to do this right.” He decided upon Equality California.

“I donated wine for a Los Angeles Equality dinner and started thinking, ‘How can I make this bigger? How can I do more for them?’”

He created a donation program and Web site for Seduction (O’Brien’s blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot), which represents 80 percent of the winery’s production. In addition to donating about 80 cases of wine a year (worth about $40,000), O’Brien donates 20 percent of its sales of Seduction to Equality California (www.seductionwine.com).

Some wineries were founded with charitable goals, such as Humanitas, whose Latin name literally translates to “humanity.” The Napa winery’s primary charities are America’s Second Harvest, Habitat for Humanity, and Reading is Fundamental. Funds go directly to regional chapters in the communities where the wine was sold. Its Web site (www.humanitaswines.com) lists codes that consumers can use in placing orders to direct 20 percent of their wine purchase (Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon, Santa Barbara chardonnay, and Monterey no-oak chardonnay) to a specific charity.

Santa Ynez Valley’s Carivintâs Winery — a combination of caritas (Latin for charity) and vin (French for wine) — creates custom labels for nonprofit organizations and then sells the wine through its Web site, www.carivintas.com, to club members. Two organizations that have created wine clubs this way are the National Wildlife Federation (www.natureswineclub.com) and the Humane Society of the United States (www.dogloverswineclub). A minimum of 10 percent of wine sales goes directly to the nonprofit. Carivintâs works with winemakers to produce 12 to 14 wines a year. Co-owner Matt Hahn says the clubs give organizations “a perpetual income stream.” But nonprofits also may directly purchase wine in bulk with their label to auction at a fundraising event.

Napa Valley’s Grace Family Vineyards (www.gracefamilyvineyards.com) — whose tag line is “Wine as a catalyst for healing our planet” — benefits the Grace Family Foundation. This year, winery owners Dick and Ann Grace have spent four months on outreach in Tibet, Nepal, India, and China. “My wife and I are not in the glitz and glamour aspect of philanthropy, but in the nuts and bolts of it,” Dick Grace says. “The greatest problem in the world is this painful gap between those of us who have so much and others who have so little.” The winery produces 500 cases of cabernet sauvignon a year, priced at $225 a bottle. “We have 450 active customers and about 4,000 on a waiting list to get our wine,” Grace says. “The way to get our wine is to buy it at a charitable auction.” At a 2006 wine auction in Naples, Fla., a 12-liter bottle of their 2003 vintage — engraved with the logos of 23 charity recipients — sold for $90,000.

Chalk Hill Winery in Healdsburg (www.chalkhill.com) has a director of philanthropy responsible for managing the Furth Family Foundation established by winery owners Fred and Peggy Furth to aid disadvantaged children. Fifteen percent of the purchase price of Chalk Hill’s Imagine chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are added to the foundation’s fund. Additionally, Chalk Hill’s annual wine auction has raised $5.6 million for children’s charities in its first three years.

Orin Swift Cellars of St. Helena (www.orinswift.com) donates 100 percent of the profits from the sale of its sauvignon blanc to Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors), which provides dental services, counseling, and health screenings for those in need.

Like Tulip Hill’s Brown, Gordon Holmes turned personal experience into philanthropy. Seeing how a wheelchair benefited his wife after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the owner of Lookout Ridge Winery in Kenwood (www.lookoutridge.com) created a Wine for Wheels program. For each case of wine purchased (syrah, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and sangiovese), the winery donates a wheelchair in the buyer’s name to someone in need.

Heaven’s Cave Cellars established a joint venture with its fellow Washington winemakers to hand-select grapes from premier vineyards and craft small lots for a Make the Dash Count label (www.makethedashcount.com). Make the Dash Count refers to the dash on tombstones between the dates of birth and death. All profits are donated to programs for at-risk youth through the Make the Dash Count Foundation, whose board is composed entirely of youth between 14 and 18 years old.

It’s easy to become passionate about wine — and easy to become passionate about a cause. Putting the two together could be the truly ideal marriage. “I don’t know of a more generous industry than the wine and food industry is sponsoring charitable endeavors,” Dick Grace says.“As a business owner,” says Bart O’Brien, “I believe it is important to maintain a socially conscious outlook and make an effort to show support for the major causes and issues of our time.”

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