Ohio Native Flourishes on Tuscan Soil
John S. Long - January 10, 2005
It didn't surprise Don Grace when his brother, Frank, became chairman of one of the largest corporate moving companies in the world.
But when Frank Grace bought a 10th century estate in Tuscany and started his own winery, that was something Don of Brecksville said he "wouldn't have expected in a million years."
There was even more of a shock in store for the brothers. Almost as soon as the first vintages from Frank Grace's new winery, Il Molino di Grace (Grace's Mill), were released, his top wine, Gratius, received Italy's Tre Bicchieri award (Three Glasses, assigned by the prestigious wine guide Gambero Rosso), and the winery was named the country's best new winery.
It was like being named rookie of the year, Frank Grace said before a dinner Sunday at Osteria di Valerio & Al in Cleveland's Warehouse District.
No foreigner, let alone an Irish Catholic Ohio native, had ever been singled out as he had. In fact, Grace is the only winery owner to win the awards on the first submission of wines to Vini di Italia. Besides the super Tuscan Gratius, the winery makes a Chianti, Chianti Classico Riserva and a special Riserva Il Margone.
The Graces grew up all over Northeast Ohio, from Steubenville to Canton and many places in between. Frank Grace went to John Carroll University. He and his wife, University Heights native Judy, were married there 40 years ago. Grace did a graduate school stint in England before serving in the Army.
In 1968, Grace moved to England, where he founded American Overseas Shipping Corp., a business relocation firm. His success in that business was as quick as in his later venture in the wine arena. In 2002, after a number of acquisitions, American Overseas became part of Team Relocations, Europe's largest corporate moving company, with offices throughout the continent.
With his fortune made, Grace decided to do something many others only dream or read about: buy his own estate and vineyards.
In 1997 he found one to his liking in southern France, but before closing on the deal he heard about a 10th century estate in Tuscany. After one look at Villa Castagnoli in Panzano, in the heart of the Chianti Classico region, Grace and his wife fell in love with the place. They arrived there on a Saturday, and by the time they left Italy the following Monday, they were owners of an estate, along with 60 acres- much of it vineyards.
Grace immediately went to work developing Il Molino di Grace winery. He hired a vineyard manager, Gerhard Hirmer, and top Italian wine consultant Franco Bernabei. The trio decided that if they were starting a winery, they needed more land. Like a bolt of lightening from the heavens, 75 acres across the road from the estate went up for sale. Not just any land, but property that had held vineyards for 200 years.
Grace traveled from his home in Mayfair, the luxury section of London, to spend about eight days every month at the villa. Meanwhile, the consultants put together the pieces of the winery. In most cases, they restored buildings that still appear ancient from the outside but are spotless, state-of-the-art facilities inside. A staff of 14 was hired to tend to the winery and vineyards, but no one expected recognition to come this fast.
"I'm 64 years old," said Grace. "I didn't want to wait 15 years for this to come together."
Grace said before he began to get recognition for the wines, it was harder to move them. After receiving the prestigious Italian awards, followed almost immediately by an award for best new Italian wines by the German magazine Sommelier, the wines became sought after by people around the world.
"They are doing very well in Japan, Germany, Scandinavia and in England," said Grace.
Grace said his one mistake was choosing the wrong American importer. Getting out of the deal took almost as much time as putting the winery together, he said.
Grace finally found a good importer for the East Coast but wanted his wines to sell in Ohio too.
This month they finally arrived and are being handled by Laudato Imports in Solon.