Many of us have experienced that uneasy question when we graduate high school, “now what?” When this week’s Urban Beardsman, David Grega pondered his answer, it took place during the time of the Iraq invasion here in the US. Being a bit unsure that college was the right next move for him, he shares, “I was sort of insecure about not getting into a good college, and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I was seeing a lot of news coverage of people my age going to the war, and thought maybe I could help make a difference and contribute to a team I’d be proud of.”
Getting into the military however was no easy feat. Although he was in great shape, and could pass all the screening and physical tests, he was denied by the Marines, Navy, Coast Guard, and even the Air Force for being “too big.” The Air Force referred him to an Army recruiter, and it was there that he began his journey. “When we took off to Baghdad, I was mostly a gunner and often the guy that would kick down doors on Route Irish and Airport Road, (regarded the most dangerous roads in the world). Unfortunately, we lost some guys along the way and witnessing that was really tough. It was a really rough year for me,” he shares.
After completing his military service in 2007, Grega faced a new challenge—re-acclimating to the civilian world. He reveals, “Although the military was a positive experience I was ready to get out—I felt I had more to offer the world as a creative thinker. I wanted to start a new chapter and become an entrepreneur. I love people and connecting with all types, but that didn’t happen instantly.”
Grega had become quite fond of cigars while in the military; to the point of studying the different soil types in each region—to the fermenting and ageing process. His love for cigars and the surrounding culture began to unlock ideas for new possibilities. He recalls, “I would often chat in the online forums with others about cigars and the lifestyle around it. From there I began to learn about wine, (as ports were a common pairing and topic). At the same time, my lungs weren’t so great when I returned from Iraq, so I also needed to cut back on smoking cigars.”
After much due diligence researching the intricacies of wine making (and tasting) Grega learned about the parallels related to cigars, and realized he wanted to make a career out his new passion. “Wine eventually became something that was therapeutic, and being introduced to the industry was a very positive experience for me after returning from the service.”
Engrossing himself in the culture, Gregar sought out to meet winemakers’ offline, and recalls, “I knew I needed to absorb myself fully to gain insider experience. I built a website with content related to all things in the wine world. I started soliciting wineries, restaurants, and vineyards asking if I could put a link up to their website and interview people viewed as experts in the field. I posted the interviews on my site, and handed out my business card to promote it—next thing I know my networking and interviews were simultaneously building relationships with many key people in industry.”
Grega followed a gut instinct to move out to Napa Valley, CA—recognized as one of the top regions in the world for their scenic vineyards and the premium caliber of wines available. Through the network of friends he worked so hard to build, he began to acquire the startup materials to produce wine. That same year, he earned his sommelier certification and met his future business partner to join forces in starting Carlotta Cellars. “I knew I could make good wine in the beginning, I just didn’t know how that would happen. I was only twenty-three, but luckily winemakers I met along the way came to the rescue, donating equipment, lending advice, and even helping me figure out where to store my first trial run of wine I made,” recalls Grega.
Opportunities continued to present themselves for Grega, and after working in a high-end wine shop as the cigar and wine buyer, he met many industry people that later helped him get his wine in local restaurants. He was offered to be an assistant wine maker for some of the best top vineyards in Napa Valley, which now also serves as his day job in addition to running Carlotta Cellars.
In reflecting on some of his successful breaks, Grega states, “my strong suit is people, and this industry is all about relationships. I’ve experienced fear of failure on occasion, but I don’t find it as something negative, I just push myself to do better each day. I have a two-year old son now, and I want him to see me go after my dreams. I want him to see me believe in something even when it looks impossible and learn if you want to do something, you can succeed if you put in the work.” Since pursuing winemaking, Grega has branched out into sensory analysis, where he’s become fond of all the components that involve tea making. “I started writing tea tasting notes a few years ago for a friend in the industry, and I also give guest lectures on sensory analysis for a course at UC Berkeley twice a year. Being I was always a bit insecure about not going to college after high school, those moments really validate I chose the right path.”
Since Grega has come into his own, he explains how his beard has accompanied his path, “when I got out of the service, growing it was one of the first things I did. In the army you shaved twice a day, so all the sudden seeing what happens when I could let it grow, I was like ‘holy shit!’ Since then, I play around with different lengths and change up the mustache. I’m like a hundred year old dude on the inside that’s been through a lot, so subconsciously I feel like the beard adds a bit of wisdom—I’m very lucky to be alive and have all my limbs—my beard is one of the ways I can express that.”
Being indisputably recognized as a “big guy”, having a beard mixed with an ex-military persona could be interpreted as slightly intimidating, but Grega changes perceptions simply by tuning into his own self-awareness. “I take care of my beard by staying well-groomed. I dress well by putting my best foot forward and carry myself with confidence—the beard has become my signature part of that. If you carry yourself well, people will respond to it well.”
Through everything Grega has experienced to get where he’s at today, he’s proven going against the grain and following your own path should be nothing to fear, stating, “Success comes when you are pursuing something you love for good intentions. Fear of what other people say, or worrying about failing doesn’t matter to me. Success isn’t a dollar amount or a job title, it’s a constantly changing state of pursing something you love and helping others for the right reasons.”
As Grega focuses on honing in on his many ventures with winemaking, sensory analysis in the tea industry, (and being an incredibly awesome family man), you can expect to see him continue to make his mark in the beverage industry. Inspired to push forward by others that appreciate what he articulates through his wines, he closes with, “One of the best things is when people post something on social media or email me a pic where they’re enjoying my wine at a wedding or special occasion. Knowing I’ve created a moment of joy in someone’s life is one of the most rewarding feelings.”
Be sure to try Grega’s newest label Broken Arrow.