Since grade school we’ve all heard the fatigued proverb, “It’s better to give than to receive.” Most of us wouldn’t argue with that, at least not publicly. Privately however, well, who doesn’t want free stuff? In truth, the wine industry is a magnanimous group, routinely called upon to provide free juice for charity auctions, public and private tastings, festivals and most anyplace where wine is poured and people want to imbibe at little or no cost. These three west coast wineries showcase the dedication of making wine, making changes, one bottle, and one person at a time.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Wine with Wheels: Lookout Ridge
As a teenager Gordon Holmes began his lifelong fascination with wine by purchasing futures. Not your typical adolescent activity. He worked in a high end wine shop in Los Angeles where the wealthy would buy wine to lay down. “They would tell me how magical those wines were,” Holmes recollected. So he decided to save his money. Beyond saving money, Gordon made money as a Wall Street publisher and eventually started his own winery, Lookout Ridge in Sonoma. He currently produces syrah, pinot, cab, and sangiovese. His first vintage was 2001 and his wines were made by Greg LaFollett. Simple enough.

A few years later he was at a charity event. “Someone spent $1,500 for a single bottle of my 2001 pinot noir and those proceeds went to the Wheelchair Foundation,” he says. As it happened, Gordon’s wife, Kari, was already sequestered in her own wheelchair fighting a fierce battle with multiple sclerosis. The couple began to donate more money to the Wheelchair Foundation and eventually secured a shipping container of wheelchairs that Gordon distributed in Mexico.

“That’s what changed my life,” he states. “I cry at dog food commercials so the fact that I cried for several days after seeing the problems in Mexico was no big deal.” Gordon and Kari decided for every case of wine sold at Lookout Ridge, they would donate a wheelchair to the Wheelchair Foundation. But Gordon tends to think in broader strokes. “One day it hit me, why can’t I put together the Bob Dylan’s of the world, the rock stars of winemakers?”

He enlisted some of the top winemakers in Sonoma and Napa including Cathy Corison and Andy Erickson, winemaker’s who have worked at legendary wineries like Staglin Family, Screaming Eagle, and Stag’s Leap. And he changed tactics.

“Though economically it doesn’t make sense, for every $100 bottle we sell of our winemaker designate wine, we donate a wheelchair.” So when a winemaker donates a barrel of wine to Gordon’s Wine for Wheels foundation, “that effectively changes 288 people’s lives,” as he puts it. 150 million however is the number that the World Health Organization estimates are individuals on the planet with no mobility. “If you can imagine how terrible that life is, how lucky we are, and by merely giving someone a wheelchair, you change their life,” Gordon says.

The irony of course is Kari Holmes. “If I could cure my wife that would be my number one priority,” he says, his voice getting thin. But Kari, like others on every continent, have enriched lives because someone is doing something. “People buy my wine that don’t even drink,” Gordon says of those who desire to get involved. And it’s not just wheelchairs, it’s finding the right outlet for every individual. “Let’s say you’re not into wine but you’re into animals. If my story motivates you to do something for the animals, that’s also part of my mission.”

Dogged Wine: Cru Vin Dogs
Animals and charity is often equated with flavor of the month celebrities who desperately seek media attention. And let’s be honest, whereas no one likes to see images of abused cats or dogs, wheelchairs just feels more important, right? Well, that depends. Cru Vin Dogs is a winery based in Colorado and churns out sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cab blends and pinot noir. Mary Snellgrove and her partners formed the winery from the very start as a charitable organization. “We thought about our passions and what’s important to us and came up with the project that way,” she states.

They had an inbred passion for canines and focused on two charity anchors with a third that rotates each year. The Morris Animal Foundation, founded in Denver in 1948, funds research projects for animals, specifically cancer cures for dogs. Since over 60 percent of all golden retrievers and 45 percent of Labrador retrievers die of some form of cancer, Cru Vin Dogs started there. They also donate to Canine Companions for Independence who provide assistance dogs to kids and adults with disabilities. “We felt these two charities were a natural fit because it is canines doing something for humans and humans doing something for canines,” Snellgrove said.

One dog named Lucky serves as the example. Lucky is a yellow lab that makes hospital visits. “I walked around with Lucky at the hospital,” Snellgrove recalled. “To see these kids, some in critical condition, all of the sudden their face lights up no matter how much pain they have when Lucky walks in the room. Medicine is one thing, but there’s something very therapeutic about a dog.” The third leg of the charity varies from year to year, from a current desire for greyhound rescue, to the Alie Foundation, something Snellgrove took to heart years ago when five year old Alie Berrelez was kidnapped off her front porch in Englewood, Colorado. A bloodhound found Alie’s lifeless body several days later. “The story of Alie really hit home for us. Yogi was the dog that located her body and we wanted to honor that.”

Yogi, Lucky and other dogs grace the labels of the wines and each back-label provides the story of that specific dog. They say cats have nine lives and dogs may have fewer than that. “Humans have one life,” Snellgrove states. “All you can take with you are stories and memories. When I hear some of the stories of the lives we’ve touched, that’s what is gratifying. I’m blessed we have a vehicle to give something back.”

Dashing Success: Heaven’s Cave
Hope Moore (her name itself seems custom made for charity work) is the driving force behind Heaven’s Cave winery in Prosser Washington, east of Walla Walla. At the Cave they make malbec, grenache, chardonnay, cab and syrah.

Though Moore loves wine, part of her focus is on the future, which isn’t twenty-something’s waving degrees around like a flag in the wind looking for work. The future according to her is high school kids. Seriously. Moore, like many people, went through a series of deaths, her brother, and father just to name a few. In and of itself, the death of a loved one isn’t unusual. But she recalled looking at a tombstone thinking that the only thing that separates the birth year from the death year was a chiseled dash, a single well placed hammer stroke. What if, she mused, she made that dash count for something? Simple question, yes, but from simple questions are birthed great things.

She formed the Make the Dash Count Foundation whose aim is to teach kids about philanthropy. “The Obama administration keeps talking about change and the future and how much youth plays a part in that,” she states. “Make the Dash Count is focusing on educating youth in philanthropy and community leadership.”

The rollout is like this: High school kids are given complete authority for philanthropic work within their community. Money is raised through direct donations and grants and Heaven’s Cave donates ten percent of their proceeds to the foundation.  The youth leaders, from diverse socio-economic backgrounds must then act like a real foundation; they interview business leaders, write profit and loss statements, and perform site visits for companies seeking donations. “They have complete authority of how the money gets spent. It gives them a sense of empowerment,” Moore notes.

The youth boards have doled out hundreds of thousand of dollars to Boys and Girls Clubs, a school dropout prevention program, and fittingly, they financially supported a wheelchair for kids program based in Tacoma, WA. To train up a new generation in the ways of giving is something Moore believes does not exist for most kids.

“One of the reasons I started Dash was because most young people don’t have that opportunity at their age. It’s not usually until you’re 40 or 50 that you’re invited to sit on a non-profit board. But if you give this opportunity to these high school kids, and they are helping kids their own age, that really strikes a chord. It makes it real for them.” There are already five Dash youth boards and a sixth is being planned in Florida.

The overreaching point is not about money. Sure, money gets things done, but without the will to do it, in the form of people, money by itself can’t make anything work, it’s merely paper and aggregate metal. Within the philanthropic world there are the three Ts: Treasure, Time and Talent. Not everyone can write substantial checks, though it would be very cool to pass out thousands of dollars. But all of us can do something. Hope Moore sees the practical side of giving. “During this current economic crisis people may not have as much money to give away, but they certainly have time and talent they can donate.” Gordon Holmes sees the logic of it. “For 100 bucks you get a great wine and you’re going to change someone’s life. I mean, that’s pretty powerful.” And Mary Snellgrove observes the totality of it. “You can have a good time drinking a nice bottle of wine with friends, and know that you’re still doing something positive and giving back to someone else.” Okay, lesson number one, keep drinking wine. Lesson number two, get off your butt.