Norman Rockwell Kind of Life
By Andrea Stuart | Photos by Bob McClenahan
Retirement. For some, it looks like leisurely afternoons followed by early dinner. For Carmen Policy, attorney and former executive of the San Francisco 49ers, it looks rather different. “I don’t believe in the R-word,” says Policy as he flicks a sneer from his tongue. Since 2003, life has all but slowed down for him and his wife, Gail.
Since taking a step back from his careers, Policy has filled his time by serving on several advisory boards, including at the University of California, San Francisco, dabbling in the occasional legal matter, and, as the co-owner of Casa Piena Vineyards in Yountville, becoming heavily ensconced in the food and wine industry. “The difference is the pressure,” he says. “It’s not the hours you keep but the quality of how you spend those hours. The stakes you are dealing with make all the difference.”
When the Policys decided to “slow down,” they bought what is now the Casa Piena estate from the Mondavi family with aspirations of running a part-time winery that would make enough wine to share with friends and family and sell a few cases. Before they knew it, they had hired architects and vineyard managers, planted new vines, and built a business plan for a thriving wine business. “That was not our intention,” says Policy. “Our success was almost by accident,” he adds with a laugh.
The Policys thought they were building an adjunct residency in Napa Valley, but roots took hold immediately. Yountville became their primary home and San Francisco, their home away from home. “Winemaking ties you to the land and the artistic dignity of agriculture,” says Policy of his wine country life. “It’s the kind of situation where you can enjoy your product every day. And we do. The people who love wine are from every profession, walk of life, and persuasion. The conversation just keeps going.”
Besides being surrounded by a community of agriculture, food, and wine lovers, the Policys have family nearby. Two of their grandchildren even ride bikes from school to the Policy’s current house. Living a rural life outside the fast pace of the city has provided a level of abundance and charm that Policy describes as Normal Rockwell-ish.
His gratitude for his good fortune expands beyond the borders of his own life. The Policys had been talking about downsizing for several years but never put the Casa Piena estate on the market. When their winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown, mentioned that fellow proprietors and friends Mark Pulido and Donna Walker of Pulido-Walker were looking for a new homestead, it seemed like serendipity.
Pulido and Walker had lost their estate home in the Napa Valley Patrick Fire in 2017. They originally wanted to rebuild, but the concept became intangible. “I wanted whoever bought the Casa Piena property to love it and allow us to continue the Casa Piena brand in connection to it,” says Policy. “And that’s exactly what happened! Pulido and Walker will be great stewards of this legacy.”
The legacy of which Policy speaks began in 1877, when the Lincoln family—distant relatives of Abraham Lincoln—owned the land before it was transferred in 1966 to Rose Mondavi. The Policys acquired the land from the Mondavis in 2003. “I anticipated that Donna and Mark would want to change the name of the vineyard [which is now Policy Estate Vineyards]. Instead, they are making wine under the PulidoWalker brand with a vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon label,” remarks Policy. “You want to talk about passing things on and carrying the tradition of the land . . . they are even keeping Barbour Vineyards as the vineyard manager.”
Policy and his wife currently live in St. Helena and are looking for their forever home. Meanwhile, their Casa Piena label continues to make its estate-grown flagship Cabernet Sauvignon from its namesake estate, and Brown is still its winemaker. Casa Piena is, however, reducing production to around 500 cases per year, in keeping with the Policy’s desire to downsize, and the jury is out about what will happen with the Our Gang wine brand.
The evolution of Policy’s life is uncanny. Juxtaposed—like Leonardo Da Vinci’s mathematical artistry is to Jackson Pollock’s abstract, movement- oriented creations—Policy’s life has transformed from one steeped in a procession of legal statutes to one in which the rules are written from the heart.