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Born on January 20, 1937, he grew up in the San Francisco suburb of Danville. He first passion was music, culminating in a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard. While at Harvard he restored an entire theater organ in a local Boston movie theater. After attending Navy OCS, he served on a destroyer in the Pacific earning a commendation as a gunnery officer. His mechanical abilities and love of the subtleties of music and art led him to his real passion and calling; the making of fine wine and sharing the enjoyment of flavors. He and his family purchased Chalone Vineyard in 1965. In the Judgment of Paris wine competition, it was ranked third out of ten.
The vineyard grew into the Chalone Wine Group now owned by Diageo. Graff was one of the first to bring barrel fermentation and aging to the California winemaking industry. He also initiated the practice of malolactic fermentation of white wines as well as the importation of French oak barrels into the United States. Graff said "I insist upon the traditional techniques for raising wine which entail minimal handling, so that what comes from the vineyard is carried intact through fermentation and aging, clarification and bottling, into the wine glass."
Richard Graff was killed when his Cessna 182 airplane crashed due to engine failure on January 9, 1998. After his death the Richard H. Graff Scholarship Fund was established which is funded by the sales of Graff Family Vineyards wines and gives scholarships to food and wine students.