Life Is a Cabernet

To Gregory Yadley, it's all about balance

Published in 2009 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2009

Legend has it that, back in the 1660s, Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon was the first to taste the bubbly beverage we now know as champagne. Astonished, he exclaimed to his fellow monks, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!"

Three hundred years later, the region of Champagne and its head-spinning libation were no less a revelation for college student and future attorney Gregory Yadley. Not only did he study in France, he was lucky enough to work at Ruinart, the oldest champagne house of them all.

It changed his life. Young Yadley loved everything about France, soaking up the savoir-vivre philosophy of life the way a baguette absorbs cream sauce.

Back in the U.S., he pleaded with his vacationing parents to bring back a particular bottle that Ruinart was saving for him ... neglecting to mention that it was a salmanazar, a single bottle that holds the equivalent of an entire case of wine.

Long empty, it stands in his office at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in downtown Tampa, where the senior partner chairs the corporate practice group, dealing with corporate law, securities and mergers and acquisitions.

In Tampa legal and cultural circles, the trim, white-haired 59-year-old is known widely for his wine collection. His personal, custom-designed cellar holds more than 2,000 bottles—and that's a conservative estimate. The sommelier at Bern's, a celebrated Tampa steakhouse with what may be the largest restaurant wine list in the world, knows him by name. A vacation for la famille Yadley—wife, Anne, a biotech scientist; daughter, Lauren; and son, Sloan, now 28 and 25 respectively—usually involves passports and a plane to France.

But if Yadley were a bottle of wine, the last thing he'd be is champagne.

He's not the flashy, center-of-attention type.

According to clients and colleagues, he's more like the Burgundy Chevalier Montrachet he favors: complex and brilliant, with balance, intensity and concentration. But don't be fooled: Yadley's affinity for the good life has never kept him from being an overachiever. The youngest Eagle Scout in the history of his troop, he went on to graduate from Dartmouth cum laude with highest honors in English and cum laude from George Washington University Law School.

"He works harder and longer hours than most associates hoping to make partner and is an excellent teacher/mentor," says Julio C. Esquivel, who met Yadley 12 years ago when the senior lawyer interviewed him for a position at the firm.

"Meanwhile, he devotes more time to charitable/community organizations, the various Bar associations of which he is a member and the things he loves—like traveling, the arts and wine—than anyone else I know.

"Somehow he consistently manages to be one of our top performers while, each year, managing to undertake at least one ski trip, one trip to his dude ranch in Wyoming, one trip with La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin—especially if it is to France—one Florida Bar trip and one ABA trip, all while also serving on the board of the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, Hillsborough County Arts Council, Friends of Public Art, Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts Inc., University Club of Tampa, the Dartmouth Club of Tampa Bay and the Florida Orchestra."

No wine, however excellent, rates a perfect 100. Yadley, too, has his foibles.

He walks so fast he often leaves others behind, curses at his computer when it doesn't cooperate, and snags a trio of glazed doughnuts every Friday at the office breakfast. Plus, he is infamous at his beloved Ruinart vineyard for having knocked over a rack of very pricey bubbly bottles.

But life and wine are about balance, not perfection—an attitude celebrated by Tastevin, the worldwide, Burgundy-based organization to which Yadley belongs. Its members believe you can't live a joyful life without wine.

Yadley's membership is a family tradition and he has served as general counsel for the U.S. chapter. Tastevin even helped him find love—he met his wife, Anne, because her father, like his, was a leading member of the organization.

Yadley grew up around the grape and developed an early respect for it.

Though he attended Dartmouth, an acknowledged party school, "I did not spend my freshman year drinking," he notes.

It was the academic year in Strasbourg that ignited his passion for wine and for France.

"There's no distance between art and life in Europe," he says, "or between gastronomy and wine."

Wine and life didn't always overlap in Yadley's life.

After graduating from Dartmouth, romantic that he was, he toyed with the idea of being a writer. Practicality won out and, in 1972, he entered law school at George Washington University—though he admits he had no clear career plan.

That didn't seem to matter. The early 1970s were heady days, and Yadley was part of the social and legal swirl. He went to a lawn party at Ethel Kennedy's house. One of his professors, Arthur S. Miller, was counsel to Sam Ervin and the Senate Watergate Committee. Yadley also worked part-time at Charles Colson's former law firm.

As he was learning and getting established, "wine was sort of on hold," he says.

But then it seemed to become a symbol of adulthood. In law school, he and his friends decided it was time "to start being grown-ups." They began going to the ballet and the symphony—and drinking good vino.

Come graduation, he thought he might go into international law. But at the time, international law was synonymous, he says, with tax law, which he found boring.

Instead, he found his passion in an unlikely place: the world of securities and finance law. At the Securities and Exchange Commission, Yadley helped launch the central database that records every stock transaction.

Far from being a staid bureaucracy, the SEC was a happening place in the mid-'70s, and much of the buzz centered around stocks. Until 1975, stock commission rates were not fixed. A new law allowed them to fluctuate with the market, and the SEC began having some jurisdiction over banks—as well as a need to keep track of stock sales.

Around the same time, the Mafia was stealing stock certificates, Yadley recalls. Too smart to cash them, Tony Soprano's real-life predecessors instead pledged them as collateral for loans.

The SEC developed a repository of information—a big stock certificate database—that allowed sales and transfers to be monitored and threw a bureaucratic monkey wrench into the Mafia's moneymaking scheme.

Having the opportunity to work with top officers and general counsel of the nation's leading banks and brokerage firms on a project of this magnitude was heady stuff for a 26-year-old lawyer. "Having so much responsibility that early in my career was a humbling experience," says Yadley. "It also taught me that good lawyers take their responsibilities seriously; they don't act like hired guns, and earning a reputation for integrity is the first step in building a successful professional career."

By the time Yadley left in 1979, he was a branch chief for the division of market regulation. He then went to work as assistant general counsel for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., better known as Freddie Mac. By the early 1980s, he was back in Tampa in private practice, eventually ending up at Shumaker, where he served two terms as managing partner.

Yadley has a reputation for being so brainy he doesn't have to prove it.  "A lot of lawyers negotiate every little thing to show how smart they are," says Jennifer Steans, chair of USAmeriBank.

He dots all of the proverbial i's and crosses the t's, but doesn't niggle or grandstand. Steans recalls an occasion when Yadley "had to get opposing counsel off some little point" so the guy didn't blow a $30 million deal for both his client and Yadley's.

He's more interested in getting the deal done than in being the star, says entrepreneur Ray Murray, who has used Yadley's services for the sales and mergers of several of his companies. The two also have served together on the board of the Florida Orchestra.

"He's not a big shot," says Murray, or a "deal-killer."

James Gillespie, former chair and current board member of the orchestra, calls Yadley "a great synthesizer of issues."

To the often volatile world of the arts, Yadley brings a soothing voice and "the kind of personality that makes people listen to him," Gillespie says.

That talent comes in handy. During some "very vigorous discussions" about the budget—when Gillespie, as chair, was ready to close discussion on the issue—Yadley stepped in with some less inflammatory options.

"He started people thinking about compromise and we were able to get on with business," Gillespie says.

Unlike many a dreamer with champagne bubbles dancing before their eyes, Yadley has no interest in running his own winery or crafting his own vintage.

But he does have a small investment in a vino business on the side.

Situated on the corner of a busy street in Tampa's historic Ybor City neighborhood, West Palm Wines is of one of the state's top fine-wine shops. It doesn't advertise much, and, while the sign is visible, the tiny, tucked-away parking lot is easy to miss.

The inside feels like a French cave, full of exotic bottles and the heady whiff of fermented grapes with an undertone of wooden barrels.

Stock ranges from reasonably priced offerings on the racks to the Chateau Lafite and Cristal in the room in back.

When the cork comes out, so does Yadley's extensive knowledge.

"Sharing a bottle with him is great fun," Esquivel says, "especially a burgundy, since he knows the area very well and can usually tell you all about the French family that made the wine, including the names of their kids and grandkids."

But he's not one of the snooty sip-swirl-and-spit crowd.

"I hate blind tastings," Yadley says. "It's a show-off game."

Though he may have one of the planet's most sophisticated palates, his approach to vino is simple: A good wine is anything you enjoy with family and friends.

"The joy in wine ought to be finding things you like," he says.

Which doesn't mean he chugs the cheap stuff.

"Never let Greg pick the wine if you're on a budget," advises Steans, who has been out to eat with him and learned the lesson.

And remember all that wine in his cellar? There's not an investment bottle in the bunch. It's all for drinking.

"I intend to share it in my dotage with my friends," he says.

Here's to a retirement plan with legs.

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