Dennis and Judy Groth founded Groth Vineyards & Winery in 1981 in the heart of the Napa Valley in what is today the Oakville AVA. The 1985 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was the first California wine ever to receive a 100-point score from wine critic Robert M. Parker. Dennis began his career as an accountant and CPA, and in 1978 became the Chief Financial Officer of Atari, a pioneer in home video game consoles, as well as an iconic game lineup including Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Pong. Dennis has been heavily involved in the wine industry since founding Groth, serving as the Oakville Winegrowers first President, as well as President of the Napa Valley Vintners Association and Chairman of The California Wine Institute.
Karen MacNeil: Atari fell victim to the video game crash in 1983 and you lost your job—two years after hiring winemaker Nils Venge and starting to make wine. Was there any question you’d continue in the wine business?
Dennis Groth: We certainly had the intention to continue, but the recession of 1981 and the loss of my job at Atari had caused our banker (then Bank of America) to back away from all prior commitments to provide a line of credit to Groth Vineyards and Winery. Our land purchases as well as all initial investment in the winery building, equipment, wine production costs and working capital were financed by personal cash investment and not debt. It wasn’t until 1984, after we began to sell wine, that Bank of America provided a line of credit, secured by inventory and receivables. We literally invested everything we had in the business.
KM: In nearly 40 years of ownership, Groth has only had three winemakers and two vineyard managers. How do you believe that influences the wines?
DG: Judy and I had always thought of Groth Vineyards and Winery as a “wine estate.” That is why our first step was to buy 165 acres of vineyard land in 1981 and 1982. We then hired our first winemaker, Nils Venge, to make the wine starting in 1982. Nils, Judy and I developed our wine style together during the initial years. In 1994 Nils left Groth to be replaced by Michael Weis who led the winemaking team for twenty-two years. Current winemaker Cameron Parry took over as head of “Winegrowing” in 2016 under a transition plan developed by Michael Weis for the family. The consistency of winegrape origin, dominated by our own property and Oakville sourced grapes, the consistency of vineyard and winemaking management, and consistent family involvement in our wine estate have enabled us to produce wines we are proud to sell. Suzanne Groth, our daughter, has grown up at the property since we moved here while she was in high school, and has been a key family member involved in this process throughout those years. Suzanne has stepped up to the role of President and CEO and will carry on the family involvement.
KM: When you replanted the vineyard in the late 1990’s, did you make a conscious decision to change the style of your cabernet sauvignon? What influenced your decision?
DG: The replanting of the vineyard in the 1990’s was supervised by then-winemaker Michael Weis and Ben Benson. Old vineyards infected with virus have trouble achieving enough ripeness, so the initial goal of the replant was to be able to achieve earlier ripeness of the Oakville cabernet sauvignon. While we had achieved considerable success with our wine quality up until that time, we hoped the new vineyard would improve the wines. We also were able to shift our sauvignon blanc grapes to our Oakville property where Michael preferred the riper character of a warmer region sauvignon blanc. We shifted all chardonnay plantings to our Oak Knoll property, where we felt the cooler area produced better chardonnay. Today, current winemaker Cameron Parry and Suzanne Groth have set in place a long-term (25 year) vineyard plan that outlines the continuous replanting of all our vineyard blocs. The goal is to produce a consistent supply of very high-quality grapes.
KM: You took the helm of the newly-formed Oakville Winegrowers shortly after Oakville earned its official AVA status in 1993. Why do you believe it was important to distinguish Oakville as its own AVA?
DG: The Oakville appellation was formed in 1993. Our members banded together and agreed that the objective of our association, The Oakville Winegrowers, was to distinguish Oakville as one of the best places in the world to produce cabernet sauvignon. When asked to describe the distinctiveness of Oakville at our first press gathering, I simply recited the names of our founding wineries: Dalla Valle, Far Niente, Groth, Harlan, Martha’s Vineyard, Opus One, Paradigm, PlumpJack, Robert Mondavi, and Screaming Eagle. I believe that all those brands were represented there that day. I continue to believe that our members’ wines best speak for Oakville.
KM: What do you feel differentiates valley floor Oakville cabernet from hillside Oakville cabernet?
DG: The Oakville AVA is by original design a valley floor wine. The elevation varies from about 125 feet above sea level at the center of the valley to an average of 500 feet above sea level at the edges. At the east boundary, some vineyards are above 500 feet to avoid cutting members’ vineyards out of the appellation. I love valley floor wines because they tend to be rich and ripe, with plum and cherry, and black fruit flavors. The tannins are softer and the wines age well.
KM: What other wine region inspires you and why?
DG: Bordeaux. At one of our Oakville Winegrowers annual presentations, an attendee asked how we could produce these gorgeous wines when his expectation was that hillsides produced the best wines. When visiting Bordeaux in 1982 with Judy and Suzanne, I noticed while visiting Château Latour, Château Mouton, and Château Lafite that they were located on the banks of the Gironde, the largest estuary in western Europe. These brands are not hillside wineries.
“When asked to describe the distinctiveness of Oakville at our first press gathering, I simply recited the names of our founding wineries. I continue to believe that our members’ wines best speak for Oakville.”
KM: How old were you when you tasted your first wine and who gave it to you?
DG: My father preferred beer, which he made at home. However, he occasionally purchased wine in bulk from a small producer in Santa Clara Valley, where I grew up. He offered at special times for me to taste some of his beer or wine when I reached about ten years of age. I did not especially like either the beer or the wine.
KM: What’s the biggest challenge in working with your family?
DG: Working with family is unique. Prior to the wine business I thought of myself as a decisive executive with broad responsibilities. As an owner of a small family business, I had to learn to be more flexible. One year early in our business history, my wife Judy asked me to take out the garbage at our little vineyard office while she cleaned up because the janitorial service failed us. Family must be willing to do whatever needs to be done. Another time we made a final blend decision with all hands involved, except Judy, attending. Judy did not make the meeting on time for some reason. I approved the final blend decision without Judy’s participation, because I felt that as CEO, I had that authority. Later that day Judy informed me that the tasting had to be done again so that she could be sure we did not make a mistake.
KM: Recall the biggest and best mistake you ever made and what you learned from it.
DG: The biggest mistake we made in the wine business was trying to grow too fast in the early years. Cash became very precious and we almost had to take in a partner to survive. We went to seek advice from Jean-Michel Valette, who was in the investment banking business. He advised us not to take in a partner, but to get a real bank. He then introduced us to Napa National Bank and Clark Swanson, who solved our banking needs. The family and I am indebted to Jean-Michel for that advice.
KM: Were you ever tempted to become a winemaker yourself?
DG: I was never tempted to become a winemaker. Winemaking has a long learning curve. You only have one vintage each year and a very long production cycle. I thought it was better to employ good experience.
KM: What is your most memorable wine tasting experience?
DG: My wine tasting epiphany was at a business dinner in Seattle early in my career with Arthur Young and Company. The host ordered the wine. The sommelier arrived with a handful of balloon glasses and a bottle. He opened the wine, the host approved, and the wine was poured. It was glorious. The wine was 1968 Georges de Latour by Beaulieu Vineyards. The year was probably about 1972 and I was very impressed with Napa Valley wines.