In 2017, Suzanne Groth took over as CEO for the winery established in 1982 by her father and mother, Dennis and Judy Groth. Having initially rejected the notion of any involvement in the winery when she was a teenager, Suzanne assumed the mantle of CEO well prepared by more than twenty-five years of family business and wine industry experience.
The story of how Suzanne’s San Francisco Bay Area family came to own a winery in Napa Valley is both familiar and surprising.
A familiar wine country story…
As the saying goes (attributed to California winemaker David Duncan of Silver Oak Cellars and Twomey Cellars): “If you want to make a million in the wine business, start with 10 million.”
He may not have had millions of dollars back in the late 1970s, but Dennis Groth was a successful executive at the accounting firm today known as Ernst & Young. He got to know wine while auditing a family winery in Livermore, Wente Vineyards. Dennis was also friends with Nolan Bushnell who started Atari in 1977 introducing the video game Pong — the first game of its type to gain mainstream popularity and the most influential ever created. When Bushnell asked Dennis in 1978 to be his finance guy, who could say no to that?
By the early 1980s, Dennis and Judy had developed a great fondness for wine country and a nest egg sufficient to think about buying vineyard property as an investment. Even forty years ago, it required a tidy sum to purchase property in Napa Valley. The exclusive area commanded as much as $25,000 per acre. (Today the vineyard price per acre ranges from $100-250,000.)
The Groths’ initial plan was to grow grapes and sell them to wineries. An extensive shopping expedition eventually led them in 1981 to purchase a 121-acre parcel that is now the bedrock of Groth Vineyards & Winery. Their major customer was perhaps not surprising: Silver Oak, located just across Oakville Cross Road! Ten years earlier, Silver Oak’s founder Justin Meyer had planted the vineyards that the Groths purchased.
…but then a few unwelcome surprises!
Things took an unfortunate turn for the Groths in 1984. Atari had been purchased by Time Warner, and introduced a new game called “ET” to coincide with release of the eponymous movie. In brief, it was a bomb. “We kids got to test new products at home, and we knew this one wasn’t going to sell,” said Suzanne in a recent interview. “In the process of losing his job at Atari with the company’s sudden exit, my dad also had to supervise the destruction of thousands of these games.”
Dennis and Judy had realized early on that the “big money” in Napa Valley was in making a successful wine brand, not in farming grapes. So they had already hired Nils Venge as their winemaker and started making wine in 1982. Their business question shifted like an earthquake: how was this all going to work without an income stream to support development of the business?
It was show time: either cave in to the economic pressures and give up, or jump into the deep end of the pool to build a brand! Then in their mid-forties, the Groths chose the latter course. The rest, as they say, is history. The following year (1985), the Groths packed up their three children and moved to Napa Valley, going all-in to make the winery a success.
Two signs lit what might otherwise have been a dim journey. As Dennis shares on the winery’s website, “Groth’s first vintages of Cabernet Sauvignons put us on the map. Robert Parker gave our 1985 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon the distinction of California’s first 100-point wine.” The second victory was cobbling together the resources to build a beautiful winery facility which opened in 1990.
Cultivating the Next Gen
Enter Suzanne into the picture. In 1985 she was 15 and ready to start high school. Her less-than-glamorous winery chores included cleaning her parents’ office and working on the bottling line. Let’s just say she was not a happy camper. Having attended an all-girl Catholic school in Santa Clara, she now had to wriggle her way into wine-dynasty cliques at a small public school in St. Helena. (This part of the story has a great ending — Suzanne made and has nurtured wonderful friendships in Napa among people whose lives and lifestyles have so much in common with her own.)
When it was time for college, Suzanne shifted gears away from Napa and the wine industry in favor of pursuing her interest in art and emerging talent as an artist. She attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, for a liberal arts education and a degree in art history, criticism and conservation.
After graduation she needed a job, however, so Suzanne went to work in the hospitality industry in San Francisco. Soon, she started to feel the gravitational pull back to family, Napa, and the wine business. “When I would help hotel customers plan wonderful visits to Napa Valley, they would wonder why I was working in San Francisco. I realized I had spent ten years avoiding anything that had to do with the wine industry.” She pitched a return to Napa and the family business to her dad, but much to her surprise, Dennis declined the opportunity. “My father insisted that I first learn more about the wine industry and gain some skills.”
Soon after, she joined Henry Wine Group in a sales position and started learning the ropes of the distribution and customer relations side of the business. By 1998, she was ready to leave Henry Wine Group, and considered working for another family-owned wine business. But this time, Dennis Groth believed she was ready to join their own family business.
Starting out in a sales and marketing capacity, for nearly two decades she has worked in increasingly responsible positions, all leading up to her succession to CEO in 2017. Suzanne has also followed in her father’s footsteps by taking on leadership positions within industry associations including The Wine Institute and the Oakville Growers Association.
Where (Vineyard) Sustainability Meets (Art) Conservation
One of Suzanne’s biggest drivers as CEO is thinking generationally about the business and the vineyard. Suzanne, her brother Andrew, and their families all live on the Oak Knoll family estate vineyard which the Groths acquired in 1982. Although at ages 16 and 13 her own children are too young to be thinking about career futures, Suzanne hopes they will keep an open mind about the winery. “They have both worked in the winery operation and have been exposed to all facets of it. They see how hard people have to work, so right now they think it is ‘yuck’. If they find their way back to the wine business, it’s all good. But that’s not guaranteed. They will have to earn their position (as did I).”
While the possibility of a third generation ferments, Suzanne is making sustainable and organic farming practices her geneneration’s “turn of the page.” In 2014, Groth hired their third winemaker, Cameron Parry, specifically seeking someone with a strong viticultural background. (Longtime winemaker Michael Weis remains involved as Winemaker Emeritus.) Parry’s title is Director of Winegrowing, and he oversees the work of an assistant winemaker and vineyard manager. Recent changes in vineyard practices reveal how Groth’s approach is changing:
- instituting a smaller-scale replanting program, revitalizing portions of vineyards every year instead of ripping up and replanting entire vineyard areas;
- taking chances in smaller areas to try new grapes, such as Petit Verdot or clones and test results in the cellar; and
- introducing an estate white blend in 2019.
Although it may seem that Suzanne had to leave behind her passion for art, gratefully that has not happened. Her vivid paintings, reminiscent of the Fauve period of Impressionism — the subject of her thesis on color theory — grace the walls of the winery. For Suzanne, “the art of wine comes in the blending process. My paintings are very vivid with layers of color, like a blended wine offers layers of flavor.”
Cincinnati International Wine Festival
The 2020 Cincinnati International Wine Festival will be held March 13-14 at Duke Energy Convention Center. Winery dinners will be held throughout the region on Thursday, March 12. The annual auction will be held at the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel in downtown Cincinnati on Saturday, March 14. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.