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Winemaker of the Year: Daryl Groom

January 06, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Geyser Peak's Daryl Groom likes to say that grapes are 80% of a good wine and that the winemaker contributes only 20%. The remark is typically self-effacing for the jocular Australian, but considering what he by himself has accomplished for that Sonoma County winery in the past four years, it might be appropriate to reverse the figures.

Before Groom came to the winery, Geyser Peak's claim to fame rested on one achievement: Years earlier, it had pioneered a line of inexpensive table wines sold in boxes. But its bottled wine was dismal, lacking style and character.

Oh, the wines were sound, but the winemaking was so conservative that many of the white wines had sorbates, a stabilizer added to lengthen shelf life. This made the wines smell a bit like bubble gum or cotton candy. Also, many of the white wines were made with residual sugar and not enough acid for balance.

Then fate, in the form of Groom, changed the winery into one of the best in California. For achieving what seemed impossible--gaining Geyser Peak world fame in such a short period of time--Groom is my choice for Winemaker of the Year for 1993.

Groom came to Geyser Peak in an unusual way.

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Businessman Henry Trione, who owned 1,200 acres of prime vineyard land in Sonoma County, bought sleepy Geyser Peak Winery in Geyserville from Stroh Brewing in 1982. (Stroh had obtained Geyser Peak in its acquisition of Schlitz Brewery and wanted out of the wine business.)

Trione saw that marketing the wine was a problem, and he began seeking a partner to assist him. In 1985, he got rid of the successful but image-damaging Summit bag-in-box wine line. Still, sales of the table wines lagged.

In 1989, Trione sold half of Geyser Peak to the company that is now Penfolds Wine Group, the huge Australian operation that is itself a division of gargantuan South Australian Brewing Co. Penfolds was to provide marketing assistance to Geyser Peak.

Executives at Penfolds soon realized that marketing would be difficult with wines of such dull quality and low reputation in the market. They decided the wines had to improve, but to provide guidance for the changes that would be made they didn't hire an American. They sent over Groom, one of Australia's top winemakers, a boy genius who by 30 was already chief winemaker for Penfolds' finest and most in-demand red wine, the famed Grange Hermitage.

Groom was fortunate in that Trione had provided him with state-of-the-art equipment, a winery that had the flexibility to adapt to techniques few in the United States knew much about, and more than 1,000 acres of vines in prestigious regions.

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Even with all that going for him, Groom was at a disadvantage. Coming from a country thousands of miles away, Groom knew little about growing conditions in Sonoma County. And one of any winemaker's major problems is identifying which grapes make the best wine. As Groom says, "Ya gotta know the territory."

On the other hand, Groom wasn't coming from a backwater wine nation. The Australian wine industry is far more mature than the American. Wine was made commercially in Australia more than 50 years before it got started in the United States, and it didn't suffer the indignity of Prohibition, which most experts say set the American industry back another 25 years in terms of expertise, even though it lasted only 13 years.

Groom was, moreover, a graduate of Roseworthy College, which has one of the world's top winemaking programs. So he not only had an intuitive notion about growing regions and grape varieties, he was also skilled in the technical aspects of winemaking.

"I knew the Triones had the grapes," he says. "The raw material was all here." But he admits that he was a bit awed by the challenge that faced him. He arrived in 1989, but was more observer than winemaker that year; his first true crush at Geyser Peak was 1990.

And now for the astounding news: Groom's first blended red wine, the 1990 "Reserve Alexandre," won six gold medals at major wine competitions and was named best red wine at the 1993 Farmer's Fair of Riverside wine competition; his first Cabernet, the 1990 "Reserve," won the award as best red wine at the 1993 International Wine and Spirits Competition at Ljubljana, Slovenia; his 1990 Zinfandel won three gold medals and five silver medals.

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The turnaround at Geyser Peak is now so complete that the newly released 1991 Reserve Cabernet just went from $15 to $18, and this at a time when there is more fine Cabernet for sale than ever before.

Moreover, Groom and his winemaking team--fellow Aussie Mick Schroeter, Mike Draxton and cellar master Mike Vronoski Jr.--have developed a stunning second label, Canyon Road Cellars. Priced in the $6 to $8 range, the wines are often discounted and thus represent great value.

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