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Cabernet Cult

Napa Valley's forgotten classics still make outstanding acquisitions
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 01

(continued from page 3)

"In the long run, things will sort out," he says, swirling his glass as the wind chimes sing. "When the cult wines are 20 years old, if they're still around, I think the differences in what we're doing and they're doing will have long become evident."


Sitting in the living room of her new Napa Valley home, Judy Groth leans forward. "The wine business," she says, "has been harder on us than we thought it would be."

In the early 1980s, her husband, Dennis, was working as the chief financial officer at Atari, the electronic games company, and fell into a sum of money. Judy hoped it would buy them a beach house somewhere. "But Dennis said we needed a tax shelter," she says. "He had some ideas¿barges on the Mississippi, greenhouses in Mexico¿but I wanted something we could at least use as a getaway."

They compromised on one of the more picturesque patches of the Napa Valley floor, grape-growing land across from Silver Oak. When the sinking ship that was Atari cut Dennis loose in the mid-1980s, he was 42. He had some money saved, and he put it all into the Napa property to make a winery happen.

It wasn't easy. He recalls walking into one of their favorite Northern California restaurants and announcing his plans. "They looked at us and said, ¿Oh, no, not another California winery.'"

Like Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, however, this one came from a special place. "To me, the valley floor means elegance," says Michael Weis, Groth's winemaker, as he sips from a glass of 1994 Groth Estate Cabernet. "There's a restrained elegance, a balance to the wines that come off this particular valley floor."

Such elegance wasn't always appreciated. When Dennis Groth made his first vintage in 1983, he was told by the California wine community that it wasn't big enough to be taken seriously. He had no name, no history other than his connection to a failed electronics firm, and no track record, and evidently the news of Winiarski's Paris success hadn't yet reached the U.S. retail level. Consumers understood, however, for Groth soon had its own small but devoted following.

Small meant that the Groths had to raise their children in a geodesic dome of a house that had come with the property. Dennis promised Judy that they'd live there a year or two at the most; 16 years later, they were finally secure enough to build their own house. By then, the price of a bottle of Groth had escalated to $42, and the reserve was marked at $125. Though the cult wines helped the prices get there, the Groths can't help harboring at least some resentment toward proprietors who have come into the business lately and have known nothing but financial success with wines that are, many of them, nothing extraordinary.

In the wine cellar of his new house, Groth pours a vertical tasting from four vintages. Wines such as the 1985 Groth Reserve taste as rich and beefy as the sirloin they're typically partnered with. There's a profundity to these wines, a leather-and-earth richness that mere fruit, no matter how thrilling on first sip, can't match. "Let's see them make good wines for 10 years," Groth says, just as others once said to him.

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