When Daryl Groom speaks of balance, it's as much about time as it is about wine.
Groom, the vice president of operations and winemaking for Peak Wines International – the wine division of spirits giant Jim Beam Brands – has a high-wire act worthy of the Wallendas.
His corporate responsibilities and related travel are at the base of the pyramid. Then there are the three wineries of which Groom oversees production – Geyser Peak and sister winery Canyon Road in Sonoma County, California, and Barwang in Australia. He has his own Australian label, Groom Wines, producing Sauvignon Blanc from Adelaide Hills and Shiraz from Barossa Valley. Wife Lisa makes wine, too, for her Baystone Sonoma County brand, and in his spare time, Groom also blends a $300, small-batch Kentucky bourbon whiskey called Distillers’ Masterpiece with Jim Beam master distiller Booker Noe. ‘It is a bit of a juggle,’ Groom concedes.
Those who have worked with the Adelaide, Australia, native have no worries about whether Groom is up to his tasks. He proved himself first at Penfolds, where he was the senior red winemaker, responsible for making the famed Grange. He did it again when Penfolds dispatched Groom to California in 1989 to breathe life into the flailing Geyser Peak brand, now one of the state’s best producers. In 1998 Groom came through once more, successfully merging the Geyser Peak and Canyon Road brands into the Jim Beam Brands fold, after the Trione family sold them to JBB’s parent company, Fortune Brands, for $100 million. It was quite a shift of gears for Groom, who went from running a family-owned business in tiny Geyserville to being vice president of a publicly held corporation that had $6 billion in sales last year of such products as Master locks and Titleist golf balls. It’s a shift Groom embraced.
’This is a huge transitional point in the wine industry, considering the consolidations, the state of the economy, the glut of grapes,’ he explains. ‘It’s crucial to have global distribution and marketing that talks directly to consumers. We didn’t have the means to do either before the sale. We were growing so much that we needed a distribution partner and to become more professional in our sales and marketing. JBB came along at the right time and has taken us a big step forward.’
Wine folks get uneasy when liquor folks step in, but Groom is confident in JBB’s ability to grow its Peak Wines International business. ‘I sit on the executive committee with the spirits executives. They don’t completely understand the culture of wine but they are passionate about being successful with wine and are willing to invest in education and training. These are very bright, down-to-earth people who want to learn. Their biggest hurdle is understanding why we just can’t turn on the tap with wine; it’s my job to help them grasp that.’
The flagship brand is Geyser Peak with its 300,000 cases per year of consistently well-made and often outstanding wines ranging in price from $9-$100. While most of the grapes come from Sonoma County, Groom and his winemaker, fellow Aussie Mick Schroeter, aren’t afraid to make a Cucamonga Valley Zinfandel from Southern California or switch their New Zealand-like Sauvignon Blanc from a Sonoma County appellation to the broad California designation in order to consistently maintain the style. And yes, they make Shiraz. Canyon Road is the value brand, 300,000 cases a year of $10 wines sourced from throughout California. Barwang, a partnership with McWilliam’s Wines in South Eastern Australia, is on track to sell 75,000 cases a year in the U.S. of Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
’Our organic growth within the company has been well-planned and positive,’ Groom says. ‘Our task now is to strengthen the company through acquisitions and increasing our export volumes. Export is now 12-15% of Peak Wines International’s business; we see export as very much in its infancy, with great opportunities. We’re perceived in the U.S. as having great value brands and we’re positioning them to grow globally.’ Through strategic partnerships, Jim Beam Brands has distribution in 65 countries. ‘We have our wines in countries we weren’t in two years ago. We were well down on the list in the UK, but now it’s our third-best export market and growing, just behind Canada and Switzerland.’
In February 2002, JBB hired Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines marketing executive Stephen Brauer to head its wine division – another good call, in Groom’s view. ‘Stephen’s experience in strategic planning, acquisitions and marketing will help us to expand our business and acquire more brands, in California and possibly Australia. I was being distracted by responsibilities in areas that I had knowledge but not expertise; I wasn’t spending enough time with our wines and our people, and I’ll be able to do that now.’
Founded in 1880, Geyser Peak had a succession of owners, including a brandy maker and two brewers, Schlitz and Stroh’s. The focus had been on bulk wine, then in the mid-1980s on varietals, but those wines were entirely forgettable. What was not forgotten was the winery’s past, and putting it to rest would be as significant an achievement for Groom as anything he did in the cellar. When he arrived in 1989, after Penfolds had purchased half-interest in Geyser Peak from the Triones, the place was known in trade circles as ‘Geyser Puke’ and ‘Geyser Plonk.’ It had the onerous distinction of being the first to put wine in a can; its best wine had been a 4-litre bag-in-a-box generic called Summit. Journalists didn’t bother to taste wines sent to them for review. Groom certainly wasn’t in Oz anymore.
So he set to work on the vineyards, the wines and public relations. It was a lot to ask of the then 32-year-old Groom, yet the plucky Australian dived in with both gumboots. ‘When I got to Geyser Peak, we didn’t have a huge vision or goal; we started simply by asking ourselves, “How can we make better wine?” The process was evolutionary, not revolutionary. It started by building a team of good people. It meant spending a lot of time in the vineyards, convincing growers, including owner Henry Trione, of the importance of growing quality grapes.’
Groom hit the road, pouring the wines, hosting dinners, meeting with salespeople, talking to the media. His message: ‘We’re not the Geyser Peak of the past, give us another try.’ The sharp wit and sense of fun that endeared him to his employees began to impress the trade, too; it was difficult to say no to the gregarious, cajoling Groom, and the accent didn’t hurt his presentation.
Things were coming together, but Penfolds, under takeover pressure, sold its interest in Geyser Peak back to Trione in 1992. Groom chose to stay, assured that Trione was committed to quality. ‘By 1995 we were profitable and winning accolades from competitions and the press, including two winery of the year awards,’ Groom says. ‘Henry was convinced and invested in a $25 million expansion of the facility and a $6 million barrel center. We purchased rotary fermenters, added to our storage capacity … we got what we needed to keep improving the wines.’
In 1998 he founded Groom Wines with family members back home. The 1998 Barossa Valley Shiraz ($35) comes from vines next to the Kalimna vineyard that contributes grapes to Penfolds’ Grange. ‘There is only one Grange and I’m not trying to make it,’ Groom says. ‘What I am trying to do is produce an Australian Shiraz that isn’t too jammy but still has ripe, sweet fruit and a black peppercorn character. Not big, aggressive tannins but still with good structure. A Shiraz that anyone can sit down and enjoy.’
1998 also marked Fortune Brands’ purchase of Geyser Peak/Canyon Road and set Groom on his current course. He pinches himself to see if it’s all really happened. ‘For some reason I was given this wonderful opportunity to come to California and make wine at Geyser Peak; I’m thankful for that and very happy with what we’ve done. There were times when I considered returning to Australia, but we’re entrenched in the community and I’ve experienced growth I would not have experienced had I stayed in Australia. I have a huge attachment to Oz; if I go back, it will be in retirement, once the four kids are grown.’ Still, it’s hard to imagine Daryl Groom retiring from anything.
Written by Linda Murphy