Seven Questions With John Grochau of Grochau Cellars

By B.E.Mintz |

Grochau Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley grew from 300 cases annually to 10,000 cases annually in the last 17 years. Needless to say, founder John Grochau knows thing or two about building a business and making a wine. Neat Pour sat down to pick his brain about starting a vineyard… and keeping one open.

 

Tell us how it all began.

I came into the wine industry the wrong way: without any money. I was a waiter and a bartender [at Higgins in Portland and Boulevard in San Francisco] who loved wine.

I wanted to start a business after working in the industry in restaurants for years. And, of course, I didn’t have the money to buy a vineyard. So, I started contracting grapes and making the wines.

In the beginning, I was also using other people’s wineries to make my wines. But in the last eight years, I have my own facilities. I lease a building and have all my own equipment.

I have long term contracts [normally three years] with growers, but I don’t own my own vineyard yet. I give the growers my input on how I want things done, but I don’t have full control.

 

So, how, exactly does that relationship with the growers work?

We don’t buy by tonnage, we buy acreage by land. We get control over some aspects of farming: mainly crop level, leaf pulling, fruit exposure, and timing of the harvest — we tell them when we want the grapes picked. So, we do have a level of control, but I’d never say that we farm the land. I’ve done some farmwork in my past and we are not do that level of work.

Sorting the grapes after harvest (Courtesy of Grochau Cellars)

 

At this point in the business, what are your primary challenges?

It’s an ever evolving thing. Challenges? We can start with climate change. Also, how we approach the vineyard: contracts with vineyards and price pressures that depend on what’s popular. Throughout [those factors,] we are working to maintain our price points… And just the proliferation of more and more brands — how much more competition there is out there in the market. Lots of things, the business is fulled with constant challenges.

 

How is climate change affecting Grochau?

We prefer a style [that straddles the line] between old and new world. We prefer a wine that is not super fruity. We like wines that are a balance of fruity and savory. In these warm vintages, wines tend to skew to the fruity side. So, we’re working on how to mitigate that and bring the balance that we want into the wines with the bright acids, more crunchy, more energetic style. That’s what we want in these [increasingly] warmer climates where wines just tend towards a much richer, fruit based style.

So, how are we approaching that? Maybe, you’re raising yields a little bit; not allowing the fruit to be exposed to the sun as much (depending on the vintage); picking a little later sometimes. But, it depends on the vineyard; we have 17 vineyards and they each need to be approached differently.

Pinot Noir vines at Zenith Vineyard, a LIVE-certified site with unique diversity due to its various soil types and elevations. (Courtesy Grochau)

 

Do you maintain relationships with the restaurants you once worked at?

Boulevard is a little harder because I don’t live in San Francisco anymore. But John Lancaster who was wine director when I was there is still the wine director. And, we still maintain a relationship.

Higgins is in Portland where I grew up. So, I still go there a lot. They almost always have one of my wines on their list.

 

What are your plans for the future? Are you going to return to the restaurant industry, maybe open your own place?

Never open a restaurant! [laughing] 14 years in restaurants and I think that part of my life is gone. Do I want work at midnight — well, I still do work a lot.

The goal is to own a vineyard but I’m not sure when that’s happening. I put feelers out, but there are a lot of variables in play. We’re getting big enough that we could probably afford it sometime, but it’s a big puzzle with lots of moving, changing parts.

 

What question would you ask yourself to conclude the interview?

The question that I ask myself often is ‘What are you chasing?’

The answer is always ‘chasing a paradigm.’ That paradigm changes over time, but my business has changed in the styles of wines. What we’re producing mainly now is very value driven, very broad expressions of the wine of the Willamette Valley.

What my mind wants is very finite, very singular expressions of certain things. My business is not made for that right now. So, we’re trying to increase that end. I’d like to be more and more focused on the minutiae—although that’s not really an issue for me.

I raced bicycles for a long time. And, in bike racing, there’s a difference between trying to win and trying not to lose. Trying to win, you need to risk and you’re more likely not to finish in the money. Whereas, if you’re trying to not lose, you’ll finish in the money a lot, but never win. So, I’m trying to win now. For a period since the recession, I’ve been trying not to lose. Now, I’d like to push envelopes and try to win.

Read Next