Weekly Interview: John Grochau

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 02-19-2016

John Grochau (credit: Josh Chang)

John Grochau (credit: Josh Chang)

Each week, as our regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we are featuring John Grochau, the winemaker at the eponymous Grochau Cellars.

Not that there is a particularly conventional path to becoming a winemaker, even if there is one, John did not follow it. John had a full career as a bike racer before taking the plunge to become a winemaker. In fact, it was when he wa bike racing in the Loire Valley in France that he became seriously interested in wine.

After working at a restaurant for fourteen years, after working harvest at Erath, and after four years at Brick House Vineyards, in 2002, John made his very first wine under his own label. It’s been more than a decade since then, and already, John is not only bottling the Oregon-traditional pinot noir and pinot blanc, but also experimenting with varieties like gamay and melon de bourgogne. We are thrilled to see where his experiments lead him.

Check out the interview below the fold!


Where were you born and raised?
I was born in San Mateo, CA. Then I moved to Beaverton, Oregon, when I was 9 years old. So I am pretty much a naturalized citizen of the great state of Oregon.

When and how did you get into wine?
It started with Bartle’s and James Premium Wine Coolers in high school. Seriously though, it started while I was living in France and racing bicycles. I didn’t drink much or anything outstanding when I was there, because I was a poor racer who was focused on racing well. Even still, wine is very much part of meals in French culture, so it was often served to us (in small portions) at meals. Since I enjoyed wine right away I sought it out when I had “down time,” especially when I was living in the Loire Valley, as we would ride past many vineyards during racing and training. When my racing career didn’t pan out, I came back to Portland and started working in restaurants where my interest was once again piqued. I was fortunate to land in a great restaurant with a wine director who let me taste a lot of wine with him. I just kept going from there.

What has been your career path to where you are?
I started a bussing tables at Higgin’s Restaurant in Portland in 1994. Within a year, I was waiting tables and tending bar. After my last stint racing bikes in France in 1995, I came back to Higgin’s looking for what was next in my life. Food and wine were at the top of my list. Over time, wine won out over food as my focus, probably because I saw the hard kitchen hours the chefs put in; but ultimately it was the better match. In 1999, I worked my first harvest at Deerfield Ranch Winery in Sonoma, CA; I went to California thinking I would then head to the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology school. But I came back to Oregon because of a girl (now my wife) and continued my career path, landing a harvest job with Erath Winery for the 2000 harvest. From there, it was to Brick House Vineyards, where I really learned the most. Up until then, I had only worked in a winery where we made the wine, where I learned a lot about winemaking and logistics and such, but that is a very small part of the process. At Brick House, I worked in the vineyard and the winery, doing a little of everything along the way. It was at Brick House where I learned that less is more–if you have a good vineyard site that is well-tended by the farmer. In 2002, I made my first wine, a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

Bjornson Vineyard (credit: Josh Chang)

Bjornson Vineyard (credit: Josh Chang)

In your view, what makes your vineyards special?
I have five sites I work with, so there’s a great spectrum. On one end, there are the Anderson Family Vineyards in the Dundee Hills. The Jory soils there produce a very red fruited wine with floral aromatics with a bit of a savory, herbal characteristic, it is medium in weight with fine powdery tannin. The Bjornson vineyards always produce a denser wine with a darker fruit profile, with earth and mineral components and more abundant and larger sized tannin. When I started, I only made blends of different vineyards, but as I continued making wine, what interested me the most was the single site expressions that show similarities and differences in every vintage.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?
Work with great sites that are cared for by attentive farmers and don’t f*** it up.

John at Anderson Family Vineyards (credit: Josh Chang)

John at Anderson Family Vineyards (credit: Josh Chang)

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Being pulled in different directions–running a business, compliance, sales, logistics–when all I really want to do is focus on the wine.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Jacques Ladierre from Louis Jadot. He recently started making wine in the Willamette Valley. From village to Grand Cru, he has made some wonderful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Gamay. Steve Doerner of Cristom Winery has put out many of my favorite wines in the Willamette Valley, and he is a great guy to boot.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
Ian Burch, formerly of Evening Land, and now at Scott Paul. He has been producing wines that capture such great energy and terroir, I really look forward to see what he creates at Scott Paul. Marcus Goodfellow of Goodfellow Family Cellars is an old friend who produces wines that are hugely aromatic yet intensely structured with concentration to last for ages. And Barnaby Tuttle from Teutonic Wine Company makes such pretty wines–so aromatic, savory and supple; they show the cooler climates where he sources his grapes so well.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
Piemonte–hands down. The wines are a great balance of pretty and powerful. The nose is so pretty, with roses, tar and tart red cherry. The palate is intensely structured with persistent red fruit, high acidity, earthy and meaty notes, and firm tannins. I’ve been there a few times and loved it. It’s a great place to ride a bike, too

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
It is ever changing but most recently I had the pleasure of tasting a 1984 Cameron Winery Pinot Noir, their first vintage and a vintage that is known to be the most challenging in the Willamette Valley.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
Off the top of my head, I have a 1970 Chateau Latour, a birth year wine for me that was a gift.

What’s open in your kitchen right now?
Vincent 2014 Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir, my 2013 Eola-Amity Pinot Noir, Division Wines’ 2014 Gamay Noir.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
For the white, André Clouet Grand Cru Champagne. For the red, G.D. Vajra Barolo.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Wines of Grochau Cellars  (credit: Josh Chang)

Wines of Grochau Cellars (credit: Josh Chang)

Yes, after a long day of physical work nothing refreshes more than a cold pilsner.

How do you spend your days off?
Riding my bike, cooking, dining out, snowshoeing; I am always moving. Though I do like to binge watch some Netflix on occasion, but I find that moving is better than sitting around.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I love punk rock and 80s emo music.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
I have no idea. Probably still waiting tables… I really had no back-up plan.

Josh and the Winery Dog (credit: Josh Chang)

Josh and the Winery Dog (credit: Josh Chang)

How do you define success?
That is tough. I love what I do, I love to work, I love to play, finding balance is like attaining a state of Zen: always trying to but never getting there. Professionally, the thing that makes me most proud is when I get an email from someone who had my wine somewhere in the world and loved it. Even better when it is associated with a special occasion! Wine is made to accompany good food and good times with friends and family, it is a pleasure to make something for such occasions.

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