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Winemakers From Down Under

There are fewer than 20 Australians and New Zealanders working now in the California wine industry, the majority as winemakers. Some others migrated to Washington, Oregon and British Columbia from their home country.

Most of those interviewed for this article agree that Grant Taylor, a Kiwi winemaker, was the first to come to California in 1979, to work at Pine Ridge in the Napa Valley. Taylor returned to New Zealand in 1993 and is the owner of Valli Vineyards in Central Otago.

The following is a partial list of Aussies and Kiwis, in chronological order by the date they first came to California and their present position in the California wine industry.

Rex Smith (Australia): 1984, winemaker William Knuttel Winery, Sonoma.

Daryl Groom (Australia): 1989, co-owner Colby Red Wine and Groom Wines

Nick Goldschmidt (New Zealand): 1989, Goldschmidt Vineyards and Nick Goldschmidt Consulting

Chris Loxton (Australia): 1991, owner/winemaker Loxton Cellars

Michael Scholz (Australia): 1991, vice president, Winemaking & Vineyards, St. Supery Estate Vineyards & Winery

Mick Schroeter (Australia): 1992, director of winemaking, Sonoma Cutrer

Toni Stockhausen (Australia): 1999, Winemaker, Bennett Valley Cellars

Wayne Donaldson (Australia): 2000, vp production, Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits

Sean McKenzie (New Zealand): 2001, senior winemaker, The Dreaming Tree

Susan Doyle (Australia), 2003: chief winemaker, Spring Mountain Vineyard

Matt Parish (New Zealand), 2003: managing dir., Matt Parish Wines, sold through Nakedwines and International consulting winemaker.

Matt Johnson (Australia), 2008: chief winemaker Americas, Treasury Wine Estates

Andrew Bilenkiji (Australia), 2012: winemaker, Ledson Winery

Sam Glaetzer (Australia), 2016: senior vice president wine & spirits production, Constellation Brands

- Gerald D. Boyd

When people think of winemakers from other parts of the world who’ve influenced Sonoma County winemaking, they likely think of France or Italy. They don’t think of Australia or New Zealand. But they should.

In 1989, Daryl Groom, an Australian winemaker in his 20s, was one of the first Antipodeans to move to California to make wine. At the time, Groom was working for Penfolds, one of Australia’s largest and most respected wineries.

“Lisa and I never sought to move from our home in Tanunda in the Barossa Valley,” Groom said. “We had just built our house. I had the best winemaking job in Australia as senior red winemaker at Penfolds, and we loved our community and friends.”

At the time, Henry Trione, then the owner of Geyser Peak Winery, was in a partnership with Penfolds and the Australian wine company wanted their top winemaker to learn about making wine in California.

“I was asked by Penfolds if I wanted to go to California and make wine,” Groom said. “I was 29, my wife and I had a new baby, but Penfolds sweetened the pot by offering me my job back after two years in California. It promised to be a great adventure.”

A few years later, Penfolds sent Mick Schroeter, one of three winemakers who reported to Groom at Penfolds, to California on an overseas wine educational trip.

“I needed someone at Geyser Peak who knew Aussie winemaking techniques and who I didn’t have to train, so while he was here, I offered Mick the job,” Groom said. Today, Mick Schroeter is director of winemaking at Sonoma Cutrer.

For the Groomses, anticipating a new adventure in another country was mixed with concern. “Our only thought, now naïve, was all of the USA was full of crime and violence. On Aussie news at that time you only heard the ugliness of America, and in particular, New York at its worse. We were a little scared,” Groom said.

Groom said he and Lisa found life in Sonoma County easier than they expected. “People were overly friendly and so helpful in the community and at work,” said Groom.

Nick Goldschmidt’s move to California took a different path from the Grooms. The same year that Groom departed Australia for California, New Zealand winemaker Goldschmidt, restless with wanderlust and knowing his wife’s desire to live in California, applied to a number of North Coast wineries and landed a job at one of Sonoma’s iconic wineries.

“My wife, Yolyn, and I didn’t have kids back then, and we had been traveling for a year already, so we were capable of living elsewhere,” Goldschmidt said. “I applied by letter to three wineries in California and ended up working the harvest at Carneros Creek in 1989.”

A year later, Goldschmidt signed on at Simi to work with Zelma Long and Paul Hobbes. He stayed at Simi until 2003.

Before the move, Goldschmidt was on the winemaking team at such noted New Zealand wineries as Kumeu River, Coopers Creek and Babich. The Goldschmidts manage Goldschmidt Vineyards and Forefather wines from their home office in Healdsburg.

Even though there was some trepidation, the Goldschmidts found Sonoma County not much different from New Zealand.

“ ‘What an opportunity,’ we thought. Kiwis from little New Zealand moving to a big scary country like the USA,” he said. “But we found Northern California very similar to New Zealand, except we couldn’t swim in the ocean. The people were great and the place wasn’t as intimidating as we thought.”

The inviting and open attitude in California was refreshing for the Goldschmidts. “People in America celebrate success,” he said. “In New Zealand they have the Tall Poppy theory, where you are not expected to stand out above your peers.”

Goldschmidt said that although the pace of life is slower in New Zealand, Kiwis are open and opinionated.

“Americans are very sensitive, compared to the frank and opinionated attitudes of most Kiwis,” he said.

He admits the commonly shared language wasn’t a problem as much as different accents: “One of the first things I picked up on was the difference between rubbish and trash and we say mate to everybody.”

On his outlook on winemaking in California, Goldschmidt was direct.

“There is a lack of a specific wine culture in the U.S. wine industry,” he said. “Americans are trying to make wine for everyone with little consideration for such things as terroir.”

Still Goldschmidt is impressed with the growing diversity in the market and sees merlot as an underrated wine.

Groom also remembers the unknown in winemaking that lay ahead of him in California.

“That first year in Sonoma County was a challenge,” he said. “It was the harvest from hell, but we turned the wines upside down at Geyser Peak in two years, with fresh varietal sauvignon blanc and barrel-fermented chardonnay. It was a turning point in my career.”

Viewing California winemaking from an Australian perspective, Groom had this to say: “Australia deals with more infertile soils than California. And Australia works more with grapes on their own roots, rather than the grafted vines in California. That often means higher yields and dropping fruit which you don’t see in Australia.

“And then there was a language barrier,” he added with a laugh. “It’s the nature of people, I reckon, but Californians are more complex, descriptive than Aussies.”

He soon realized that the biggest confusion was different words for the same thing.

“I asked a lady if I could help her by nursing her baby. Nursing in Australia is simply holding a child,” he said. “My wife asked at the supermarket where the pot plants were. We learned she should have asked about potted plants.”

Looking to the future of wine in Sonoma County, both men like what they see in the growth for rosé wines. “Rosé is an important slot to fill in the expanding market,” Goldschmidt said.

Groom is seeing more lower-alcohol wines, with increased fruit expression, especially in Sonoma County.

Planning for the future in winemaking hit a snag recently with the wildfires in the county. Neither Groom nor Goldschmidt suffered personal or work-related fire damage. However, Groom said that because of a power outage for nine days, cabernet sauvignon he already had in the tank started to ferment, and he will have to downgrade the wine and not use it for his Groom label.

After decades in California winemaking, both men are going off in different directions.

Besides running his own brand, Goldschmidt Vineyards, Goldschmidt consults in Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand while devoting 25 percent of his time to Alpine Engineering, a company developing inventions related to wine, along with his wife.

Groom, on the other hand, has stopped traveling, deciding instead to freely mentor young winemakers. Part of his time, though, is spent with Colby Red Wines, a project he runs with his son, Colby, and wife Lisa that raises money for heart disease research.

“Of course, I still make Groom Wines in Australia,” he said.

Now, 30 years after moving to California, the question is: are Goldschmidt and Groom staying put or returning to their native countries?

Goldschmidt didn’t hesitate, saying that he and Yolyn are here permanently. Their five children are grown: a daughter lives and works in Australia, a son is a winemaker in Napa Valley, their twins are in college and the youngest daughter is a sophomore in high school.

The Grooms have also decided to stay in Sonoma County. Groom said their four children are Americanized. Of the three daughters, one lives and works in Los Angeles, one is in pediatric residency in Arizona and one is in the wine industry. Groom’s son is studying political science and traveling the country as a guest speaker on his journey with heart disease.

While the migration of winemakers from Australia and New Zealand has slowed in recent years, the lure of a new adventure and the opportunity to learn something new remains an attraction.

Groom and Goldschmidt are but two winemakers who made their way to California. A list of others now living and working in California is included in box at left.

Gerald D. Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Reach him at boydvin@sbcglobal.net.

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