DENNIS GROTH, CPA
CEO, Groth Vineyards & Winery
I’VE ALWAYS ENJOYED BUSINESS; I studied accounting because I wanted to have the skills to be successful at it. I was an audit partner in Arthur Young’s San Jose office in the ’70s, working with Atari and Apple Computer when they were just starting out. It was a very exciting time and place. Then Atari asked me to be its CFO.
WHEN I FIRST WENT INTO PUBLIC ACCOUNTING my life ambition was to be a partner. But after 13 years, when I had finally made it, I quit and accepted the job at Atari. It was a huge career jump for me; my partners thought I was crazy, that video games were just a fad. I thought it was an exciting business with great opportunities. When you do auditing, you’re always looking at last year; I wanted to be part of the team that looks forward to next year, that makes things happen. And it was an incredibly exciting experience. The first year our sales were about $100 million—and then they doubled every year for the next five years and suddenly we were making $2 billion.
WORKING FOR ATARI GAVE ME AN OPPORTUNITY to accumulate cash that I never would have had at Arthur Young, and the wherewithal to make my dream come true.
I LIKE THE WINE BUSINESS because I really understand the product. At Atari there would always come a point at which I just couldn’t follow what the engineers were talking about, and that bothered me. But I had grown up in California in the ’60s, watching the wineries form and the wines mature. All my life I was the guy people asked to order the wine at dinner. I enjoy learning about wines as much as drinking them.
UNLIKE ELECTRONICS, where you run three shifts 24 hours a day, with wine your product cycle is once a year. So you only get one shot a year to produce a good wine—and by the time you know you have a winner, you can’t make any more. The most important thing is to choose a great location. We bought 165 acres in one of the finest spots for cabernet sauvignon grapes. Then we hired a professional winemaker to turn our great grapes into great wine.
THIS JOB IS THE MOST FUN I’ve ever had. Business is much more interesting when you make your own strategic plans, bet your own capital and keep the rewards. We did lose money for the first five years. Our first vintage of cabernet received some great reviews, but the restaurants wouldn’t think about putting a wine from a new vineyard on their wine lists until the third year.
THE WINE BUSINESS IS VERY CAPITAL-INTENSIVE, so you have to plan very carefully. And with cabernet, which is my favorite wine, one key to success is careful sorting. We sort through the grapes many, many times to pick out any that are raisined or sunburned or green; that allows the rest of them to ripen evenly. So being tenacious and meticulous is as important in winemaking as it is in accounting. You need that patience for the details to be a success in either one.
—As told to Cheryl Rosen