Daryl Groom is a man with many achievements under his belt. During his 30-plus years as a winemaker in his native Australia and in California, he’s racked up multiple “Winemaker of the Year” awards for his work at Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma County (1990-2007), and holds the distinction of spending six years making one of Australia’s most famous and sought-after red wines, Penfolds Grange.
In 1996, he founded Groom Wines, a small family winery in Australia’s Barossa Valley, which produces premium Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and Zinfandel wines. In addition to his role as a “flying winemaker” for Groom, traveling back and forth from his home in Healdsburg, Calif., to South Australia, Daryl also makes limited-production California wines under the DXG (“Daryl’s Great Discovery”) label.
But his most meaningful success to date, he says, is a $13 red blend called Colby Red.
Launched in early 2011, the wine was inspired by Daryl’s son Colby, who endured two open-heart surgeries before age 10 to repair a congenitally faulty heart valve. His first operation at age 8 was unsuccessful, so nine months later he went under the knife again to replace the bad aortic valve with a mechanical one.
Colby Red wasn’t just named after Daryl’s son -- it was Colby’s idea. After recovering from his second surgery, Colby asked his dad if they could make a couple barrels of wine together. Then Colby suggested that they start selling the wine and donate the profits to fund heart research.
Colby’s story, as told through a video featuring Daryl, his wife Lisa, and Colby, struck an emotional chord with both consumers and the wine trade, and in a little over a year the wine has raised nearly $250,000 for heart-related charities.
And the wine ain’t bad, either. It’s a lively, fruit-forward red, with lots of black fruit aromas and flavors, a silky texture and seamless balance. With a winemaker of Daryl’s caliber and heart behind it, how could it not be a pleasure to drink?
Daryl is now in the process of producing a follow-up video to chronicle the progress of Colby -- today a healthy 14 year old -- and his namesake wine. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit in on the video shoot, meet Colby, and learn more about the Colby Red project.
Wine Review Online (WRO): How much of the first vintage of Colby Red did you make?
Daryl Groom (DG): Two barrels. That’s what Colby’s idea was -- to learn winemaking and produce two barrels of wine. When we commercialized the wine in 2011, we put together a 10,000 case blend. Since then it’s grown to 40,000 cases.
WRO: Why do you think the wine has been so successful?
DG: It’s a great bottle of wine at a great price -- and I think everybody wants to give, and wants to be part of a great cause.
WRO: So what’s in the wine blend?
DG: Colby Red is a blend of five different grape varieties -- it’s Cabernet, Zinfandel, Shiraz, Merlot and Petit Sirah. I just wanted to make a really rich, vibrant red wine that had great fruit to it, that was soft and mouth-filling -- and those varieties came together.
WRO: Where is the wine sold?
DG: It’s available in 35 states now. They sell it at Walgreens, Safeway, Target and CVS stores… it’s also at P.F. Chang’s and Kona Grill.
WRO: What’s your family’s goal for the project?
DG: To raise money for further research to help children battling congenital heart disease. So children facing invasive surgeries don’t have to go through what Colby did. Our goal is to continue to grow the brand and have it everywhere.
WRO: What percentage of the profits goes toward heart research?
DG: After our production and distribution costs are covered, we donate all of the profits.
WRO: Does the money go to a particular charity?
DG: The majority goes to the American Heart Association, and Colby wanted to donate some to St. Jude’s (Medical Foundation), which made his heart valve.
WRO: Is Colby more involved in the project now that he’s a bit older?
DG: Because we started to make the wine at Treasury Wine Estates (the parent company of Penfolds, Beringer, and many other brands) once it became commercial, Colby legally can’t be involved in the winemaking process. But he and I still make two barrels of wine at home every year to teach him about winemaking.
Colby’s become very involved in the brand as the spokesperson behind the cause. In the last 14 months Colby’s probably attended seven American Heart Association “Heart Balls” around the country, and he’s been on the “Today Show” talking about the wine. He goes to large heart fundraisers where there will be a bottle of Colby Red on every table, and Colby will be the guest spokesperson at the events.
In effect, even though we’ve raised close to a quarter of a million dollars directly from the sales of the wine, Colby in his function has helped raise close to another $2 million dollars in matching donations at events.
WRO: At 14 years old, how does Colby handle that kind of responsibility?
DG: In the initial stages it was a bit of a chore for him to do all this, and he did find it hard. But now he’s asking me where we’re going next and when the next function will be. We’ve done some functions at our house, too, and he’s done a couple of little impromptu auctions under the patio and he’s raised anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 at each one. He does it sort of naturally now.
WRO: What does Colby get out of it?
DG: He likes that he’s helping people, and he’s had a few other benefits as well. We were in Chicago and someone was so impressed with what he’d done that they arranged for him to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field. And someone else presented him with a Blackhawks jersey with all the signatures on it, with his name on the back. So Colby’s had a lot of little side benefits from this.
WRO: Has this project helped him in his healing process as well?
DG: One of the things we didn’t realize was -- and we were told about this by the doctors -- is that depression is a common after-effect of open-heart surgery. We didn’t really think about it much, but when we reflect back, Colby did go through some huge depression after the surgeries. It was really tough -- he was behind academically and socially because he basically had a year and half of his life written out. So then my wife and I started to say, “Look, we can’t change what’s happened to you, but let’s try and make the negative that you feel into a positive.”
It was that encouragement that started to get him involved in heart walks and things like that. To watch him on stage now in a suit and a tie, having fun and confidently telling people what he went through, we look at the kid today compared to the kid then, and it’s pretty great as a parent to see that progression.
WRO: How does the success of Colby Red compare to the other achievements in your winemaking career?
DG: I’ve gotten to make some really great wines, like Penfolds Grange, and I’ve had a lot of “Winemaker of the Year” things with Geyser Peak. But Colby Red’s the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done. I get to make wine with my son, I get to travel with my family, I get to give away lots of money. I truly get out of bed every morning feeling like the most blessed man in the world, because Colby Red’s given me something that combines all of my passions. It’s just great, and I want to see it grow.
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To see the original Colby Red video, visit colbyred.com. (I challenge you to watch it and not cry!)