Defining Diamond Mountain
Wine & Spirits special Issue
Micro-Crus have been parsed and bottled for centuries in the vineyards of the Côte d'Or and Mosel. The wines that result emphasize the ability of piont noir and riesling to pick up on the subtleties of a site. Cabernet has historically been a blending grape, and though it can be site expressive, its history lies in the great châteaux of Bordeaux, where the sites are often large, and their inner distinctions go on to create the personality of the châteaux' wine.
Al Brounstein was fascinated by vineyards early on. In 1967, when he purchased a plot of land on Diamond Mountain near Calistoga, he set out to plant it by soil structure and exposition, naming the vineyards for their geological forms: Red Rock Terrace (seven acres with reddish brown soil facing north), Gravelly Meadow (five relatively flat acres with a gravelly, sandy soil) and Volcanic Hill (eight acres of white volcanic ash on a twenty-degree slope facing south). And rather than settling for cuttings from locally available cabernet, he cut a deal with two premier cru vineyards in the Médoc, smuggling their cuttings in through Tijuana, Mexico and flying them up to St. Helena in his prop plane. How much the character of Diamond Creek wines owes to those cuttings, how much to the soils, and how much to the care of their making is impossible to know. But it has been clear since the first vintage in 1972 that each of the vineyards has a different expression, and that clarity quickly made them into collectibles.
The longest-lived of the three is Volcanic Hill, grown on a foot of topsoil that allows good water penetration down to the hard-packed volcanic ash below. Phil Steinschriber, wine maker for the past ten years, toyed with biodynamics from 1997 through 1999, but found it too difficult to keep up with the weeds under the vines. "So today, we're nearly organic except for the use of Roundup under the vines," he says. "We use nothing else except wettable sulfur in the vineyards and we stop spraying at the end of June." Another change Steinschriber implemented in '97 was a verical trellis with exposed fruit. "The vineyard was never very vigorous," he notes, "so even with a two-wire California sprawl, the fruit had been mostly exposed to the sun." But now, he can control the canopy more rigorously, and, together with other refinements, this has allowed him to create wines that are more accessible on release, yet still have all the potential longevity the vineyard's wines proved long ago.
The color retention of the 1992 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill is
the first indication of its longevity, and its firm length of labor
the lasting proof. Taste this wine first and you'll get a clear
indication of the vineyards character all three of these Volcanic
Hill vintages share, a white soil tension that seems to transform
the saturated cherry fruit of the cabernet vine into something more
ethereal , hinting at white peach.
But if you've come to expect super ripeness and rising alcohol levels in Napa cabernet from the late nineties, you won't find that here. All three wines state an alcohol of 12.5 percent. Even so, the fruit in the '97 is bursting out all over; then it's sustained in a fragrant finish, with that same sense of volcanic ash in the tannin.
The shape of these first two wines holds in the 99 as well, the cooler growing season and longer maturation period leading it to a sweet black density of fruit (it was harvested from the second week in October through November 3, while the earlier two wines were harvested starting in mid-September through the first week ('97) or the third week('92) of October).
It may be youth, and it may be modifications in the growing techniques
that make both the 97 and 99 blacker wines, the fruit
especially dark and vibrant in the youngest. But all three share
an astonishing power in the finish, as if the vine we re still pumping
juice up through the volcanic ash for minutes after each sip.