Diamond Creek Vineyards - Exclusively Cabernet

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Jewels of Diamond Mountain

Vintners coax world-class Cabernets from rough, rocky Napa Valley soil

by Linda Murphy, San Francisco Chronicle
3 January 2003

Diamond Mountain is best seen in winter, when wind and rain have stripped the leaves off the grapevines, revealing a chiseled topography of steep hillsides, rocky terraces and deep canyons. The soul of the place is exposed, naked.

In winter, it's possible to see the earth that has made Napa Valley's Diamond Mountain a Cabernet Sauvignon-producing hot spot. Austere soils -- a patchwork of volcanic rock, volcanic ash, gravelly clay and sandy quartz -- precipitous slopes and vineyards as high as 2,300 feet above sea level create a dramatic grape-growing environment. And dramatic wines.

Along with the mountain conditions comes heat, 100 degrees-plus on summer days at the base of Diamond Mountain, two miles southwest of Calistoga. Mornings and evenings are foggy and as much as 40 degrees cooler, with breezes wafting from creeks that feed the Russian River. Grapes ripen fully in the daytime warmth, develop firm acidity in the cool nights, and derive their intense flavor, color and tannin from their struggle to survive.

Until the early 1990s, the knock on Diamond Mountain Cabernet was that it was too brawny, too tannic, that it needed cellaring to round its sharp edges. Today, winemakers like Phil Steinschriber of Diamond Creek Vineyards and Rudy von Strasser of von Strasser Winery have managed to tame the tannins in both the vineyard and the cellar. While their Cabernets remain dense and structured, they also have a complex fruitiness and good acidity and balance. They are multifaceted and polished, rough crystals no longer.

Al Brounstein is the father of Diamond Mountain Cabernet, having first planted his 79-acre Diamond Creek Vineyards on an eastern slope of the Mayacamas Range in 1968. Jacob Schram made wine on Diamond Mountain in the 1860s, and Jack and Jamie Davies founded their Schramsberg Vineyards sparkling winery there in 1965.

Yet it was Brounstein who brought commercial Cabernet Sauvignon to the area, smuggling in vine cuttings from Bordeaux by way of Tijuana, planting them on a site "that didn't grow a radish" and releasing his first wine in 1972.

Today, his 2,000 cases of block-designated Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill and Gravelly Meadow wines are among the most sought-after California Cabernets, commanding $175 a bottle on release. Diamond Creek's Lake Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been produced as a vineyard-designate just eight times because of the difficulty of getting mature fruit, goes for $350 per bottle.

Brounstein's estate illustrates the topographical variety within the Diamond Mountain region. Red Rock Terrace is a seven-acre, north-facing outcropping of iron-rich, deep, reddish-brown volcanic soil. The eight-acre Volcanic Hill block faces south, its soil a white volcanic ash. Gravelly Meadow is five acres of mostly sand and gravel. The Lake Vineyard, just three- quarters of an acre of gravel and sand, is situated in the coolest part of the estate.

Soil, aspect and vintage variances give each of the Diamond Creek wines subtle flavor, aroma and tannin differences, yet all the wines have what neighboring winemakers describe as classic Diamond Mountain characteristics: saturated color, full palate, ripe, extracted fruit, chewy texture, big yet smooth tannins and hints of black cherry, currant, plum, violet, licorice and earth.

There are currently 15 growers and wineries on Diamond Mountain, a small number that underscores the hardships of growing grapes on these hillsides and the youth of the Diamond Mountain District American Viticultural Area. The AVA spans 5,000 acres, yet only 450 are planted to vines . Its boundaries are Petrified Forest Road to the north, the Spring Mountain AVA to the south, the 400-foot-elevation mark at the base of Diamond Mountain to the east and the Napa-Sonoma county line to the west.

Other pockets of ground might handle new vineyards -- former major-league baseball pitcher Tom Seaver is planting grapes in the area -- but for the most part, difficult farming conditions and erosion control laws will keep the Diamond Mountain District's planted acreage on the low side.
Growers have installed drains, catch basins and ponds to keep rainwater from washing away the thin layer of topsoil. When Sterling Vineyards replanted its Diamond Mountain Ranch in the 1990s, it left the old roots in the vineyard, cutting them off at ground level so they would hold the soil while the new roots established themselves.

Except for the 6,000 cases of Diamond Mountain Mountain Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) that Sterling produces, and von Strasser's 9,000-case total production, the wines of Diamond Mountain are in the collectible category, made in small amounts from very low-yielding vines. Like diamonds, most are expensive. Reverie on Diamond Mountain's 225 cases of 1999 Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon go for $90 a bottle. There are less than 500 cases of the Constant Wines 1999 Cabernet ($100) and a mere 150 cases of Bill and Dawnine Dyer's 1998 Dyer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($70); they expect their maximum production to "soar" to 400 cases.

Most of the Diamond Mountain wines are sold to restaurants and mailing list members, although Sterling, Stonegate Winery and Schramsberg have retail rooms.

You won't find CabernetSauvignon at Schramsberg just yet, although the Davies family has planted 50 acres of it and it's only a matter of time before there is Cabernet to go with the bubbles.

Sterling is the largest landholder in the Diamond Mountain District at 300 acres, 120 of them in vines. The former prune orchard planted to grapes in the 1970s by William Hill was later sold to Sterling and named Diamond Mountain Ranch. In replanting, Sterling removed Chardonnay and put in selected clones and rootstocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Unlike some of their Diamond Mountain Ranch predecessors, the young wines coming from this property today are enjoyable on release and have the stuffing to improve with time.

"Napa Valley is all about Cabernet," Sterling winemaker Rob Hunter says in explaining the extensive replanting at Diamond Mountain Ranch. "Having Merlot is helpful, and we pride ourselves on the Bordeaux blenders we've planted on the mountain. But Cab is king, and we all love the king."

Rudy von Strasser is the de facto leader of the Diamond Mountain District. After purchasing the former Roddis Cellars and vineyards in 1990, he began forming the committee that sought AVA status for Diamond Mountain. Von Strasser's doggedness and Brounstein's success encouraged newcomers like Maureen and Hal Taylor of Diamond Terrace and Peter Thompson of Andrew Geoffrey Vineyards to place their bets on Diamond Mountain.

The Taylors' first vintage is the 1999 Diamond Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon ($50, 247 cases), rich in blackberry, cassis and chocolate flavors with hints of licorice. Thompson will release his first wine, a Cabernet-based blend from the 2000 vintage, in September 2003.
Marco DiGuilio was introduced to Diamond Mountain fruit when he was the winemaker at Lokoya Winery and purchased grapes from Reverie's Norm Kiken. Last month, DiGuilio bottled his own Marco DiGuilio Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon from 2001. Bill and Dawnine Dyer are deeply rooted in Napa Valley, she as winemaker and vice president of Domaine Chandon for 25 years, he as the longtime winemaker at Sterling and a now a consultant. They chose Diamond Mountain as the home for their own brand, planting the "most accessible 2.2 acres" on their 12-acre property to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1993.

Ask Brounstein, 82 and still feisty despite a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, why he planted on Diamond Mountain 34 years ago and he says, "It was available." Meaning affordable. "I paid a little over $100,000 for the 79 acres," Brounstein says. "Pretty cheap.

"I knew we could make great wines here. I discarded the advice of others who said that no one knows this place (for wine), that everyone knows Spring Mountain and to buy what people know. I said, 'I like this spot. To heck with anyone who says I shouldn't buy it.'

"I took a chance and it turned out to be a pretty good chance. Somebody had to start this thing." Brounstein says Diamond Mountain should produce only Cabernet Sauvignon and small amounts of the other red Bordeaux grape varieties for blending. "I think it is wise that we all stick to the same varietal," he says. "The French have been very successful at this and we can, too. We have something very special to sell and there is no point deluding ourselves by taking on other varietals."

Still, winemakers like von Strasser and Kiken have found success with other grape types on Diamond Mountain. In addition to his Diamond Mountain "regular" ($50) and Reserve ($70) Cabs, von Strasser makes two vineyard-designated Chardonnays and a single-vineyard Zinfandel (each $40) from purchased Diamond Mountain fruit, plus a Freestone line of wines: Merlot ($17), Cabernet Sauvignon ($19) and Sauvignon Blanc ($13).

Kiken and his consulting winemaker, Ted Lemon, dabble in Cabernet Franc, Barbera, Tempranillo and Roussanne in addition to Cabernet.
Von Strasser is the most ambitious of the Diamond Mountain gang. He studied apple farming at the University of New Hampshire and worked one year in retail sales at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1981 as he planned to start a hard-cider business on the East Coast. He ended up staying in Napa, earning a fermentation science degree at UC Davis and learning the winemaking ropes at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux, Trefethen Vineyards and Newton Vineyards.

A recent tasting of his first von Strasser Diamond Mountain wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1990, illustrates the aging potential of red wines from the appellation. The wine is still youthful and complex, with bright fruit flavors, refined tannins and the structure to last another 10 years.
Al Brounstein, Diamond Mountain's visionary, says that's nothing.
"My Volcanic Hill Cab will live for 100 years, easy," Brounstein says. "If it doesn't, I will personally refund your money."

Linda Murphy is a freelance wine writer in Sonoma County. E-mail her at wine@sfchronicle.com. click here for entire story

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Diamond Creek Vineyards · 1500 Diamond Mountain Road · Calistoga, California 94515 · 707.942.6926
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