‘We’re not interested in people buying Diamond Creek as a status symbol,” said Phil Ross, who along with his mother and brother runs this legendary property. “That sort of thought is not even on the radar for us. It’s about expressing the vineyards.”
This may sound a little trite today, but if you put Ross’ words into a historical context, he is echoing the words and vision of Diamond Creek’s founder, Al Brounstein, who thought about terroir before it became the most commonly mispronounced word in the wine industry.
Originally from Minnesota, Brounstein moved to Los Angeles after World War II and started a pharmaceutical company. Having made a success of this business, he switched gears, relocated to Paris and studied art at the Sorbonne. Somewhere along the way, Brounstein took a French wine class. Within a few years, his life — and that of the Napa Valley — would change dramatically.
While Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug and a few others were making cabernet sauvignon in the cow town of Napa, Brounstein spent some time at Ridge in Santa Cruz, home to the celebrated Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon. During this time, he dreamed of having his own winery that was almost exclusively focused on cabernet sauvignon.
When an 80-acre property on Diamond Mountain became available, he asked two of California’s most esteemed winemakers, Andre Tchelistcheff and Louis Martini, to evaluate the land. Without either one giving a definitive thumbs-up, Brounstein threw caution to the wind and purchased the land in 1967. The reason was simple: that funny French word again — terroir, which means anything in nature that affects the wine.
Diamond Creek sits atop three vineyards that have completely different soil types. North-facing Red Rock Terrace is steep in places and enriched with iron. Gravelly Meadow is flatter and filled with gravel, and south-facing Volcanic Hill has fluffy ash. There is one other vineyard overlooking the lake Brounstein had made near Gravelly Meadows. Known simply as the Lake Vineyard, it comes out only in select vintages, with 2005 being the last one to date.
Instead of using the clones that were fashionable at the time, Brounstein somehow arranged to have cuttings from three of five first-growth estates in Bordeaux (which are to this day a secret) sent to Mexico. A licensed pilot, he flew to Mexico and brought the contraband back himself. Considering that this happened in the 1960s, you can imagine that what people thought was probably being transported had nothing to do with wine.
The blend for all the wines has remained pretty consistent, with cabernet sauvignon making up about 88 percent of the juice. Merlot and cabernet franc composed the rest until the 1990s, when a petite verdot vineyard that was planted earlier in that decade began to render fruit.
Brounstein thought Red Rock Terrace was the earliest to drink and Volcanic Hill would age the best, but time has proven that is not always the case. Volcanic Hill is often the least approachable in its youth, but with the 2007 vintage, Gravelly Meadows is actually much tighter than either of the two.
What makes this property legendary is not just its quality, but also that throughout its 43-year history, Brounstein and now his family maintained the original vision.
Brounstein, who was posthumously inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2010, left an indelible mark on California wine history. He lives on through his wines that are, like their founder, legendary.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.