Welcome to Vintage America, a column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.
Al Brounstein founded Diamond Creek in 1968 on Diamond Mountain, then an untouched part of Napa's western border just south of the town of Calistoga. He'd fallen in love with French wine and, inspired by Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he believed that he could make true terroir-driven wines in California. As a result of good luck, as Brounstein has described it, he ended up settling on one of the most geologically and climactically diverse pieces of land in the Napa Valley.
A few weeks ago I visited Al's widow, Boots Brounstein, at the winery. We toured the grounds in her golf cart making stops to admire the many secluded hideaways and electric waterfalls Al had built on the property. They might feel a bit retro if you drove up in a car that parks itself, but to Boots they are as impressive now as they were then. To her they're symbolic of the ingenuity and idealism of Al Brounstein, and the sense of possibility that Diamond Creek embodied in the 1970s. Like much of Napa's earliest wineries, Diamond Creek was, and still is, the American Dream applied to wine.
Diamonds In The Creek
Armed with vine cuttings he smuggled in from Bordeaux via Tijuana, Al Brounstein, a man with no previous experience in the wine industry, began clearing his property to plant cabernet on a site that most believed to be ill-suited to the variety.
"He'd go out and clear the land in the morning and come back for lunch caked in white dust," says Boots. "Then he'd go back out and come back for dinner red from head to toe."
Brounstein realized quickly that there was a striking amount of soil variation within his 20-acre plot — from the white, ashy volcanic soil of Volcanic Hill to the red, iron-rich soils of Red Rock Terrace to the shallow, rocky soils of Gravelly Meadow. This was not one vineyard but three (four if you count the 3/4-acre Lake Vineyard, which is only bottled on its own in rare vintages when the weather is warm enough to ripen the whole vineyard). They are all separated from each by the tiny Diamond Creek, which gets its name from the quartz crystals that, according to Al Brounstein, the locals at the time believed to be diamonds.
In an interview with Wine Spectator shortly before his death Brounstein said that the man who sold him the land told him that he'd probably be able to pay all of his taxes with the diamonds from the creek.
Needless to say, the Napa of '68 was a far cry from the Cartier-clad Napa of today.
When Brounstein released his three single-vineyard cabernets in 1972 they were considered controversial. Not only was Diamond Mountain thought to be the wrong climate for the grape, the prices were considered high (at a whopping $7.00 a bottle on release) and retailers balked at the idea of single-vineyard bottlings.
Even now, placed within an American wine scene far more influenced by the Burgundian paradigm of vineyard-designate, terroir-driven wines, Al Brounstein's Diamond Creek remains cutting edge. In other words, more than 40 years and hundreds of wineries later, you'd still be hard-pressed to find a better argument for the existence of true terroir in the Napa Valley.
Most of the original cabernet vines on the property are still intact, thanks to Brounstein's decision to plant on St. George rootstock, despite the fact that UC Davis had everyone on the AXR bandwagon (a rootstock that, infamously, ended up being susceptible to phylloxera). The now tree-sized gnarled vines represent some of the oldest cabernet plantings in Napa.
Rooted in the brick-colored soil of Red Rock they look like angry scarecrows on a terraced mars. In appearance It's easily the property's the most austere vineyard, but its cabernet is the most accessible of the three — full of spicy red fruit and earth with mineral-laced tannins. If you're standing above Red Rock to your left is Gravelly Meadow, which produces cabernet that most closely resembles Bordeaux. It's floral and, well, gravelly, and shows the sort of dark, soft fruit and sweet tannins that also make it the easiest to love. Lastly, there's Volcanic Hill which lies directly across from Red Rock. Its a beast of a wine: tightly wound with big tannins and dense fruit with an aromatic profile that is doing nothing but keeping secrets. In the grand context of a Napa dominated by wines built for immediate consumption, it is boldly in need of cellar time.
The wines have changed very little over time. The winery has had only two different winemakers in more than forty years, and the cellar — which includes just two tiny basket presses, a few steel tanks (which replaced the original redwood fermenters), and a sorting table — remains staunchly old-school.
The rest of Diamond Creek's more intangible charms, including that sense of idealism that continues to pulse through the winery after all these years, is thanks to Boots. Now in her 80s she seems more vibrant — driven no doubt by her youthful adoration for Al — than most women half her age.
She was his sidekick, she says. And while Diamond Creek is clearly the product of Al's unique vision for California wine, it's not hard to believe that such a bold endeavor also owes something to the crazy empowerment of love.
Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.