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DIAMOND CREEK VINEYARDS

John Tilson • 5/13/15        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

 History And Notes On Stunning New Wines

microclimates at Diamond Creek

Founded in 1968, Diamond Creek is California’s first exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Vineyard. The first vintage was 1972. Visionary pioneer Al Brounstein defied conventions and planted Bordeaux varietals on secluded Diamond Mountain. Four separate vineyards – Volcanic Hill, Red Rock Terrace, Gravelly Meadow, and Lake – produce a small amount of long-lived wines that are elegant with great depth and richness. The wines are now comprised of 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, and 2% each Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

diamond creek sign with grape varieties

My history with Diamond Creek goes back to the early 70s shortly after the 1972 Cabernets were released. Thereafter, my wife and I along with 2 other friends visited the winery every year for many years to taste the wines from barrel. It was on one of those visits that we discovered the 1978 Lake Vineyard and convinced Al to bottle it (a history of the Underground involvement with Diamond Creek follows at the end of this article).

1978 lake

Sadly, Al Brounstein passed away in 2006. Hard to believe, but that has now been almost 10 years. However, today, under the direction of his widow, Boots, and her son, Phil Ross, along with long time winemaker Phil Steinschreiber, they are continuing the tradition that I am sure would make Al proud.

diamond creek house

My wife and I recently visited Diamond Creek and I tasted the remarkable 2013 wines out of barrel. After along absence, I last visited in 2012 and tasted the 2010s out of barrel (to read that article click here). In 2012, Al was no longer there, but still it was like old times. I tasted the 2010 wines including the Lake Vineyard. And, when asked should they bottle it, I recommended that they definitely should bottle it, which they did.

Lake Label for etch

On this visit I first tasted the 2012s from bottle. The 2012s represent the 40th anniversary bottling of Diamond Creek. The total 2012 production was around 16oo cases.

2012 Diamond Creek 40th Anniversary Jeroboam Set

There was a Lake Vineyard bottling in 2012. It represents the 15th Lake bottling since the first in 1978. It was bottled exclusively in 158 5 liter jeroboam bottles each accompanied by a 750ml bottle. The sets are priced at $5,000 each direct from the winery. As always, even though I did not taste it, I am sure this 2012 Lake is very special.

Below are my notes on the other 2012s:

Red Rock 2012

2012 Diamond Creek Vineyards Red Rock Terrace
Red Rock Terrace is composed of ½ original vines and ½ younger vines that are 10-15 years old. The 2012 production was around 500 cases. The wine is dark in color and has a lovely blackberry and cassis perfume accented by a tinge of cedar. It has intense fruit and is rich and rounded with lots of depth and flavor. The tannins are very soft and well integrated and the wine should blossom over the next 10-20 years – Outstanding Plus.   $200

Volcanic Hill 2012

2012 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill
The Volcanic Hill vines are 1/3 original vines and 2/3 vines that are 10-15 years old. The 2012 production was around 600 cases. The wine is dark in color with a subdued perfume showing black currant and cassis with a faint touch of spice. It is rich and full with lots of fruit and well structured. This wine will need a few years to open and evolve over decades – Outstanding Plus.   $200

Gravelly Meadow 2012

2012 Diamond Creek Vineyards Gravelly Meadow
The original vines still comprise 100% of Gravelly Meadow. The yields are low and the 2012 production was around 450 cases. The color is dark and the wine has a gorgeous perfume of cassis and black currant with a faint hint of floral spice. It has great fruit and is beautifully balanced with lots of flavor and a lot of charm. This is a really gorgeous Gravelly Meadow that should age beautifully – Extraordinary.   $200

Diamond Creek cellar door

Now there are the remarkable 2013s. These wines are simply incredible. Tasted from barrel, my notes follow:

2013 Diamond Creek Vineyards Red Rock Terrace
Dark in color this wine has a deep perfume and lots of fruit. It is elegant, yet with intensity and lots of flavor with great purity. There is an underlying brightness to the fruit which gives the wine a marvelous sense of harmony. Surely this is a great Red Rock Terrace in the making – Extraordinary Potential.

2013 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill
Very dark in color this is classic Volcanic Hill with a subtle perfume and soaring fruit and intensity on the palate. It is beautifully balanced with beautifully integrated soft tannins and a long lingering finish. This is a wine that should be phenomenal in a decade or two and keep for an extremely long time – Extraordinary Potential.

2013 Diamond Creek Vineyards Gravelly Meadow
Wow! This is a really great Gravelly Meadow. It is very dark in color and has a stunning perfume showing a myriad of black fruits. It is supple and rounded with great intensity and lots of flavor and richness. It will age effortlessly and gain increasing complexity over a decade or more evolve into something truly magical – Extraordinary Potential.

2013 diamond creek barrel tasting

2013 Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake
There are three barrels (75 cases) of the 2013 Lake. Is this a modern day version of the legendary 1978 Lake? Time will tell. But, what is known is that this is a wine of majestic proportions with soaring potential. It is very dark in color with a stunning perfume that offers a myriad of black fruits with floral and sandalwood nuances. It has intense fruit and is balanced and luscious with depth and richness. The wine is already seamless with great intensity. A classic Diamond Creek, this wine has it all – Extraordinary Plus Potential.

These 2013s appear to me to be the best modern day vintage of Diamond Creek. They are simply remarkable. How they evolve as compared with the great Diamond Creeks of the 1970s is something that will not be known for at least 2 decades. However, I have great confidence in them. If you have patience, I believe these wines are must buys for every lover of California Cabernet.

79 diamond creek vh fp

Also, on this visit I took a 1979 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill First Pick. The late Barney Rhodes, who was a good friend and world renowned wine expert, once told me that this was the greatest young Cabernet he had ever tasted. Boots and Phil opened a 1977 Diamond Creek Vineyards Red Rock Terrance Second Pick which I don’t ever recall tasting and do not have in my cellar. We had both wines with dinner. Here are my notes:

1979 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill First Pick
With an amazing very dark color right to the rim, this Volcanic Hill is a wine for the ages. It has an incredible perfume with cassis and blackberry accented by faint hints of cedar, spice, and sandalwood. Full and very rich and rounded with a firm underlying structure the wine has layers of fruit and a very long finish. Showing an amazing youthfulness, it is amazing to think that the wine is 35 years old – Extraordinary.

1977 Diamond Creek Vineyards Red Rock Terrace Second Pick
Dark in color with a faint amber edge, this wine has a lovely cassis and cedar tinged perfume and lovely fruit and intensity. It is a harmonious wine that shows beautiful balance and wonderful lasting flavors. While fully mature, it shows no signs of decline and should enjoy an extended life for many more years – Outstanding.

These wines are great examples of the longevity and quality of the old Diamond Creek Cabernets. I have a lot of Diamond Creek Cabernets in my cellar dating back to the first vintage in 1972. And, I drink them often and have never had any that are tiring. The wines are simply amazing.

diamond-creek-vineyards

Below is an excerpt of an article written by Christine Graham, Underground Associate Editor. It covers some of my early days with Diamond Creek. And, it is part of a larger article covering a charity dinner with 28 different Diamond Creek wines as well as other wines from our cellar that was held in January 2003 (to read that article which includes a background and description of the event, tasting notes on the wines, as well as the Diamond Creek history click here).

The story of Al and Boots Brounstein and Diamond Creek is legendary — planting only Cabernet in northern Napa Valley from smuggled Bordeaux rootstock and bottling wines from first three, then four, and perhaps some five different vineyards. This Cabernet-only winery on Diamond Mountain in the northern Mayacamas Range of the Napa Valley, produced its first vintage in 1972, and each year since has produced truly memorable wines.

Diamond Creek Vineyards Winery has 21 acres on three adjoining sites.  Each site differs in exposure and soil composition and when Al realized he had distinct vineyards, he decided to bottle under different names — Gravelly Meadow (a 5-acre vineyard with rocky soil).  Red Rock Terrace (a 7-acre vineyard with reddish-brown soil), Volcanic Hill (an 8-acre vineyard with white volcanic ash in the soil) and Lake Vineyard (a three-quarter acre vineyard with gravel, sand and soil, a man-made lake and the coolest microclimate).  Usually blended with Gravelly Meadow, in exceptional years Lake is bottled separately.  And, in some years, a small amount of Three Vineyard Blend was made and is, as the name implies, a blend of the finest wine from each of the three vineyards.

Born in Canada and raised in Minnesota, Al Brounstein became a successful pharmaceuticals wholesaler in Southern California in the 1960s.  In 1968, he purchased 70 acres of land on rugged Diamond Mountain in the Napa Valley.  Brounstein was inspired by the great wines of Bordeaux and had long dreamed of owning his own small vineyard and winery.

The vineyards were planted in 1968 with 6-7% Merlot and a 3% mixture of Malbec and Cabernet Franc, distributed among the Cabernet vines, for blending.  The first vintage in 1972 was made by Jerry Luper.  Beginning with the 1991 vintage, Al made several different bottlings from the same vineyard representing the different microclimates found in each vineyard.  Annual production now is 2,500 – 3,500 cases made by winemaker Phil Steinschriber.

When John and Laurie Tilson, Ed Lazarus and Geoffrey Troy first visited in the early 1970s, the Diamond Creeks were controversial.  Wrong climate for Cabernet, too tannic, and too expensive ($7.50 per bottle retail) were often heard comments.  The first vintage, 1972, they bought, tasted and loved the Volcanic Hill.  Ditto the 1973.  Then the widely heralded 1974s (probably overrated with a few exceptions including Diamond Creek).  The 1975, the drought years of 1976 and 1977, and the fantastic 1978s, including the first bottling of Lake — ultra rare, only one barrel or 25 cases produced.  In order, the 1975 vintage produced yet another great Volcanic Hill that has proven better than the more acclaimed 1974 which is still a great wine, as is the 1974 Red Rock Terrace.  The star of the difficult 1976 and 1977 drought years is Gravelly Meadow.  Both wines are among the all-time great Cabernets of the 1970s. Then came the 1978s.

Again, John and Laurie Tilson, Ed Lazarus and Geoffrey Troy were there to taste from barrel and Al gave them the keys to the cellar, glasses and a wine thief (for extracting the wine from barrel).  Tasting the three different vineyards from barrel, they knew they were in the midst of greatness.  Never before had they experienced such profound Cabernet from barrel.  Sampling different barrels of the vineyards, everything was uniformly great.  And, near the end of the tasting, they came across a barrel stamped “Lake.”  Not knowing what it was they decided to “give it a shot.”  Wow!  Off the charts.  Here they are reveling in the midst of the greatest Cabernets they’ve ever tasted from barrel and this one barrel stands out as the ne plus ultra.  They retasted Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill and Gravelly Meadow against the Lake, even mixing them up and tasting them blind.  The results were simply astounding.  Where did the “Lake” come from?

Rejoining Al, he asked how they liked the wines.  Their response was “Your best ever!  But what is Lake?”  “Oh that,” Al responded.  “It’s a little vineyard of less than one acre that has trouble ripening in some years.  When it ripens it’s such a small amount we blend it with Gravelly Meadow.”  The group responded, “this is the best wine in the cellar.  You’ve got to bottle it separately.”  Al answered, “I’m already being criticized for having three different vineyard bottlings based on the differences in soil and climate in the vineyard.  What would people say if I added another, and only one barrel.  It does not seem worth it.”  They persisted, “First, who cares what people say.  What counts is what’s in the bottle.  Since 1972, you have proven the wisdom of the three vineyard bottlings and now that you have a great vintage with the Lake vineyard you should bottle it.  Second, having only one barrel is a high class problem.  It’s your best wine.  Great wines are often produced in very small quantities.  And, it is, after all,  still Diamond Creek and can only serve to further your reputation as a great Cabernet producer who continues to confound all the critics.  Go for it!”

Al, a man of forceful opinion, simply smiled and replied with a “well….I dunno.”  “Well we do,” they said. And, “If you won’t bottle it separately, how about selling it to us?  We wouldn’t even need a label!”  A secret as it were.  By now Al’s wheels were turning.  “You guys really want to buy the whole barrel?” he asked.  “Yes, what do you want for it?,” the four replied.  “I’m not sure,” he said and they continued their conversation.  As they left, one parting shot:  “What about the “Lake”?  “Well, I’m thinking maybe I will bottle it.  Do you really like it that much?”  “Yes!” (Note: A few days later Al called me and asked again if we wanted to buy the entire barrel. I said, “absolutely do you have a price?” He replied that if we thought it was that good he would bottle it separately.) The rest is history.  Al bottled the 1978 Lake and a case was sold at the second Napa Wine Auction for the then record price of $5,400. Today it has evolved to become one of the most profound California Cabernets ever made.

And, as for Diamond Creek? Well, it just keeps rolling along.  After more than 30 years, there is no doubt that these wines are among the best Cabernets ever made in California.  They require time and patience, however, just like the great wines of Bordeaux.  It is simply unforgivable to consume them too young.

In 1997, Al Brounstein was selected as one of the world’s 100 most prestigious wine producers in Paris, France, an honor indicative of his determination, innovation and commitment.

diamond creek drawingSo that’s it – the Diamond Creek story right up to the present. I am proud to say that The Underground has been there from the beginning. As I said earlier, I still have the wines back to 1972 in my cellar. I drink them often and have never had a a bottle that was tired. Truly, the Diamond Creek wines are special wines from a special place. And, although Al is gone, his presence lives on. Every bottle is a tribute to his foresight.

 

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4 comments for “DIAMOND CREEK VINEYARDS”

  1. John,

    Thanks for your great column on Diamond Creek Vineyards. Your comments and tasting notes are as always helpful. I share your admiration for this classic California Cabernet producer. I recently have been fortunate enough to obtain a parcel of well-stored Diamond Creek cabs from 1974-1978 from the three main vineyards and am amazed by just how gorgeous and vigorous they are and how distinctive the wine from each site is. Is the winery open to the public? Also, are the wines available at retail or are they all sold from the winery by allocation or retail?

    I have not commented before, but I want to thank you and your colleagues for a fabulous newsletter. It is a great resource and your personal and collective tastes are impeccable.
    Best wishes, Josh Horowitz

    Posted by Josh Horowitz | May 15, 2015, 1:24 pm
  2. Thanks Josh.
    Yes.The old wines are amazing. I also wrote notes on the 76 and 77 Gravelly Meadow in a recent article.
    I drink the old Diamond Creek wines many times each year and am never disappointed.
    The wines are available at retail across the country and from the winery. As far as I know, the winery is open by appointment only. They do not have a tasting room.
    Thanks again.The Underground has always believed in presenting our opinions in the most objective way possible. And, we stand for transparency and non manipulative wine making. This is unique to the wine writing world as far as I know. We appreciate your support and encourage you to pass along the Underground to your friends.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | May 16, 2015, 3:23 pm
  3. Hi John,

    I know that this is a total shot in the dark, especially since it has been 18 months since this article was written.

    However, I was wondering if you or anyone you know happens to have anymore of the 1978 Lake. It’s the ultimate unicorn of a good friend of mine and it also happens to be a birth year wine for both of us and something I’m pretty sure we would love, love to enjoy in 2018 as we celebrate our 40th’s.

    If there is any information you may have, please feel free to email me privately.

    Thanks a ton!
    Dany K.

    Posted by Dany K. | December 4, 2016, 3:00 am
  4. Thanks Dany,
    This is indeed rare as only 25 cases were made. I do not believe that there is any at the winery and I have a few bottles in my cellar. I do not know where this wine might be found. Maybe a search of auction results might provide some clues.
    As a substitute, I would suggest the 1978 Gravelly Meadow. It is a stunning wine that is drinking beautifully now. Also, maybe a 1978 Red Burgundy. There are a lot of great ones such as 1978 La Tache. But, if you buy a 1978 Burgundy now make sure you know the provenance. Poor storage and fakes are to be avoided.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | December 12, 2016, 6:01 pm

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