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A VISIT TO DIAMOND CREEK VINEYARDS AND GREAT WINE AND FOOD

John Tilson • 6/9/17        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

  microclimates at Diamond Creek

My history with Diamond Creek goes back to the very beginning (to read a recent article with background on the beginning of Diamond Creek and my involvement there click here). Earlier this year my wife Laurie and I paid a visit to Diamond Creek. We had a wonderful visit with Boots Brounstein, her son Phil Ross, and his wife Susan. This included a great meal at The Restaurant At Meadowood and a memorable bottle of 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake that I brought to have with our dinner. I also tasted the 2015s from barrel with Phil Steinschreiber, the winemaker, and later tasted the 2014s from bottle.

The history of Diamond Creek Vineyards, the story of when we first met Al, how Lake came into being for the first time in 1978, and a narrative on a great meal at The Restaurant At Meadowood with wines from my cellar including 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake  follows.          


Diamond Creek Vineyards History, The Story of Our First Meeting With Al Brounstein, And A Great Meal At The Restaurant At Meadowood With Wines From My Cellar Including 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake

Diamond Creek Vineyards History – Part One

Taken from an earlier article (to read that article click here), the history of Diamond Creek Vineyards and my early involvement along with friends from The Underground Wineletter follows.  This narrative also includes the story on how the Lake Vineyard bottling came into being for the first time in 1978.

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 who followed Jerry Luper and remains the winemaker today.

Our First Meeting With Al Brounstein

It was in the 70s when we first visited Diamond Creek. We made an appointment and went to the winery to meet Al and taste wines. As was our usual practice in those days, we bought food for lunch and took it with us to have a picnic. When we arrived we met Al, invited him to have lunch with us, and asked to buy some wine to have with our food. He said he would sell us some wine, but that we could not drink it now. He then proceeded to tell us that his wine was not meant to be consumed young, but needed to age for some time in the bottle before being consumed. He said it was modeled after great wines like Chateau Latour. We explained that we cellared and drank old wine and would do the same with his, but that we had to taste wines young to know what they would be like later. He then asked if we knew Chateau Latour. We said yes. And he asked had we ever drank old ones? We explained that we had enjoyed many old Latours and especially enjoyed vintages such as 1870, 1929, 1945, 1959, 1961, etc. We also told him about dinners we had that featured many old vintages of Latour and that we had a lot of old bottles of Latour in our cellars. He was quite surprised and did not ask any more questions. After some brief additional conversation, he excused himself and said he would be back in a few minutes. We did not know what to expect and after about 10 minutes we began to wonder what happened to Al. After a few more minutes I was getting hungry and tired of waiting and said that if Al did not return in the next 10 minutes we would leave, go have our lunch, and come back later. It was only a few minutes later when Al reappeared carrying something with him. When he arrived he pulled out a couple of bottles of Diamond Creek (including the 1972 Volcanic Hill). We got out the food, Al opened the wines, and we all enjoyed our picnic and had a great time. That was the beginning. And, we returned on a regular basis for many years to taste the wines from barrel and later report on them in The Underground Wineletter (to read some of those old articles from the early issues of The Underground Wineletter click here).
This story of our first meeting with Al tells a lot about the man. He was passionate and driven. He bought a property in a place where the “experts” told him you could not grow Cabernet Sauvignon. The same experts felt that a variety of grapes should be planted to make red and wine wines so that there would always be something to sell. But Al knew enough to know that in France many of the greatest estates made only one type of wine. So he set out to make world class California Cabernet and went to France to get his cuttings! The rest is history. Al is gone now. But his legacy lives on. He was a great man with a very clear vision and dedication which resulted in one of the greatest wine estates in California. We all can only hope that what Al created and what is continuing today with Boots, Phil, and their team will be sustained for generations into the future.

Diamond Creek Vineyards History – Part Two

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.

 2015 Diamond Creek Vineyards From Barrel

Diamond Creek cellar door

Wow. The 2015s are really impressive. The 2015 was again a very small crop and the wines are characterized by intense very pure fruit. This vintage seems sure to take its place with the greatest preceding Diamond Creek vintages of which there are many. Currently Diamond Creek has a special opportunity savings offer on 2015 futures. For availability and pricing please contact Diamond Creek: (707) 942-6926.

2015 Diamond Creek Vineyards Red Rock Terrace
Dark in color this wine has a stunning perfume of violets intermingled with black fruits. It is deeply flavored and very supple with intense fruit and an underlying floral complexity. Long on the palate this is a very impressive Red Rock Terrace – Extraordinary Potential.

2015 Diamond Creek Vineyards Gravelly Meadow
Two barrels of Lake were blended into the Gravelly Meadow this year. The wine is gorgeous. It is dark in color and has a deep perfume with hints of black cherry and cedar with a faint spiciness. Flavorful with intense fruit and great balance this is a classic Gravelly Meadow – Extraordinary Potential.

2015 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill
This Volcanic Hill is a monumental wine. The color is very dark and the wine has a stunning perfume of blackberries and plums with a faint cedar tinge. With incredibly rich and concentrated fruit, the wine is beautifully balanced with great length on the palate and will evolve for decades – Extraordinary Potential.

 2014 Diamond Creek Vineyards From Bottle

2014 Diamond Creek

As usual the 2014 Diamond Creek wines are terrific. The 2014 crop was a bit larger than 2013 and the wines are a bit softer. They are showing beautifully now, but will continue to evolve and develop over the next decade or two and keep well beyond.

14 diamond creek rrt

2014 Diamond Creek Vineyards Red Rock Terrace
Red Rock Terrace is composed of ½ original vines and ½ younger vines around 15 years old. This 2014 is dark in color and has a lovely blackberry perfume with hints of spice and cedar. It is rounded and supple with lush blackberry and cassis fruit again showing a tinge of spice and cedar. Quite forward and beautifully balanced the wine is delicious now, but like all Diamond Creek wines will evolve for decades into the future – Outstanding Plus.

14 diamond creek gm

2014 Diamond Creek Vineyards Gravelly Meadow
Gravelly Meadow still has 100% original vines. This 2014 is really gorgeous. It has dark color and a deep perfume of cassis and black currant with a tinge of cedar and floral spice nuances. Beautifully balanced, the wine has elegance and layers of very pure fruit with faint cedar spice tinges and soft underlying tannins. Long on the palate, this is a classic Gravelly Meadow that will age effortlessly for many years – Outstanding Plus.

14 diamond creek vh

2014 Diamond Creek Vineyards Volcanic Hill
The Volcanic Hill vines are 1/3 original vines and 2/3 vines that are about 15 years old. The 2014 is very forward and expressive. Dark in color the wine has a deep blackberry and cassis perfume and is full, rich, and rounded. With layers of black fruits it is beautifully balanced and long on the palate. Make no mistake, despite the obvious charm already in evidence this Volcanic Hill will evolve over decades – Outstanding Plus.

meadowood restaurant
A Great Meal At The Restaurant At Meadowood With Wines From My Cellar Including 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake

the restaurant at meadowood menu
The meal that we enjoyed with Boots, Phil, and Susan at The Restaurant at Meadowood was really amazing. The food prepared by chef Christopher Kostow was flavorful, very creative and beautifully presented with impeccable table-side preparation. I brought some wines from our cellar to have with our dinner beginning with a 1996 Pol Roger Brut Extra Cuvée de Reserve Champagne. Just before the Dungeness Crab dish arrived we opened a 2007 Domaine Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Ruchottes” 1er Cru White Burgundy. Both are wines that Laurie and I have enjoyed many times and they were again lovely and great accompaniments to the food. I also brought a red wine which was not revealed until just before the lamb dish arrived. It was a 1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake. I had not had a bottle 0f 78 Lake in many years. In fact, just after the wine was bottled, we tried a bottle which confirmed our assessment of the tasting from barrel. This bottle was the first bottle I had opened since. So after keeping the bottles of 1978 Lake in my cellar for more than 35 years I thought it was time to open one. This was the perfect time with all of us together. It was magnificent and Boots, Phil, and Susan were in awe and Laurie and I were thrilled to have the opportunity to share the wine with them. It was an unforgettable experience and the 78 Lake was, in a word, amazing. My note follows.

1978 lake

1978 Diamond Creek Vineyards Lake
Without question this is one of the very greatest California Cabernets I have ever tasted. It has more than lived up to the promise it had in barrel so many years ago. The wine is dark in color without a trace of amber and has an absolutely stunning perfume of violets and cassis with faint hints of cedar and spice. Silky and lush on the palate, it has great intensity and depth with violet tinged cassis fruit accented by a faint spiciness and is very long on the palate. The magic of the greatest old wines is how they can be so complex and lush yet so harmonious and perfectly balanced. The 1978 Lake is such a wine – Extraordinary Plus.

diamond creek vineyard signs

 

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2 comments for “A VISIT TO DIAMOND CREEK VINEYARDS AND GREAT WINE AND FOOD”

  1. Thanks for your comments weaving in the wine with the food – if you can, please do more of that. Over the years, I’ll guess you’ve had many great meals in Burgundy with many great wines. Maybe one day you’ll describe those wine/food adventures.
    A decade or two ago, I used to drink a bit of the Les Ruchottes and I loved it and thought it a great bargain – somehow I forgot about it, but you have reminded me of something yet again. I’m getting tired of thanking you, but what the hell- Thanks Again!
    And your description of the 1978 Lake perfectly described the 1984 Lake we had with our son about a month ago at Republique restaurant in Los Angeles, in the old Charlie Chaplin/United Artists/Campanile building on La Brea, over Mary’s roasted chicken and steak frites – sensational! But what really prompted me to post was your statement that the 1978 Lake “is dark in color without a trace of amber”, because at our dinner I went on about how unbelievably dark the 1984 Lake was, without any amber whatsoever. The wine was great, drinking perfectly now, but what really gobsmacked me was that an almost 40 year old California cabernet was so young and vibrant. I think the 1984 Lake is drinking perfectly now, but seeming may drink beautifully for many more years.
    How long do you think the 1978, 1984 and other Lakes will live and drink so well? And isn’t it so absolutely wonderful that (at least some) of the California cabernets can live or outlive at least some of our Bordeaux rivals?
    Thanks yet again,
    Bill

    Posted by Bill Tisch | June 10, 2017, 12:25 pm
  2. Thanks Bill.
    I have a lot of “backlogged” articles pending. I will see what I can do.
    With the exception of the premox issues of the late 90s, the Ruchottes from Ramonet has always been superb. And, historically it has aged beautifully. Some time in the 90s we had a dinner with the Ramonets in Burgundy where we had every vintage of their Montrachet (the first vintage was 1979). After we had finished those, Andre left the room and came back with another wine in a bag that he poured for everyone. We all thought it was a Montrachet, but he said it was one of their wines so it could not be a Montrachet. But, we all agreed that as good as all the Montrachets were, this wine was even better. No one had any idea of what it was. Andre unveiled the wine and it was from his birthyear (1934) and it was Ruchottes! Andre said it had taken the wine decades to become drinkable because of the acidity!!
    As for aging the Lake wines I see no reason why they should age like the old Inglenook Cabs from the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. These wines are still magnificent today and should remain so for many more years.
    Yes California has arrived. But, it was always here. Not that well known perhaps, but wines like Inglenook are benchmarks. Made in a traditional way California Cabernets can be stunning and will age beautifully.
    In Vino Veritas,
    John

    Posted by John Tilson | June 15, 2017, 2:01 pm

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