The Diamond Creek Vineyards Retrospective Dinner with Al and Boots Brounstein took place at the elegant Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara on January 10 and 11, 2003. The dinner was presented on behalf of the 2002 Central Coast Wine Classic by wine collectors John and Laurie Tilson of Montecito who contributed the wines from their collection. Dinner at the Four Seasons Biltmore was presented by Wine Classic patrons John and Nancy Lasseter of Sonoma and Milo and Georganne Ferini of Shell Beach. This once-in-a-lifetime event was hosted by Archie McLaren, Founder and Executive Director of the KCBX Central Coast Wine Classic and Frank Lanzone, General Manager of Public Radio KCBX, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
The two-day event featured 28 wines from the Diamond Creek Vineyards, 13 of which were tasted at a dinner for 60 persons on Friday night. The Tilsons also provided rare Champagne, White Burgundy and Eiswein to accompany the dinner. The remaining 15 wines were offered at a special tasting held the following morning also at the Four Seasons.
The great majority of these wines were acquired on initial release and were kept in a very cold cellar with relatively high humidity. The three Ramonet White Burgundies gave a glimpse of the differences between three vintages of 1988, 1995 and 1997. The 1988 showed the youngest, once again demonstrating that age is not necessarily an indication of drinkability for White Burgundy. Most White Burgundies are consumed way too young. 1999s and 2000s on restaurant lists, for example. Ruchottes, a premier cru, is in fact, a Grand Cru under the stewardship of the Ramonets. It can age effortlessly for decades and develop complexity that only the very best Grand Crus can match.
The Eisweins were simply amazing coming from three different areas. Made from frozen grapes, the ripeness (without botrytis) and resulting elevation of acidity and intensity creates a laser-like focus in the wines with exceptional purity. Totally remarkable. There is nothing in the world like the great German Eisweins. Alas, they are exceedingly rare wines. Quantities produced usually are measured in cases. 1983 was a year where climatic conditions allowed the production of probably hundreds of different Eisweins, making them relatively available. The best of them will age gracefully for a half-century or more.
The Diamond Creek Cabernets, of course, were the focus of the event. 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 is 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 1978.
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. “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!” 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.
This retrospective tasting of the famed Cabernets from Diamond Creek was historic and exciting. Both Al and Boots Brounstein delighted dinner guests with fascinating stories about the winery’s inception. John Tilson, founder and Editor of The Underground Wine Journal, provided an insightful discussion of the wines for both the dinner and the following day’s tasting.
Four Seasons Biltmore Chef de Cuisine Meliton Mecinas created a fabulous dinner to complement the marvelous Diamond Creek wines. A reception preceded the dinner offering delightfully tasty and creative hors d’oeuvres of scallop ceviche with avocado relish, smoked salmon on lemon corn blini and caviar and duck and mango rolls with port wine foam. The 1988 Taittinger Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne was a beautiful accompaniment.
The dinner commenced with a European pan-seared turbot and Maine lobster crepe in a lobster emulsion, a delicious backdrop for three sensational, elegant White Burgundies from Domaine Ramonet, Chassagne-Montrachet Les Ruchottes from the vintages of 1988, 1995 and 1997.
The second course, an amazing porcini mushroom risotto with braised osso bucco and shaved white truffles, was matched with two Diamond Creek wines, the 1984 and 1987 Lake Vineyard.
Three Diamond Creek wines from the 1980 vintage, Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic Hill, were perfect complements for a roast squab breast served over sweet potato timbale with a dried black fig preserve.
A fourth course presented Colorado rack of lamb with haricot verts, squash blossoms and winter black truffles, accompanied by four Diamond Creek wines, Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic Hill from 1978 and the 1979 Volcanic Hill First Pick.
A wonderful cheese course of Tete-de-Moine, St. Andre and Chevre souffle, with a Parmesan tuile, was even more delicious when matched with four Diamond Creek wines, Gravelly Meadow from 1974, 1976 and 1977 and the 1974 Volcanic Hill.
Three incredible, very rare Eisweins beautifully complemented a delectable dessert course of jasmine poached forelle pear and cranberry-raspberry compote, apple tarte tatin on sable Breton, and quince sorbet: all from the 1983 vintage — von Buhl Forster Jesuitengarten, Knyphausen Erbacher Steinmorgen and Vereinigte Hospitien Serriger Schloss Saarfelser Schlossberg.
The tasting the following day of five flights of Diamond Creek wines was preceded with another terrific Champagne, Tsarine Tete de Cuvee.
The following tasting notes are from John Tilson. The Diamond Creek wines are in the order in which they were presented at the Friday night dinner and the Saturday morning tasting.
By John Tilson
Four Seasons Biltmore Friday Night Dinner
Champagne, White Burgundy and Eiswein
1988 Taittinger Blanc de Blancs Comtes de Champagne. Stunning perfume of citrus, tropical fruit, peach, apple and vanilla. Similar flavors are lush, toasty and creamy yet finish crisply, lingering long on the palate. Delicious. A great Champagne. Perfect now, but should keep for 10 or more years. The 1988 Champagnes have evolved beautifully and are under appreciated.
1988 Domaine Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Les Ruchottes 1er Cru. Lovely light golden color. Surprisingly this wine, the oldest of the three is the least forward. Elegant and restrained, with aromas and flavors of apple, citrus, pear, subtle spice. It is focused but a tightly wound just now. Give it time. Classic Ramonet. Well-cellared, it should age gracefully for 10-20 years.
1995 Domaine Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Les Ruchottes 1er Cru. Light golden color. Very atypical for Ramonet, this wine, despite its youth, is quite forward, with ripe fruit. Beautifully perfumed with pear, apple, citrus, smoke, toast and honey. Rich flavors mirror the aromas. It is balanced, textured and harmonious, with a long finish. A wine to drink now and for the next 5-10 years. Lush and delicious.
1997 Domaine Ramonet Chassagne-Montrachet Les Ruchottes 1er Cru. Light golden color. A lovely, elegant, refined wine. Aromas and flavors of distinctive, rich, silky pear, apple, citrus, tropical fruit, spice, mineral and toast. Great length. A beauty! Will age gracefully for many years to come. The 1997 White Burgundies are underrated. Give them time.
1983 Reichsgraf von Buhl Forster Jesuitengarten Reisling Eiswein, Rheinpfalz. Light golden color. Gorgeous perfume. Loads of apricot, spice, grapefruit, peach, honey, lime and spice, laced with mineral tones. Beautifully balanced, with great intensity of fruit. Very fine acidity. It is lush yet clean and racy. Superb. Classic Eiswein that will live two decades.
1983 Freiherr zu Knyphausen Erbacher Steinmorgen Riesling Eiswein, Rheingau. Light golden color. Aromas and flavors of butterscotch, citrus, apricot, peach and honey. It is rich, full, round and deep, with a persistent, fruity finish. Balanced sweetness and crisp acidity. Lovely and delicious nectar. More forward. At 20 years of age, at a peak. To drink over the next 10 years.
1983 Vereinigte Hospitien Serriger Schloss Saarfelser Schlossberg Riesling Eiswein, Mosel. Light golden color. Lovely perfume. Scents and tastes of peach, apricot, spice and honey. Great acidity and sweet, spicy fruit. Long finish showing a bracing acidity. Fabulous. A wine that should almost be eternal. No hurry on this stunning Eiswein — a classic.
Diamond Creek Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
1984 Lake Vineyard. Dark color. Lush and fruity, with lovely notes of plum in the aromas that translate beautifully to the palate. Rounded, with good backbone and a lengthy finish. Elegant and complex, this wine has a long life ahead.
1987 Lake Vineyard. Very dark color. Still youthful. Deep, enticing raspberry and cassis scents and tastes. A dense, deep, rich, terrific wine, with a long, tannic finish. A great wine to age easily for 20 or more years.
1980 Gravelly Meadow. Dark in color, with no amber edges. Great perfume of blackberries, cedar and spice, with flavors echoing the aromas. Lush, fruity, rounded, balanced and long. A keeper! A fabulous Gravelly Meadow.
1980 Red Rock Terrace. Dark color, no amber edges. Fruity and flavorful in the nose and mouth. Rich undertone. Has good depth and length. Some tannins. Very tasty, a bit backward at this time. Will last.
1980 Volcanic Hill. Amazingly dark color, with no amber edges. Wonderful grapey bouquet. Rounded, lush and dense blackberry flavors. Firm backbone. Great length. Long life ahead.
1978 Gravelly Meadow. Dark color. Lush, opulent and rounded. Lovely nose and palate. Notes of cedar, blackberries and vanilla. Excellent depth. Long, lingering finish. Delicious! A classic Cabernet approaching perfection.
1978 Red Rock Terrace. Dark color. Beautiful perfume. Lots of cedary, berrylike fruit in the nose and on the palate. Well-balanced, fruity and flavorful. Expansive finish. Delicious, terrific wine. Perhaps the best Red Rock Terrace ever.
1978 Volcanic Hill. Dark color. Lush perfume of plums, cedar and cassis. Rich, full, rounded flavors of berries, cedar and cassis. Great intensity of fruit. Good depth and structure. Superb wine. No hurry on this beauty!
1979 Volcanic Hill First Pick. Very dark color. Opulent perfume. Lush, dense and rich, with great intensity of fruit. Nuances of plums, cedar and cassis. Long, full finish. Fabulous wine that will continue to improve for 10-20 years and age gracefully well beyond. In the modern era of California Cabernets old enough to show their true potential (1970 to 1990), this gets my vote as one of the greatest (other Diamond Creek wines include 1978 Lake, 1978 Gravelly Meadow and the 1976 and 1977 Gravelly Meadow).
1974 Gravelly Meadow. Dark color, with an amber edge. Lovely and complex aromas and flavors. Balanced, rounded and deep, with some tannin. Delicious. Probably best over the next five years.
1974 Volcanic Hill. Dark color, with an amber rim. Deep, intense fruit and flavors. Lovely cedary blackberries. Rounded, balanced, soft and rich, with good length. Still evolving. Very attractive. Terrific wine.
1976 Gravelly Meadow. Dark, amber-edged color. Lush, soft, rounded, intense blackberry fruit, with notes of cedar and cassis in the nose and on the palate. Complex, fruity and flavorful, with a fine finish. Exceptional wine.
1977 Gravelly Meadow. Dark color, with an amber rim. Opulent, lush, rounded and full. Plums, blackberries, cassis and cedar in the nose and on the palate. Delicious. A superb wine. One of the best Gravelly Meadows ever. What a trio, few Cabernets can come close to the unbelievable run of 1976, 1977 and 1978 Gravelly Meadow. The tragedy is that there is so little.
Four Seasons Biltmore Saturday Morning Tasting
Tsarine Tete de Cuvee Champagne. Light yellow gold color. Enticing perfume of citrus, light spice and vanilla. With flavors resembling the nose, it is bright, fresh, really clean and crisp, with a crisp, fruity finish. Delicious. A fabulous cuvee from one of the oldest and paradoxically least known Champagnes.
Diamond Creek Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
1986 Gravelly Meadow. Dark color. Subdued nose, hinting of cedar and a faint earthiness. Soft and a bit restrained. Cedar, plums and earthy notes. Expansive finish. Soft tannins. Lovely.
1986 Volcanic Hill. Dark color. Beautiful aromas and flavors. Rich, rounded, full, balanced and fruity, with good depth and length. Nuances of mint, cedar and plums. Soft tannins. A really fabulous Volcanic Hill.
1990 Gravelly Meadow. Dark color. Lovely perfume of blackberries, cassis, cedar and plums. Lush, rich, supple fruit. Immensely flavorful. Long, tannic finish. A succulent wine that is way too young just now but should evolve beautifully. Still really tasty, but be patient. Greatness lies ahead.
1990 Volcanic Hill. Dark color. Lovely aromas of berries and cedar. Similar berry and cedar tastes. Rich, balanced, round, deep and full. Tannic. Long, fruity finish. Delicious. Long life ahead. A youngster, give it 10 years. Patience, patience, patience!
1985 Gravelly Meadow. Dark color. Very pretty aromas of blackberries, plums and cedar that carry through to the palate. Rich, rounded and flavorful. Tannic. Developing beautifully. Terrific wine.
1985 Red Rock Terrace. Dark color. Very attractive scents of cedar and berries. Rich, full cedary berry flavors, laced with spice. Fine fruit and flavor. Tannic finish. Very tasty. Beautiful wine.
1985 Volcanic Hill. Dark color. Deep cedary perfume. Woodsy nose and flavors, with berry accents. Rich, full, rounded, supple and deep. Long, tannic finish. Not at all ready. Needs lots of time to reach its full potential.
1984 Gravelly Meadow. Dark color, amber edge. Delightful berry-scented nose. Lovely fruit. Nuances of cedar, spice and black fruit. Rounded, full, complex and rich, with good length. Some tannin. Still evolving.
1984 Red Rock Terrace. Dark color, with an amber edge. Perfumed aromas. A touch jammy. Rounded, spicy flavors. Cedary and woodsy in the nose and on the palate. Tannic finish. Lovely extracted fruit.
1984 Volcanic Hill. Dark color. Dense perfume of cedar, cassis and berries. Similar flavors. Rich, full, rounded and very flavorful. Good depth of fruit. Long finish. Still backward.
1983 Gravelly Meadow. Dark color. Lovely perfume. Lush, rich and rounded, with exotic nuances. Fine fruit and flavor, with good depth and complexity. Lingering finish. Deep, extracted fruit. Soft tannins. A delicious wine.
1983 Red Rock Terrace. Dark color. Lovely cedar and berry perfume that carries through to the palate. Rounded, rich and supple, with good depth Tannic. Expansive, fruity finish. Gorgeous wine.
1983 Volcanic Hill. Dark color. Gorgeous perfume of blackberries and cedar. Elegant flavors echo the aromas. Fruity, full, rich, balanced and flavorful. Firm backbone. Long finish. Delicious. Fabulous wine.
1981 Three Vineyard Blend November Pick. Dark color, amber edge. Deep cedar, leather, plum and berry aromas and tastes. Flavorful, with nice complexity and fruit. This is one to drink soon.
1981 Volcanic Hill. Dark color. Deep aromas and flavors of plums, cedar and blackberries. Rich, full, rounded, fruity, supple and lush. Soft tannins. Lingering finish. Delicious. Terrific wine. To drink now and for 10 or more years.
The wines presented at the event speak for themselves. The best Diamond Creeks in the 1970s are drinking beautifully at 25-30 years of age and show no sign of decline. The wines of the 1980s, which were panned by many critics as “too light” have turned out beautifully.
All of the wines tasted were quite remarkable, most of them far too young for consumption now and none of them showing any sign of aging other than a faint amber edge on a handful of the oldest wines. Most of the wines were very dark and inky in color. They are all lovely, rich, balanced wines demonstrating great longevity.
If you want high alcohol, overripe fruit bombs, Diamond Creeks are not for you. But if you like wine that ages gracefully and gains complexity, it is your wine. I also like Chateau Latour, but not at a few years age — 1928, 1945, 1959, 1961 and 1970 are favorites and all required many years of bottle age to reach their current state of perfection. Ditto for the best Diamond Creeks.
Patience. Patience. Patience! If you have it, Diamond Creek will reward with huge dividends. But the wines of the 1990s, as great as some of them may be, are still too young to drink. Ten more years would be more like it. Enjoy the wines of the 1970s and 1980s if you have them or can find well-cellared bottles to purchase.
This retrospective tasting of the Diamond Creek wines once again demonstrated the outstanding quality and consistency of the Cabernets from Al and Boots Brounstein’s superb Diamond Creek property. These are true vins de garde. In fact, none of the older wines tasted here, amazingly enough, showed any signs of bottle fatigue. These wines represent the most fitting monument imaginable to the inspired dedication of Al Brounstein.