Jewels of Diamond Mountain
Vintners coax world-class Cabernets from rough, rocky Napa
In winter, it's possible to see the earth that has made Napa Valley's Diamond Mountain a Cabernet Sauvignon-producing hot spot. Austere soils -- a patchwork of volcanic rock, volcanic ash, gravelly clay and sandy quartz -- precipitous slopes and vineyards as high as 2,300 feet above sea level create a dramatic grape-growing environment. And dramatic wines.
Along with the mountain conditions comes heat, 100 degrees-plus on summer days at the base of Diamond Mountain, two miles southwest of Calistoga. Mornings and evenings are foggy and as much as 40 degrees cooler, with breezes wafting from creeks that feed the Russian River. Grapes ripen fully in the daytime warmth, develop firm acidity in the cool nights, and derive their intense flavor, color and tannin from their struggle to survive.
Until the early 1990s, the knock on Diamond Mountain Cabernet was that it was too brawny, too tannic, that it needed cellaring to round its sharp edges. Today, winemakers like Phil Steinschriber of Diamond Creek Vineyards and Rudy von Strasser of von Strasser Winery have managed to tame the tannins in both the vineyard and the cellar. While their Cabernets remain dense and structured, they also have a complex fruitiness and good acidity and balance. They are multifaceted and polished, rough crystals no longer.
Al Brounstein is the father of Diamond Mountain Cabernet, having first planted his 79-acre Diamond Creek Vineyards on an eastern slope of the Mayacamas Range in 1968. Jacob Schram made wine on Diamond Mountain in the 1860s, and Jack and Jamie Davies founded their Schramsberg Vineyards sparkling winery there in 1965.
Yet it was Brounstein who brought commercial Cabernet Sauvignon to the area, smuggling in vine cuttings from Bordeaux by way of Tijuana, planting them on a site "that didn't grow a radish" and releasing his first wine in 1972.
Today, his 2,000 cases of block-designated Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill and Gravelly Meadow wines are among the most sought-after California Cabernets, commanding $175 a bottle on release. Diamond Creek's Lake Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which has been produced as a vineyard-designate just eight times because of the difficulty of getting mature fruit, goes for $350 per bottle.
Brounstein's estate illustrates the topographical variety within the Diamond Mountain region. Red Rock Terrace is a seven-acre, north-facing outcropping of iron-rich, deep, reddish-brown volcanic soil. The eight-acre Volcanic Hill block faces south, its soil a white volcanic ash. Gravelly Meadow is five acres of mostly sand and gravel. The Lake Vineyard, just three- quarters of an acre of gravel and sand, is situated in the coolest part of the estate.
Soil, aspect and vintage variances give each of the Diamond Creek wines subtle flavor, aroma and tannin differences, yet all the wines have what neighboring winemakers describe as classic Diamond Mountain characteristics: saturated color, full palate, ripe, extracted fruit, chewy texture, big yet smooth tannins and hints of black cherry, currant, plum, violet, licorice and earth.
There are currently 15 growers and wineries on Diamond Mountain, a small number that underscores the hardships of growing grapes on these hillsides and the youth of the Diamond Mountain District American Viticultural Area. The AVA spans 5,000 acres, yet only 450 are planted to vines . Its boundaries are Petrified Forest Road to the north, the Spring Mountain AVA to the south, the 400-foot-elevation mark at the base of Diamond Mountain to the east and the Napa-Sonoma county line to the west.
Other pockets of ground might handle new vineyards -- former major-league
baseball pitcher Tom Seaver is planting grapes in the area -- but
for the most part, difficult farming conditions and erosion control
laws will keep the Diamond Mountain District's planted acreage on
the low side.
Except for the 6,000 cases of Diamond Mountain Mountain Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) that Sterling produces, and von Strasser's 9,000-case total production, the wines of Diamond Mountain are in the collectible category, made in small amounts from very low-yielding vines. Like diamonds, most are expensive. Reverie on Diamond Mountain's 225 cases of 1999 Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon go for $90 a bottle. There are less than 500 cases of the Constant Wines 1999 Cabernet ($100) and a mere 150 cases of Bill and Dawnine Dyer's 1998 Dyer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($70); they expect their maximum production to "soar" to 400 cases.
Most of the Diamond Mountain wines are sold to restaurants and mailing list members, although Sterling, Stonegate Winery and Schramsberg have retail rooms.
You won't find CabernetSauvignon at Schramsberg just yet, although the Davies family has planted 50 acres of it and it's only a matter of time before there is Cabernet to go with the bubbles.
Sterling is the largest landholder in the Diamond Mountain District at 300 acres, 120 of them in vines. The former prune orchard planted to grapes in the 1970s by William Hill was later sold to Sterling and named Diamond Mountain Ranch. In replanting, Sterling removed Chardonnay and put in selected clones and rootstocks of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Unlike some of their Diamond Mountain Ranch predecessors, the young wines coming from this property today are enjoyable on release and have the stuffing to improve with time.
"Napa Valley is all about Cabernet," Sterling winemaker Rob Hunter says in explaining the extensive replanting at Diamond Mountain Ranch. "Having Merlot is helpful, and we pride ourselves on the Bordeaux blenders we've planted on the mountain. But Cab is king, and we all love the king."
Rudy von Strasser is the de facto leader of the Diamond Mountain District. After purchasing the former Roddis Cellars and vineyards in 1990, he began forming the committee that sought AVA status for Diamond Mountain. Von Strasser's doggedness and Brounstein's success encouraged newcomers like Maureen and Hal Taylor of Diamond Terrace and Peter Thompson of Andrew Geoffrey Vineyards to place their bets on Diamond Mountain.
The Taylors' first vintage is the 1999 Diamond Terrace Cabernet
Sauvignon ($50, 247 cases), rich in blackberry, cassis and chocolate
flavors with hints of licorice. Thompson will release his first
wine, a Cabernet-based blend from the 2000 vintage, in September
Ask Brounstein, 82 and still feisty despite a long struggle with Parkinson's disease, why he planted on Diamond Mountain 34 years ago and he says, "It was available." Meaning affordable. "I paid a little over $100,000 for the 79 acres," Brounstein says. "Pretty cheap.
"I knew we could make great wines here. I discarded the advice of others who said that no one knows this place (for wine), that everyone knows Spring Mountain and to buy what people know. I said, 'I like this spot. To heck with anyone who says I shouldn't buy it.'
"I took a chance and it turned out to be a pretty good chance. Somebody had to start this thing." Brounstein says Diamond Mountain should produce only Cabernet Sauvignon and small amounts of the other red Bordeaux grape varieties for blending. "I think it is wise that we all stick to the same varietal," he says. "The French have been very successful at this and we can, too. We have something very special to sell and there is no point deluding ourselves by taking on other varietals."
Still, winemakers like von Strasser and Kiken have found success with other grape types on Diamond Mountain. In addition to his Diamond Mountain "regular" ($50) and Reserve ($70) Cabs, von Strasser makes two vineyard-designated Chardonnays and a single-vineyard Zinfandel (each $40) from purchased Diamond Mountain fruit, plus a Freestone line of wines: Merlot ($17), Cabernet Sauvignon ($19) and Sauvignon Blanc ($13).
Kiken and his consulting winemaker, Ted Lemon, dabble in Cabernet
Franc, Barbera, Tempranillo and Roussanne in addition to Cabernet.
A recent tasting of his first von Strasser Diamond Mountain wine,
a Cabernet Sauvignon from 1990, illustrates the aging potential
of red wines from the appellation. The wine is still youthful and
complex, with bright fruit flavors, refined tannins and the structure
to last another 10 years.
Linda Murphy is a freelance wine writer in Sonoma County. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. click here for entire story