The New Wine Country
Exploring Napa's Hillside Wineries
Diamond (Mountain Wines) Are a Girl's Best Friend
Highway 29 is knotted with traffic, but at the turnoff for Diamond Mountain, one mile south of Calistoga, the roads are as clear as the quartz for which the area is named. A few minutes' drive up from the valley floor, I arrive at a diamond-shaped gate, the entrance to Reverie Winery and von Strasser Wineries.
Norm Kiken, Reverie's affable proprietor, and other winemakers on the 1500 block of Diamond Mountain Road understand about community. So it doesn't seem out of the ordinary for Kiken to call some of his neighbors and ask them to meet at his place for a little chat on a summer day.
Frequent attendees at these Diamond Mountain "block parties" include Philip Ross of Diamond Creek Vineyards; Bill and Dawnine Dyer of Dyer Vineyards; Rudy von Strasser of von Strasser Winery; and hosts Norm and Evelyn Kiken of Reverie Winery. These winemaking neighbors gather around a monstrous redwood table and describe the qualities of Diamond Mountain wine: "black fruit and cherries," "chocolate and coffee," "concentrated, tannic, and intense." Everyone has a slightly different take but all agree on one thing: Diamond Mountain produces wines that age tremendously well.
These unique characteristics inspired Rudy von Strasser to spearhead the effort to designate this small growing area as its own AVA, a distinction that came through just two years ago. Grapes grown on Diamond Mountain, at elevations up to 2,300 feet, produce some of the most extracted, potent wines in Napa Valley. The 100-plus-degree days and cool evening fog create daily temperature variations of as much as 40 degrees. Diamond Mountain wines are big, and their price tags are likewise high.
One of the oldest treasures is Diamond Creek Vineyards. Bordering Reverie and von Strasser wineries, Diamond Creek is open to the public only four days a year (and only by invitation to members of its mailing list). The property actually consists of four small vineyardsGravelly Meadow, Lake Vineyard, Red Rock Terrace, and Volcanic Hill. All four are lovingly cultivated and produce forceful, intense Cabernet Sauvignons that go for $175 or more a bottle. If you are clever enough to hunt them down upon release (now is the time to do that), your reward will be great. Cellar them a few years.
A quarter-mile walk from Diamond Creek is von Strasser's winery, where I savor his delicious wines from the barrel. With hints of leather and coffee, von Strasser's 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon possesses an exquisite balance and concentrated black-cherry flavors that express the intensity of Diamond Mountain's fertile volcanic soil.
Having polished off, so to speak, the sparkling wineries at the base of Diamond Mountain, my goal is to climb up to Constant-Diamond Mountain Vineyardsan aerie of the wine gods. The drive isn't long (just 10 minutes), but the road is winding and one lane in many places, certainly the roughest road I've seen in my hillside explorations.
At the peak, I arrive at a gate, on either side of which stand two stone posts. They carry signs reading "Constant" and "Diamond Mountain Vineyard" that assure me I have found my way to the right place. In the immaculately manicured vineyards, the berries of the vines have just formed, much later than the grapes on the valley floor. Moments later, Fred Constant, wearing a rainbow-colored shirt, barrels down the hill in a mud-splashed 1942 Jeep.
He beckons me to climb in and we plow between rows of vines, shoots thwacking the Jeep as we pass. The vineyard road weaves up, up, up and then plunges down, at every corner revealing a panoramic view of Calistoga, Mount St. Helena, and the Palisades range at the northern fringe of Napa Valley. On its lofty perch, Constant-Diamond Mountain Vineyard is nothing less than a kingdom, sporting more than a few diversionsbocce court, fountains, and a moat.
A former radio-station owner, Constant brings to mind Germany's King Ludwig II, the wild-haired ruler who built dozens of magical castles throughout Bavaria. By Constant's next vintage, he intends to welcome more visitors to his estateto sample the wines in the dramatic caves, to play bocce ball on the court (where the view is so spectacular it's hard to keep your eye on the ball), and of course, to swim in his gotta-have-one moat.
Winding down the road, I realize I have not seen another car all day (aside from Fred Constant's Jeep). I imagine stopping on a shady curve in the road to search for a souvenir, a piece of Diamond Mountain's volcanic rock or perhaps a shimmering quartz crystal in the nearby stream that local residents refer to as Diamond Creek. Remembering the bottles of Diamond Mountain wine in my car, I realize I already have a few precious treasures of my own.