Diamond Creek Vineyards - Exclusively Cabernet

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Appellation America

Al Brounstein, ...the man who is Diamond Mountaindiamond creek

"The French have always known the importance of terroir, with an emphasis on soils and microclimates. This is not how the American wine industry started out, but I think that is changing."

Someone has to be first. For the Diamond Mountain appellation it was the viticultural visionary Al Brounstein. In 1968 he planted the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines on this rugged mountain terrain and the rest, as they say, is history. The Diamond Mountain District AVA is now internationally renowned for extraordinarily long-lived Cabs, and Al Brounstein's single vineyard Cabernets from Diamond Creek Vineyards are amongst the most sought after and collectible wines in the world.

AA: Al, you were born in Saskatchewan, Canada. So, what brought a Prairie boy to the mountains?

AB: I was born in Canada in the province of Saskatchewan but my family moved to Minneapolis when I was 7 months old. I attended the University of Minnesota and graduated in 1942 with a business degree. Then I chased my girlfriend to Los Angeles and discovered good weather. Although the relationship didn't work out, I stayed in California. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles I borrowed $300 on a used car and started my own business. I built the business up by doing a unit control type of operation where I would take inventory on druggists' supply of proprietary drugs – no, not those drugs…I'm talking about things like aspirins and cold medicines.

In the early 1960's I took a class at UCLA on French wines. I fell in love with wine and thought it would be a nice lifestyle after the hectic pace of running my own business in a competitive industry. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Naturally I wanted to be involved with what I considered to be the best varietal, that's why I had interest in Cabernet Sauvignon. My search for the best place to grow Cabernet landed me in the Napa Valley and eventually on Diamond Mountain. Some of the best advisors, such as Louis Martini and Andre Tchelistcheff, told me some of the best Cabernets are made in the mountains and I should take a chance on Diamond Mountain. When I first surveyed the property that is now Diamond Creek Vineyards, I fell in love with it and knew this is where I wanted to be.

diamond creekAA: You were the pioneer Cabernet wine grower of Diamond Mountain. By the time the Diamond Mountain District received official appellation status in 2001 you already had more than 30 vintages under your belt. From the beginning you have been a strong advocate of the district's special terroir. Is there a reason why you did not petition for appellation status, as you could have decades before? Do you feel that other wineries in the appellation have benefited from the name "Diamond Mountain" based on and subsequent to your tremendous success?

AB: I never felt a need to petition for appellation status because all of our customers already knew that our wines came from Diamond Mountain. I have always emphasized the importance of that. No doubt, other wineries will benefit from the Diamond Mountain appellation.

AA: What would you say are the significant characteristics of classic Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon which distinguish it from Cabs grown in other parts of Napa?

AB: I can only speak for my wines. I was convinced that I could make the best Cabernet Sauvignon on Diamond Mountain and I think history has proven me correct. I have always said that my wine is not for everyone. My vines produce very intense, long-lived wines from grapes that are very small and concentrated with very low yields. People who enjoy our wines know this and look for this. Other areas of the Valley that produce very fine wines must speak for themselves for what they think the characteristics of their area are. I can just tell you from farming Diamond Creek for 36 years what the characteristics of my Cabernet are.

diamond creekAA: Since the late 1960's you have been producing wines from your four vineyards on top of Diamond Mountain, bottling each wine separately by individual vineyard. Long before there was a term for it, you were offering "vineyard designated" wines that displayed a wine's uniqueness based on terroir. What led you to this revolutionary practice in American wine making and marketing?

AB: I've always known that wine is made in the vineyards and I've always felt strongly about that. I didn't know I had three different types of soils until I cleared the land and planted the vines. It became obvious when I was clearing Red Rock Terrace and I was covered with red dust. Then when I cleared Volcanic Hill I was covered in white volcanic ash. On another day, while clearing Gravelly Meadow, we spent the day picking rocks out of the soil. It was in doing that that I knew I had something special here.
The French have always known the importance of terroir, with an emphasis on soils and microclimates. This is not how the American wine industry started out, but I think that is changing. Many more small estate vineyards are being offered to the consumer, emphasizing what those vines and that soil can produce. I know I'm blessed with a very special geographic location here at Diamond Creek. I have very different soil types literally within 60 ft of each other.

diamond creekAA: Your attention to the effect of the land on the wine could be described as a ‘hyper-terroir' sensitivity. Over the years you have developed an intimate understanding of the terroir of each particular vineyard, even to the extent of identifying and separating specific microclimates within a single vineyard. This is reflected in your periodic offerings of individual wines from a single vineyard based on varying microclimates and pickings. What are the criteria you use when identifying the various microclimates within a vineyard?

AB: The microclimates within a vineyard are a combination of everything. Soil, elevation and what direction the vineyard faces, all contribute to what the vineyard produces. It is site specific to wherever you are growing the vines. I do believe that the distinct differences between our wines are most strongly influenced by the soils. As you know, my vineyards face different directions and are at slightly different elevations. This goes along with the fact that a cut in the Mayacamas range allows cool afternoon breezes from the Pacific Ocean (that travel along the Russian River corridor) to cool down our vineyards; first cooling down our Lake vineyard, then Gravelly Meadow, then Red Rock Terrace, and lastly Volcanic Hill. At harvest time we can have several picks within a vineyard over several days waiting for the optimum time before all of the grapes of a particular vineyard are brought into the winery. These separate picks allow us to take a microcosm look at the microclimates within each vineyard.

diamond creekAA: For the most part you concentrate on a single variety, Cabernet Sauvignon. Does your recognition of the different growing conditions of each vineyard result in any significant variation in vineyard practices from vineyard to vineyard, and microclimate to microclimate?

AB: The microclimates speak for themselves in the vineyards. They will give us what they give us. Canopy management is dictated by whatever the vines are giving us in a particular vineyard. For example, in Red Rock Terrace we have ‘Geneva Double Curtain' because this works well here. In Volcanic Hill we use ‘Vertical Trellising' because that works well there. The vines tell us how we should manage them and that may be different in separate soils and microclimates.

AA: There are good indications that the appellation movement is alive and well in America. However, some would argue that American wine consumers (and even many wine makers) are a long way from the European appreciation of "appellation" as terroir mapping. Do you believe that, with the exception of a few marquee names like Napa Valley, buying habits generally still follow varietal or brand names as opposed to appellation-of-origin?

AB: You have to understand that, compared to the European market, the American market is still in its formative years. The American wine consumer is becoming more appellation conscious as their palates develop and demand better wines.

AA: We tend to think that the ‘appellation movement' began with the BATF certification of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) starting in the early 1980s. However, by that time Diamond Creek followers were already familiar with the differences between your wines based on terroir, recognizing how important ‘place' is in a wine. Was it ever your premeditated intention to raise awareness of terroir in the American wine consumer?

AB: All I'm trying to do is make the best wine that I can from our vineyards and that is what I concentrate on. I'm pleased that both the vintners and the wine consumers are placing more importance on terroir. This can only have a positive effect on producing better wine.

diamond creekAA: You've had an exceptionally long and productive career, ranging from pharmaceutical marketing, to visionary wine grower/maker, to being a staunch advocate and fundraiser for Parkinsons research. Your wines are also known for their tremendous longevity. When someone opens a bottle of your wine thirty years from now, what would you like the legacy of Diamond Creek and Al Brounstein to be?

AB: When someone opens a bottle of my wine many years from now they will know that our wines have ageability and can be laid down (cellared) for decades. When they finally open that bottle, they will see that we make a great wine as a result of our terroir and microclimates. I don't think they should think about me. They should talk about Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill, Gravelly Meadow and the importance of variations in wine brought about by different soils and microclimates. It is the combination of our soils and microclimates which all blend together to make a great wine worthy of the price that we charge for it.

Copyright © 2003-2004 Appellation America. All Rights Reserved.

-Alan Goldfarb


Diamond Creek Vineyards · 1500 Diamond Mountain Road · Calistoga, California 94515 · 707.942.6926
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