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Legacy of California Icon Continues to Champion Terroir in Napa Valley
— An Interview with the Heirs of Diamond Creek Vineyards —
In the epic tale behind California's wine industry, Diamond Creek Vineyards is a legend in itself. Yet little did its founder, the late Al Brounstein, know at the time he bought his land in 1968 that he would later be making lasting history with the methods he chose to craft his quality driven Cabernet Sauvignon. With a combination of keen instinct, enterprising creativity, and fearless determination, this entrepreneur not only invested in an area previously unknown for grapegrowing in the Napa Valley, but cultivated it with vine cuttings from the finest Bordeaux châteaux. Designating separate bottlings of his wine according to the three distinct soil types he later discovered in the process of developing his vineyards, Brounstein was among the first in the United States to take the French concept of terroir, or the influence of place on a wine's character, and quite literally plant it here in California. Unabashed, unorthodox, and uncompromising, this man was one of a handful of pioneers to have set Napa on a course that has since shaped its identity as a world-class winegrowing region, ultimately influencing the production of fine wines in other regions of the country. Curious to learn first hand about the inception, development, and present state of this legendary producer, I spoke with the current proprietor of Diamond Creek Vineyards, widow Boots Brounstein and her son Philip Ross.
Visiting Diamond Creek, one is met with two striking features. The first and perhaps most surprising of these is the proximity to one another of its three vineyards — Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill, and Gravelly Meadow. Separated only by a few meters, the marked differences in their soils becomes all the more apparent, and further underscores the uniqueness of this site. While I briefly wondered about the geological events that produced this profound effect eons ago, I was mesmerized by the property's other extraordinary feature: its meticulously landscaped gardens that serve as colorful accents around the small vineyards. With its central lagoon, numerous footbridges, and even a few waterfalls, it's easy to forget that this bucolic scene is a site where premium Cabernet Sauvignon is cultivated. It nonetheless speaks volumes about the late Al Brounstein and his reverence for the natural environment and its wonders — a quality that, to this day, is core to the management of Diamond Creek Vineyards.
NM: Al Brounstein was ultimately known for going against the grain in producing his Napa Valley wines in the late '60s, by using as inspiration the finest wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Tell me what influenced him to look to the Old World while many of his colleagues at the time were trying to create something from scratch here in California.
"Much of what had been going on in the valley had nothing to do with making world-class varietal wines that could compete with those from the Old World."
PR: Today there are a lot of Cabernet clones from all over the world that are planted here. In those days, though, whatever happened to be available was what was planted. People weren't thinking about selecting out the best clones or making the best wine. It was the era when researchers were still talking about and experimenting with hybrids, and essentially re-inventing the wheel — rather than saying, as Al did, "Gee, why don't we go to the best wine regions of the world and see what we can learn about doing the same things here." Not many people in the Napa Valley at that time were thinking strategically along those lines. Al was among the first, along with a handful of other vintners — Joe Heitz, Warren Winarski, and Robert Mondavi, just to name a few. Much of what had been going on in the valley had nothing to do with making world-class varietal wines that could compete with those from the Old World. This was a mindset that was only just beginning.