A Can't-Miss Cabernet
By James Laube, senior editor
This is about as close to a sure thing as it gets in wine. Even before I'd tasted the first three vintages of Fred and Mary Constant's delicious Bordeaux-inspired red from their Diamond Mountain vineyard, I had a pretty good hunch I'd love it. The Constants, who own two radio stations on California's North Coast, KRSH ("The Crush") and KGRP ("The Grape"), have been selling grapes from their 18 acres for several years, but last year was the first time I'd tasted a wine made entirely from grapes grown on their property: the stunning Martin Ray Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Diamond Mountain 1995 (95 points, $40).
Now the Constants are about to release their own wine from this vineyard.
If you love Napa Valley Cabernets, this is one that you'll want to be on the prowl for this coming spring. It's the kind of exciting find that reminds me of the first time I tasted Dalla Valle, Bryant Family, Harlan Estate or Screaming Eagle. Constant Cabernet 1995 is dark, rich and plush, enormously complex and deeply flavored, with exotic spice, earth, currant, raspberry and cherry flavors. What's perhaps most striking is how smooth and polished the tannins are for a wine of this enormity.
Making great Cabernet from vineyards on Diamond Mountain, which overlooks the northern end of Napa Valley from the west, hasn't been easy, save for one property: Diamond Creek Vineyards. Al Brounstein is the only vintner who has mastered this appellation. His vineyards are ideally situated, with unique microclimates and grapes that come from vine cuttings he smuggled into the United States from Bordeaux first-growths. For all others, it's been a knock-down drag-out wrestling match to tame the tannins.
Gary Andrus of Pine Ridge Winery in Napa knows firsthand. He's made Cabernet from three vineyards on Diamond Mountain, and each put him to a stern test. "Obviously, the vineyards there are very site-specific, and the success of Al's wines shows his are the best," Andrus says. "The challenge is trying to not let the power of the appellation overpower and overstate your fruit." The tannins are often coarse and unyielding, especially in the younger wines. But even with age, many Diamond Mountain Cabernets haven't shed their rugged tannins.
Lately that's changing, thanks to better viticultural practices, and the Constant Cabernet is the best proof of what can happen in an ideal microclimate managed with precision. The Constants' estate, which originally had vines planted in the 1890s, rises above 2,000 feet of elevation and stretches west into Sonoma County. Their initial 18 acres of vines were planted in 1984, and another parcel of 20-plus acres is planted to Bordeaux varieties, 5 acres of Syrah and a tiny amount of Viognier. The soils are a mixture of reddish clay loam and whitish volcanic ash, with the different grape varieties matched to soil, slope and climate, which can vary significantly with the many different exposures.
Both the Constants credit the vineyard success to their vineyard manager, Ignacio Alfaro, a meticulous sort who takes enormous pride in everything he does, from the vines to the beautiful rock-walled terraces. Says Mary, "He knows every nuance on the property."
What's obvious after tasting the '95, '96 and '97 vintages is that this vineyard is able to produce stunning wines on a consistent basis. Each of the three wines displays the earthy complexity of the vineyard and showcases the personality of its vintage. The 1995 is lush and elegant. The 1996 is a shade more restrained. The 1997 is brimming with explosive fruit. In all three wines, the tannins are ripe and polished, without a hint of green astringency.
For the Constants, their passion for growing grapes has exceeded their desire to make wine. "If the wines don't turn out as good as we expect, we'll just go back to selling our grapes," says Fred, but that doesn't appear to be a likely scenario. Martin Ray will still get grapes, but the future is headed toward an estate vineyard capable of producing about 4,000 cases a year.
For the 1995 vintage, though, there's not much--only 250 cases, at $75 a bottle. If you're interested, your best bet is to place an order with Wilson-Daniels Ltd. in St. Helena, Calif., at (707) 963-9661.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube, in a column also appearing in the Jan. 31 issue. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.
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