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Napa Pioneer Al Brounstein Dies at 86

Diamond Creek Vineyards owner was a trendsetter and an inspiration to other California Cabernet producers with his single-vineyard bottlings

James Laube
Posted: June 27, 2006

Al Brounstein, whose single-vineyard Napa Valley Cabernets became some of California's most prized wines, died yesterday at the age of 86 from complications related to Parkinson's disease, which he had been battling since 1983. The founder of Diamond Creek Vineyards had been admitted to St. Helena Hospital for treatment of pneumonia on June 20 and returned to his home in Calistoga, Calif., on June 23.

Brounstein had not anticipated becoming a champion of Cabernet Sauvignon and terroir when he cleared land for a vineyard in Napa Valley in the late 1960s.

At the time, there were fewer than 700 acres of Cabernet planted in the entire state of California. When Brounstein discovered he had several different soil types at his property on Diamond Mountain, he decided to bottle the grapes from his vineyards separately, and by the late 1970s, Diamond Creek Vineyards had established itself as one of Napa's Cabernet superstars, routinely producing three or four single-vineyard Cabernets each year.

Brounstein was "a forerunner of what eventually became the cult wine sector," said Chuck Wagner, owner and winemaker of Caymus winery. "The [current] cult producers could have taken a few lessons from Al. He had a genuine and everyday presence, which we winemakers should try to emulate." Wagner described Brounstein as "honest, straightforward, likable, affable, smart. His personality was wonderful and enduring."

Brounstein set out to make ageworthy, mountain-grown Cabernets and stuck to that philosophy throughout his career. "He was always true to his dream," said Ed Sbragia, winemaker at Beringer. "He made some big wines that lasted a long, long time and are wonderful in their old age."

Feisty, witty and charming, Brounstein pursued his vision without compromising. "I have always said that my wine is not for everyone," he said in an interview in the 1980s. "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."

Brounstein was born in Saskatchewan, but his family moved to Minneapolis when he was only one year old. After college, he left for Los Angeles, where he built a business selling pharmaceuticals and beauty supplies. But not long after his first wife, Nancy Ravitch, died, Brounstein fled Southern California for the wine life. Along the way he worked a crush at Ridge winery and later sold wines for Sebastiani.

In 1967, at the age of 47, he purchased a rustic property on Diamond Mountain, south of Calistoga. "I know I'm blessed with a very special geographic location here," he said in the interview. He cleared the densely wooded area, hoping to plant 40 acres of vines, but when he was done in 1968, he ended up with only 20 acres of Bordeaux varieties, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. The following year, he married Adelle Ross, nicknamed "Boots," who became his constant companion and partner in the winery.

As the trees and underbrush were removed, Brounstein studied the soils and made an important discovery. The soils had less in common than he imagined, and that reminded him of a wine appreciation course he had taken at UCLA in the 1960s. One of the classes focused on the individual soil types of the wines of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the famous Burgundy producer.

"The French have always known the importance of terroir, with an emphasis on soils and microclimates," Brounstein said. He simply applied that knowledge to winegrowing in California.

He hired the best vineyard minds of the era for advice, among them Louis P. Martini and André Tchelistcheff, and they agreed. He had three distinctive soil types and, as it turned out, each of the three plantable areas--and later a fourth--had significantly different exposures to the sun.

He named the vineyards after the soils they were rooted in: Volcanic Hill, with 8 acres on a dusty, south-facing knoll; Red Rock Terrace, with 7 acres on a steep, iron-rich slope with a north-facing exposure; Gravelly Meadow, a rocky, flat area that was once a riverbed; and finally Lake Vineyard, a 1-acre site that was almost an afterthought.

For Brounstein, terroir--the interaction of soil, vine and climate as it relates to wine--meant that the same grape (in his case, Cabernet Sauvignon) grown in different soils and with different sun exposures would yield wines with similar characteristics, but subtle nuances based on the factors of each site.

After having tasted more than 150 of his wines over the years, I can say his vision proved correct. The wines were different. Volcanic Hill, with the sunniest exposure, was usually more tannic than the other wines. Red Rock Terrace, with its northern exposure, tended to be more elegant. Gravelly Meadow displayed an earthy rock and pebble quality. Lake, which became the most famous, selling for $300 a bottle, was only produced in stellar years. In years such as 1978 and 1997, it could be enormously rich and plush. In years when it tasted less unique, it went into the Gravelly Meadow blend.

When the first wines were made in 1972, Diamond Creek hardly looked like a success story in the making. A wet, rainy vintage, 1972 yielded only 65 cases and sold for $7.50 a bottle. It wasn't until 1982 that Brounstein reached full capacity of 3,000 cases and made a profit.

While banks pressured Brounstein to add other grapes or wines, such as Chardonnay or Zinfandel, to his portfolio to increase revenue, he resisted, sticking to his "Exclusively Cabernet" business plan. Despite pressure to grow in volume, Diamond Creek remained a small, estate-grown operation. The current wines, from 2003, sell for $175 a bottle.

Brounstein had a strong emotional and financial tie to his vineyards. The evolution of Diamond Creek is one of those storied, improbable rags-to-riches tales in Napa, enriched by the fact that Brounstein smuggled cuttings from Bordeaux's first-growths to California for his vineyard.

Brounstein is survived by his wife, Boots; his son, Gary; stepsons Phil Ross and Chuck Ross, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

The funeral will be private. There will be a celebration of Brounstein's life in late July (date yet-to-be-determined) at the Culinary Institute in St. Helena, Calif.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Parkinson's Institute, 1170 Morse Ave, Sunnyvale, Calif. 94089.

--Associate editor Tim Fish contributed to this story

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