Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster for California Cabernet Sauvignon. He recently returned to Napa Valley for more visits with top wineries. And don't miss our Q&A with James on his Napa Cab eureka moments, his scoring philosophy, and what he's up to when he's not tasting wine.
When Al and Boots Brounstein founded Diamond Creek in 1968, the winery was ahead of his time. Al planted Cabernet farther north in Napa Valley than people though it could be planted. When he discovered different soil types on the property, he kept the vineyards separate. And he never wavered from the dense and structured style of the wines his property produced.
Along the way, Diamond Creek seems to have barely changed. Al passed in 2006, but his spirit is still alive on the property. In addition, Diamond Creek has had only two winemakers in its history: Jerry Looper made every wine from the debut 1972 vintage until Phil Steinschriber took over in 1992. And many of the property's original vines still stand tall, with the Red Rock Terrace’s Geneva double-curtain vine training an eye-opening viticultural throwback.
Boots’ age is now officially off the record, though she still does pilates. “You have to stand tall,” she says with her light, charming laugh. Her son Phil Ross has been involved since the early ‘90s. The 80-acre estate, with its 24 acres of vines, produces just around 2,000 cases annually.
There’s great respect for old vines here. There have been some replantings along the way, but with a fair amount of plantings on St. George rootstock, phylloxera wasn’t an issue. They’ve been farmed caringly and without the penchant to replant on a 20- to 25-year cycle along the valley floor. Diamond Creek (along with others, such as Helen Keplinger at Grace and the MacDonald brothers) is showing how farming for longevity can be done.
And then there’s that uncompromising style: terroir-driven wines that are dense and slightly rugged when young, but built to age, showing all the regalness that Cabernet Sauvignon has at its pinnacle.
I sat down to taste the 2014 through ’16 vintages with Boots and Phil.
The trio of 2014s was remarkably open and expressive for young Diamond Creek wines, with the Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Red Rock Terrace 2014 showing an inviting red currant cherry compote core, lightly dusty and persistent tannins and a lively iron streak through the finish. The Gravelly Meadow 2014 delivers a punchier profile, with slightly dark plum and blackberry preserve flavors backed by bramble, spice and graphite. The Volcanic Hill is racy, focused and ablaze with red currant red, liberally laced with charcoal and intense minerality.
The 2015s offer a greater volume of fruit, as is the vintage’s profile. The fruit nearly overwhelms the typical terroir elements here, but they are tucked in the background, with Red Rock Terrace 2015’s iron note deeply buried, Gravelly Meadow’s bramble note turning to dark tar and licorice root and Volcanic Hill’s iron note turning to warm cast iron amid intense currant paste flavor.
The 2016s capture the best of both vintages. The Red Rock Terrace 2016 is brimming with red currant and plum fruit, bristling with energy, while red licorice, violet and sassafras notes flow through the dense finish. The Gravelly Meadow is darker as usual, but equally vibrant with the black currant fruit inlaid with smoldering charcoal and cast-iron notes and flecked with dried sage and floral hints. The Volcanic Hill is very tightly drawn, with a deep well of fig, blackberry and dark currant reduction flavors, inlaid with girders of graphite and smoldering cast iron. It has terrific spine and focus, with a superlong finish redolent with fruit. All three look to be potentially classic in quality.
Volcanic Hill has always been my personal favorite of the three bottlings, though the contest is splitting hairs.
It would be easy to say Diamond Creek is stuck in time, and the rest of Napa Valley has passed it by. But when I asked Boots what the biggest change was in her still-ongoing tenure, she simply replied, “People.” And it was then I realized that Diamond Creek has hardly been passed by … because Diamond Creek was a specialist, boutique cult wine producer before there was such a thing, oft-imitated but never duplicated. In fact, it’s still showing the way.