When news broke in early 2020 that Napa Valley’s Diamond Creek Vineyards had been sold, it marked the passing of an era. The winery, founded by Al and Adelle "Boots" Brounstein in the late 1960s, went on to set an enviable track record for producing some of the valley’s most distinctive and long-lived Cabernet Sauvignons. Al passed away in 2006, then Boots in 2019, leaving the property under the guidance of her son Phil Ross. But the writing was on the wall, and it was not a surprise to many insiders when the winery sold soon thereafter.
What perhaps was a surprise was that the new owners weren't one of the industry's corporate giants, but rather another family-owned business, the Roederer Group led by Frédéric Rouzaud. Rouzaud’s properties include the Champagne houses of Louis Roederer and Maison Deutz, as well as second-growth Château Pichon Lalande in Pauillac and Maison Delas in the Rhône Valley. Rouzaud is also no stranger to California, with both the Roederer Estate and recently acquired Merry Edwards. It didn’t take long for people to realize that the deal was a logical fit: Not only does Rouzaud have a reputation for investing in and upgrading his properties with a keen eye on maintaining their histories, but the Rouzaud and Brounstein families also maintained a personal friendship that went back to the late 1990s.
The 80-acre property on Diamond Mountain produces just a scant 2,000 cases annually. Parts of the vineyard as well as the rudimentary cellar need attention. Luckily there was no damage from the recent wildfire that disrupted the 2020 vintage, but between that and difficulties from the COVID pandemic, the new team put in place here has been trying to get up to speed. I recently walked the vineyard with the newly appointed president Nicole Carter, 54, and winemaker Graham Wehmeier, 43, to talk about the balancing act between curating and evolving a winery with one of the most loyal customer bases in California wine.
James Molesworth: Nicole, what’s your background in the business, and how did you come to land the Diamond Creek job and hire Graham?
Nicole Carter: I was actually hired by Roederer for Merry Edwards. At the time, they were looking for someone who already had experience in Sonoma and Napa, as the deal for Diamond Creek was going on behind the scenes. I had spent 18 years working at what is now Treasury Estates, working on brands such as Beringer and Etude. With Jean-Baptiste [Lecaillon, head winemaker at the Roederer Group], we set about to coming up with a list of names and we compared them. I spoke to Tony Soter and he recommended I speak to winemaker Françoise Peschon, who in turn recommended Graham. And then Jean-Baptiste had Graham’s name on his list too.
JM: Graham, what’s your background, and how did it feel to be tapped for this new journey?
Graham Wehmeier: I had worked at both Cornell Vineyards and Futo before. As for Diamond Creek, who wouldn’t want to? It’s a place with so much history, and this vineyard really is awesome.
JM: Did you have any experience at Diamond Creek previously, and what did you set about to doing right away?
GW: No direct experience. But among the first things we set about undertaking was a 10-year replanting plan. As you can see just taking a broad look at it, there are spots where vines need replacing, some virus and other issues that we need to get a handle on. At the end of harvest is when vines show their virus or weaknesses, after they’ve spent all that energy during the growing season. So now is the first time we can really survey the vineyards to see what needs to be done.
JM: Nicole, what was your impression on your first day at Diamond Creek?
NC: I thought, “Holy sh*t, I have to protect this!” It’s always interesting to come in and be the keeper of brand health and economic health while managing between preservation and evolution. You don’t want to just be a museum. But you also don’t want to just evolve, because you don’t want to lose the DNA of the place.
JM: Diamond Creek is so well-established, in what it means to its customers as well as the methodology that was established by the previous owners. How do you deal with that line between preservation and evolution?
GW: We both have so much respect for the history here and that drives everything else. But it’s also not about just maintaining things. Maybe in winemaking terms there’s a defined methodology—we’re obviously keeping the vineyard designate bottlings as is. But maybe some things were done due to budget constraints rather than what was best for the vineyards. The first thing to do is watch and learn and get to know the pieces. Then we have to figure out how to optimize each piece without going crazy. You have to evolve, but the changes need to be dictated by the vineyards in order to maximize the terroir. And that could be done by something as basic as adding new tank space in the cellar.
JM: How did the smoke from the fires affect the grapes this year?
GW: We had started to pick about a week before the Glass fire, then we had to evacuate the winery. We got in one-third, maybe close to half the crop before the fires, mostly Volcanic Hill as that ripens first. We only got in part of Gravelly Meadow and Red Rock Terrace, and none of Lake. Now that we’re back on property, we’re still assessing. There’s still some fruit hanging which we’re planning to bring in. And based on some test results and bucket ferments, we can see that it wasn’t uniformly smoky on the property. It seemed to move through in different ways and the vineyards actually reacted differently. In the blocks we brought in post-fire, there is huge variation in smoke taint levels.
JM: I assume between the limitations of working in a COVID environment and now the fires at harvesttime, it’s been a difficult first year for you. But what’s one thing that has surprised you about Diamond Creek so far?
NC: This is the 12th acquisition I’ve been involved in and I’ve seen every consumer reaction, from those who just walk away from a brand when it changes hands to ones that are more stable. I have never seen such a stable consumer base as here. I think that is both loyalty to how special this place is as well as the company that bought it, because Frédéric Rouzaud has a track record that proves he has the right long-term vision.