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Interview With Al Brounstein of Diamond Creek

Pioneering Napa vintner spoke to Wine Spectator during the 1999 Wine Experience

Gloria Maroti Frazee
Posted: June 29, 2006

WINE SPECTATOR: What made you think in 1968 that you could ever start a vineyard?

AL BROUNSTEIN: I had no idea. I just went ahead. I saw what my neighbor was doing. Not a real close neighbor. It was Ridge Vineyards. And when I looked for land originally, I just wanted a piece of land where I could grow grapes and live a quiet, peaceful life.

And I met this fellow from Ridge Vineyards—his name was Dick Foster—and he said, "Al, if you're going to make grapes you might as well make wine."

I says, "What do I know about wine?"

He says, "You'll learn."

And apparently I did.

But what I did do, which was pretty smart in retrospect, is I hired very qualified people to help me. And they are the winemakers to whom I now give credit for their ability to take a raw piece of land I bought and to turn it into a great wine.

And that was Jerry Luper, who was with me for 20 years. And now that he left for Portugal, I've had Phil Steinschriber as my winemaster. But, in addition, as consultants I have Heidi Peterson, Dick Peterson and a fellow named Leo McCloskey, who used to be the chemist. He wasn't called the enologist in those days. But before the present manager, Paul Draper of Ridge, came along, Leo McCloskey was the one calling the shots for Ridge Vineyards. And I was in on it because of my acquaintance with Dick Foster. Great guy.

WS: You were one of the first to talk about terroir in America. How much of your wine success is due to terroir and how much was due to people you give credit to for making it?

AB: Oh, I would say 90 percent was terroir, because if it weren't for this group of people there would be another group. I thought I selected the very best at that time. And apparently tonight proves that I was probably correct because here I am being able to expound on the virtues of my great vineyard, and it all started from the great soil in which we are growing our vines.

WS: Could you tell us about some of your wines and their characteristics and how they reflect the land?

AB: Well, fortunately for us, it took two years for the vines to grow. Because when I first planted them, I had no idea how the wines would be so different. But we now have three vineyards within one vineyard.

I would get a great deal of dust on my face every time I took my tractor through the vineyard which is now called Volcanic Hill because it got all that volcanic ash from the various many eruptions from nearby mountains.

Then following that would be Gravelly Meadow—and that's relatively flat—whereas Red Rock Terrace is so steep that it has to be terraced. The total of our three vineyards was 20 acres. Eight of it was Volcanic Hill, 7 was Red Rock Terrace and 5 was Gravelly Meadow.

And each vineyard was separated from the other by this little creek—Diamond Creek. And it gets its name from the quartz crystals that are embedded in the rocks lining the creek and every year, the winter rains would expose these quartz crystals from the rocks.

And the neighbors would pick them up, chunk them out of the rocks, polish them, mount them on settings and say, "Look at my diamonds." And the man who sold me the land said that I would be able to pay my taxes with the diamonds that I get from Diamond Creek.

Well the taxes were never that low, but we got a bargain—and we got a bonus that we didn't bargain for. And that was that the creek separated the vineyards into three distinct types.

By that I mean the soils are so unique, they're so different, that we can ascribe them as being like some of the great vineyards of France.

Some of my vines were, from the beginning, considered to be very much like the Château Margaux. That was what we called Red Rock Terrace. Then we named another vineyard Gravelly Meadow, and that was similar to the great Château Haut-Brion. We called the last one our Château Latour, and that was Volcanic Hill.

And in the beginning they used to say that there's a cult of Volcanic Hill worshipers because that wine was so pronounced. In the beginning and to this day, that is our biggest wine. It has the biggest initial impact on your taste buds.

WS: How has your understanding of your vineyards changed over time?

AB: We're very persnickety about every grape that gets crushed. First of all, we've never bought grapes. We got our vines from two of the most famous vineyards in France. And they sent us their bud wood. That was in 1965. And then in '67 we took it from the nursery and planted it into the vineyards.

And now we have these microclimatic differences where we'll have warm parts of the vineyard, then warmer parts and, finally, the warmest. And every aspect of heat gradation is taken into account.

What we do is we pick by microclimate. In other words, although we have one 8-acre vineyard, which we call Volcanic Hill, it takes us five different picks to pick that one vineyard. The heat rises, and so the upper parts of those vineyards ripen almost as much as a month before the lower parts. And we have to have small fermentors to take care of this small quantity.

And our biggest success—and by "success" I mean the acceptance by the public—has been our Lake Vineyard. That is our coolest vineyard. And because it is cool and because Cabernet needs heat to make it ripen up, it will not survive in cool areas.

WS: Can you describe the microclimate on Volcanic Hill?

AB: Cool air comes from 20 miles away, through a cut in the canyon—and the Mayacamas Canyon extends all the way up to Diamond Mountain and to my vineyards. And then there's a cut in the Mayacamas range that allows this cool air to come in.

And the first area that it strikes would be what we now call the Lake Vineyard. And because it is so cool, and because Cabernet needs a lot of heat, when it finally does ripen, it's extraordinary because it has had a longer hang time than the rest of the vineyards.

And it has more complexity and greater concentration and so because we've only made the Lake wine, which exemplifies the importance of climate exclusively, we never talk about the soil of the Lake Vineyard

WS: Could you tell us the three personalities in the wines?

AB: Well, we consider, as I said, the Margaux or Red Rock Terrace, our softest and most approachable wine. And we recommend that people start drinking that within about three or four years after it's been sold to them at the retail level.

And then the next would be Gravelly Meadow, the one very much like Château Haut-Brion. It has great mellow characteristics. But it takes a little longer for it to come around. And therefore we suggest that it be drunk or tried at least after the Red Rock Terrace.

And then finally would be the Volcanic Hill because that's a powerful wine. It's very closed-in but when it opens up, it's magnificent.

WS: How hard is it to get your wine?

AB: Well, we think it's easy. If they've been with us for several years, and if they generally have been a good customer and if they've held to firm pricing, and if they're knowledgeable, they can get our wine. I'm talking about retailers.

WS: Or general customers?

AB: Well, general customers come first. We send out our notices that the wines will be available in September. The notices go out in June. And then they have all this time to make a decision. And if they give us a deposit, we will save the wine for them.

And then after that, we talk to our distributors and after they're well-serviced, then we will accept new orders from new accounts.

But basically we take care of those who have taken care of us all these years.

WS: What challenges lie ahead?

AB: We had no idea that this concept that we have been talking about would ever be so... so widely acclaimed at this time 20 years later. And now we feel that we have talked about soil for 20 years, telling everybody how important soils were in winemaking. And now we feel that it will probably take the next 20 years to talk about and to inspire people to buy wine based upon the climate.

And so we are talking about not only the soils of Diamond Creek, but the microclimates of Diamond Creek. And of that, we will pick as many as five different times from early in the pick to the very end, before we will finish little 8-acre Volcanic Hill.

And so that is a microclimatic situation although the soils of course don't change. And then we go over to Red Rock Terrace and there, because it's a little bit smaller, we'll get about four microclimatic changes.

And then we go to Gravelly Meadow and possibly three or two. So we pick out the best of every soil and the best of every climate. And that's a rare thing to be done in our vineyards in California that are pretty good-sized. And there are many owners of vineyards of 50,000 acres, 20,000 acres, 2000 acres.

We are owners of 22 acres and we're very proud of those acres and we get the most out of them by letting them almost tell us when to pick. And we just let the vines practically make great wine themselves.

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