A Wine Pilgrim's Progress
F&W’s Ray Isle tells how a bottle of Napa Cabernet changed his life more than 20 years ago, and how a journey to the source helped him understand the ways he and that wine have changed since then.
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Earlier this year, in January, I took a trip to Napa Valley’s Diamond Creek Vineyards, spurred by a bottle of wine I tasted more than 20 years ago. That wine was Diamond Creek’s 1984 Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time I drank it, I didn’t know a thing about wine. I wasn’t especially interested in it, and I didn’t see why anyone would be. But as they say—usually in regard to romance—timing is everything.
This bottle came my way at a dinner in 1989 with my then-girlfriend and her father. In that particular snapshot of time, we were happy, and there was a general assumption all around that someday she and I would be married. I don’t remember the occasion for the dinner, but I do remember that her father had been to Diamond Creek not long before, as part of some unrelated-to-wine conference he’d been attending in Napa Valley. (Why a Baptist minister was at a conference in Napa Valley drinking wine, I’m still not sure.)
The wine came, the server opened it, my girlfriend’s father did the whole cork-inspecting thing, our glasses were filled, and I took a sip. I’d like to say that then, at that very moment, a whole new world unfolded before me. But it didn’t. In fact, I don’t have the slightest memory of that first sip at all.
What I do remember, though, is thinking at some point during our meal, This is a really good wine. And somewhat later, Wow, this is a really good wine. And then, a feeling I’ve come to know very well since—a sort of bemused regret when my glass was empty and there was no more left.
Now, as I said, I knew nothing about wine at that point in my life. I was in my mid-twenties, working in a rare-book store, trying to write a novel (of course) and trying, like almost everyone else I knew, to figure out what I was doing with my life. If you’d told me that Diamond Creek was one of Napa’s most renowned wineries, I would have said, “Huh, OK.” And if you’d told me that its ’84 Volcanic Hill Cabernet was, as one newsletter put it, “rich and packed with cassis-like fruit hinting of spice and chocolate,” I probably would’ve thought you were really annoying.
And yet, after that night, and almost entirely due to the dinner-long siege that the bottle of Diamond Creek had laid to my indifference, I started buying wine. I started thinking about wine, and reading about wine, and drinking more and more wine, with the end result that, nine years down the road, I completely refashioned my ambitions and career so that I could work with and around wine for the rest of my life. But for some strange reason, I never actually went to Diamond Creek. So this year, I decided it was time to rectify that.
The Diamond Creek estate sits about 800 feet up on Diamond Mountain, which is west of Highway 29, near Calistoga. When founder Al Brounstein bought the property in 1967, it was essentially a tree-covered, scrub-overrun parcel of nothing. Brounstein cleared the land and turned all that scruffy nothing into a meticulously tended 22-acre bowl of vines, one of California’s greatest sources for Cabernet Sauvignon. It takes a particular gift to see the hidden potential in a piece of land; Brounstein had that.
Diamond Creek is divided into three main blocks: Red Rock Terrace, Gravelly Meadow and Volcanic Hill. Each produces wines with distinctly different characters. At the time Brounstein was debuting his first wines, no one in California was making Cabernets, or anything really, from individual vineyard parcels. Terroir-driven wines—a concept Brounstein more or less imported from Burgundy—didn’t exist here. Wine-store owners in the early ’70s thought Brounstein’s approach was just a sneaky way of trying to get three bottles onto the shelf instead of one. When one buyer told him that if Brounstein would just cut it out and bottle one wine, he’d stock it, Brounstein replied, “When Domaine de la Romanée-Conti starts blending its vineyards, I’ll think about blending mine.”
But, as Brounstein’s widow, Boots, told me as I sat with her in their winery at the top of the slope that forms Red Rock Terrace, her husband actually hadn’t planned for multiple parcels. He thought he was just planting one single, straightforward Cabernet vineyard (albeit with cuttings from three of the four Bordeaux first-growths that he’d smuggled in through Mexico). “But when he was planting the vines,” Boots said, “he’d come down from Volcanic Hill, and his face and clothes would be powdery-white with dust. On the other side of the property, he’d come down all red. I said, “Al, what’s going on?’ and he said, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.’”
It was both strange and not strange at all, visiting Diamond Creek. Since that night in the restaurant when I tasted the ’84 Volcanic Hill, I’ve visited hundreds of vineyards, and I always feel a frisson of excitement—both intellectual and emotional—the first time I see the piece of land that produces a great wine. I felt that at Diamond Creek. Tasting the ’08 Volcanic Hill, which is the winery’s current release, there’s a stony strength that seems to come straight out of that ashy white soil surrounding the vines; the warmth of its dark fruit feels like a direct expression of the way that south-facing hillside receives the sun. One great virtue of visiting vineyards is that the sense of place a great wine reveals is right there in front of you; you feel it in your bones.
But what you feel at Diamond Creek, too, is timelessness. Not much here has changed, even after Al Brounstein’s death in 2006. The winery itself is tiny and unprepossessing. There’s no Napa Valley flash. The vineyard is serene, and there are no visible neighbors; the vines are encircled by evergreens, and as I rambled around the property with Boots, who is in her early eighties, and her son Phil, it could have been any year. There are no markers that hint at any particular era.
That timelessness also describes Diamond Creek wine itself. The winery is unusual in that the character of its Cabernets has been consistent for so long. The velvet-wrapped style of Napa Cab never got a hold here; the wines remain as Brounstein intended them to be—powerful, tannic, long-lived, tough as mountains. “He just went his way,” Boots says. No surprise: Successful visionaries are almost always incredibly stubborn.
About a month later, I had an opportunity to taste the 1984 Volcanic Hill again, at a fine-wine brokerage in New York City called Barterhouse. Barterhouse’s Brian DiMarco had purchased a wine cellar in New Jersey whose owner had bought several cases of the ’84 Volcanic Hill when it was first released, for $25 a bottle (the current vintage will set you back $175).
At the risk of annoying my 26-year-old self, I’d describe the wine as still entirely alive, its tannins taut and firm, its cool, dried-currant fruit surrounded by a kind of autumnal cedar note. Tasting it made me think of Diamond Creek in January, that timelessness and the bare winter vines, and of the girl I’d been with, years before that, and how happy we’d been for a while. It made me wonder: What would that kid I was so long ago make of the man I am now?
Wineries Worth a Pilgrimage
© Alex Nabaum
Movia’s flamboyant owner, Ales Kristancic, falls into the “mad genius” winemaker category—a little bit crazy but also deeply inspired. Travelers are welcome to visit his biodynamically farmed estate, which is located in western Slovenia, an hour and a half from the up-and-coming tourist destination of Ljubljana.
Wine to try: 2006 Movia Veliko Bianco ($40).
In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the Hochar family has been making spectacular wine for more than 80 years—through civil wars, gunpoint searches, mortar fire and other extreme obstacles. The family’s bravery and persistence has been extraordinary, as is its hospitality toward wine-loving visitors.
Wine to try: 2003 Chateau Musar ($45).
Anyone who loves the idea of a winery that also produces great honey, cheese, olive oil and eggs—a self-contained food ecosystem—should visit Sicily’s Tasca d’Almerita and take a class with co-owner Fabrizia Lanza at the estate’s cooking school.
Wine to try: 2006 Tasca d’Almerita Tenuta Regaleali Rosso del Conte ($70).
Château Cos d’Estournel
Louis d’Estournel, who made a fortune in Asia in the early 1800s, built Cos d’Estournel to recall his adventuring days. The sandstone château has pagoda-like turrets and wooden doors from Zanzibar; it is also home to one of Bordeaux’s greatest Cabernet-based reds.
Wine to try: 2008 Château Cos d’Estournel ($180).