The Pioneering Legend of Napa, Diamond Creek
Napa Valley has dozens of superb winemakers today but during the modern renaissance that began in the decade and more after the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting there were just a handful of names with reputations for outstanding quality – Opus One, Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Stag’s Leap and Silver Oak – but one name stood above others for its mystique, evocatively named wines and determination to be different. Diamond Creek Vineyards.
The famous sign showing the close proximity of the three vineyards, each with distinctly different soils.
Volcanic Hill. Gravelly Meadow. Red Rock Terrace.
These are names that are familiar to anyone with knowledge of Napa’s greatest wines. These are all single vineyard Cabernets, planted according to the unique characteristics of each site – the most obvious of which are the different soil types, positioned around a natural amphitheatre.
Everything about Diamond Creek can be considered pioneering. When Al Brounstein bought virgin land on the forested hills south of Calistoga, it was considered too cool to grow any wine grapes let alone Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact the idea of mountain Cabernet hadn’t crystallised yet and wouldn’t do so until Randy Dunn started releasing Howell Mountain wines in the late 70s, and during the 80s mountains Cabernets were the first cult Napa wines.
When the land was cleared and they discovered the three distinctly different soil typeson the property, they decided to follow a Burgundian approach and plant according to site and soil. This completely turned the Bordeaux-model (blending Cabernet from vineyards right across the valley) on its head but prefaced by several decades the release of not only single vineyard wines, but even wines from specific areas of Napa (like Rutherford and Oakville).
The wines of Diamond Creek were also some of the most expensive in Napa from their very first release. They remained at the top of Napa’s fame until the likes of Screaming Eagle and Harlan began to make waves with their more luscious and immediate styles in the mid 1990s. The firm mountain tannins, and moderate alcohol levels (rarely above 13%) fell out of favour and Diamond Creek went through a lean period from the late 1990s for at least a decade.
The wines began to improve again and by the time the highly regarded 2013s were released it was clear the wines were back on top form. Recent vintages have continued to showcase the estates structural strengths whilst coming into the modern era with less severity of the tannins and a much more seductive appeal. Meanwhile the old-school labels evoke genuine excitement on the table. And yet they have a clear, almost aloof personality reminiscent of the great Monte Bello reds from Ridge Vineyards – two estates that march to the beat of their own drums.
The release of the 2018s coincides with the recent change in ownership of Diamond Creek. Founder Al Brounstein passed away nearly two decades ago, and his wife Boots in 2019. Champagne Louis Roederer stepped in earlier this year to acquire the estate, which comprises 79 acres of land and around 20 acres of vineyards. The entire winemaking team who have been in place for thirty years will remain in charge, transitioning to new winemaking operations over the coming years. The investment that Roederer will bring and skilled marketing can only see the estate thrive in years to come.
The 2018s have not been tasted yet but we know that it’s a very strong vintage in Napa, as I was able to taste nearly 200 Napa reds mostly from the 2018 vintage, during the Napa Valley Vintners auction week in February 2020. 2018s typified by its mild, easy growing season. Plenty of winter rain led into a very even growing season with absolutely no heat spikes and no harm from fires. It remained mild and dry right through an extended ripening period and vintners were able to harvest at their leisure, which is always ideal for making optimal winemaking decisions. The result is a vintage of wines with superb perfume, pristine bright fruit, crisp tannins and energetic acidity. The nearest comparison vintage is 2016, perhaps my favourite ever vintage in Napa, and possibly the tightly-wound 2010s.
The 2018s will not be media reviewed until late in 2021.
View available Diamond Creek wines at Philglas & Swiggot
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