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Smuggler's Paradise

September 27, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The small plane on the remote Baja airstrip gleamed in the sunset. As night fell, the smuggler worked quickly, packing bundles into the ski webbing at the rear of the fuselage. When the load was secured, he took off for a short flight to San Diego, where he breezed through customs without a search. Then he took off again and flew north, toward Napa Valley.

The smuggler was a young businessman named Al Brounstein. It was 1966, and all kinds of mysterious cargoes were being smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico. But the bundles in Brounstein's plane were not what you might expect. They were bundles of French grape cuttings, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, from two of the five premier cru chateaux in Bordeaux.

Brounstein had approached the chateau owners through a French contact. He told them he meant to start a wine estate in California. They let him buy cuttings from the great vineyards on one condition: that he would never reveal the sources.

To avoid doing that and to bypass an agricultural quarantine of approximately six years on imported plant materials, Brounstein decided to circumvent the law. He shipped the cuttings to Mexico City, then to Tijuana and finally to a private airport near Rosarito Beach, where he picked up the bundled cuttings one load at a time for the flight north. It took seven trips to get them all to the fledgling Napa Valley estate called Diamond Creek.

Brounstein told the story recently during a vertical tasting of Diamond Creek wines in the estate's minuscule winery.

He's 80 now and has Parkinson's disease, but he's as boisterous and sly-humored as ever. "I never used to be able to talk about this," he deadpanned, "but now it's beyond the statute of limitations, so I can tell everybody how I started out as a smuggler."

Brounstein used those Bordeaux cuttings to establish four tiny, distinctive vineyards, each on a different soil type, in a rugged canyon about 600 to 900 feet above Calistoga in the northwest Napa Valley.

During the next three decades, the Diamond Creek single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons ($150 to $350 per bottle) have been among California's most venerable and highly acclaimed wines.

Diamond Creek's first winemaking consultant was Jerry Luper (Freemark Abbey, Rutherford Hill, Chateau Montelena), who came on board for the inaugural 1972 vintage. Luper's influence on the future of Diamond Creek was decisive. Brounstein had already been exposed to the terroir-driven philosophy at Ridge Vineyards, where he picked grapes and worked in the cellar in the early 1970s.

Ridge routinely bottled more than a dozen single-vineyard wines each year. Brounstein wanted to do something similar with his property. Most of the free advice he was getting from all sides suggested, however, that he blend the fruit from his three vineyards into one Cabernet.

One retailer was particularly vociferous in urging Brounstein to blend. Brounstein replied, "Maybe you're right, but I have to wait for one thing. As soon as Domaine de Romanee-Conti blends their La Tache and Richebourg into Romanee-Conti, then I'll blend my three vineyards into one wine."

Luper saw the potential for distinctive single-vineyard wines from the property and supported Brounstein's desire to keep them separate.

That set the course of Diamond Creek's distinctive single-vineyard program to the present. Since the '72 vintage, Diamond Creek has bottled more than a hundred wines, including individual pickings from each of the three major vineyards and a variety of blends.

In addition to the Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace and Volcanic Hill bottlings from each vintage, the Lake Vineyard has been bottled separately half a dozen times and blended with Gravelly Meadow several times. A Three Vineyard Blend second-crop fruit in eight vintages from the three major vineyards, but Brounstein says he won't do that anymore.

The first vineyard he developed was Volcanic Hill (eight acres), which yields the biggest, toughest wine from the property. Volcanic Hill's weathered tufa (compressed volcanic ash) and warm southern exposure produces the most Calistoga-like Cabernets, with briary mountain tannins and deeply concentrated fruit.

Next came Red Rock Terrace (seven acres), which produces the most accessible wine of the three. The vineyard's red iron-rich soil and north-northwest exposure yields a gracious yet powerful wine that is similar to Cabernet from the Stag's Leap District.

After that, he planted Gravelly Meadow (five acres), which produces a Cabernet that is tighter that Red Rock Terrace's but softer than Volcanic Hill's. In fact, it bears a resemblance to Cabernet from the western Oakville-Rutherford zone of the valley, especially from vineyards well above the valley floor, with which it shares an eastern, morning sun, exposure and well-drained, rocky alluvial soil.

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