Most every wine enthusiast knows about Robert Mondavi, the Virginia, Minn., native who became a world-famous vintner and ambassador for the Napa Valley.
But another Minnesotan might have had just as deep an impact on America’s most renowned wine region. Al Brounstein launched the state’s first winery dedicated to a single grape — cabernet sauvignon — and became the first California vintner to charge — and get — $100 for a bottle of fermented grape juice.
Brounstein died in 2002, and Diamond Creek Vineyards now is run by his sprightly widow, Boots, and her son Phil Ross. And the wines remain coveted, not to mention truly distinctive, intense but elegant (with several years’ aging), robust and very much evocative of the truly special ground from which they sprang.
The Brounsteins came across that land in 1967, a few years after they met and married. Al, who was born in Saskatchewan and raised in Minnesota, graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1942, had done well in the pharmacy business in Southern California. He had been recently widowed when former Minnesotans Shirley and Harold Bass set him up on a blind date with Boots. “He seemed like a really nice guy,” Boots said at the winery earlier this month.
He also only recently had become enamored of wine. “He took a wine class when he was 40 years old and fell in love with French wine,” she said. “This all started with a dream.”
Brounstein loved Burgundy and Bordeaux equally, but knew that Napa was not well suited for pinot noir. So he went to Bordeaux and talked some of the region’s top vintners into giving him some vine cuttings. Because there was a seriously long quarantine process before using them on these shores, Brounstein had the cuttings shipped to Rosarita Beach in Baja California. From there, Al flew his own plane down there, picked up the cuttings and brought them back to Napa — seven times.
“He was nothing if not tenacious,” Phil Ross said. Boots added, “And he was a visionary.”
That vision included finding land on the hillsides rather than the valley floor, where virtually all Napa vineyards were planted at the time. He learned that the failing Bonsell Ranch was selling off property on Diamond Mountain and checked it out.
Hopeful but unsure that his instincts about the terrain were correct, Al brought in iconic Napa winemaker André Tchelistcheff and got his seal of approval. “If Andre had told him this wasn’t a good spot,” Ross said, “he probably would’ve passed.”
So the Brounsteins bought 80 acres of prune trees, rocks and overgrown manzanita and other shrubs for $100,000, a fraction of what one acre of prime Napa land would cost today.
The work, of course, was just beginning, but it turned out to be fruitful and fortuitous. While clearing the land with his only employee — a young Mexican immigrant named Sergio Canchola, who still works at the winery — Brounstein would end up covered in dirt. Of varying hues.
“He’d come home with different soils on his clothes,” Boots recalled, “one day a snowy, clingy soil and the next day red soil. And he said, ‘There’s something different, something special about these slopes.’ ”
It turned out that one side of Diamond Creek was covered with dusty white ash from a now-extinct volcano called Mount Kanati, and on the other was iron-rich, rocky red dirt. An adjacent vineyard-to-be contained gravelly alluvial soils laden with marine fossils.
As a Francophile, Brounstein was thrilled to find such different “terroirs” and decided that his three primary cabs would bear the names Volcanic Hill, Red Rock Terrace and Gravelly Meadow. Basically, it was a Burgundian, site-specific approach to making Bordeaux-style wines. (A fourth mini-plot called Lake produces bottle-worthy wine only in certain years.)
At the time, besides Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard, California wines did not carry such vineyard designations on their labels. So after planting 20 acres in 1968 (when there were fewer than 1,000 acres of cab in the entire state) and bottling his first commercial wines in 1972, Brounstein faced the Sisyphean task of selling such a singular concept.
“When he’d go to the retailers with three types of wine,” Boots said, “they’d ask, ‘How many vineyards do you have?’ He’d say ‘I have 20 acres, and all of them are different.’ They truly did not understand what we were doing. And then he wouldn’t let them taste it, and they would show him the door.
“He also told the bank ‘I have special grapes. I won’t buy grapes from others [to blend and/or make other wines].’ So the banker pulled the loan, and he went and found another banker who believed in what he was doing. He would never look back, always look forward.”
Early on, the Brounsteins were just scraping by, renting equipment and constantly improvising. “My driveway is bonded, so we could bottle our wine there,” Boots said. “If we had a stuck fermentation, Al would go to the hardware store and buy space heaters to get it going.”
Eventually, after the wine-buying public and the press started experiencing the wines, Diamond Creek’s reputation grew. The wines even made inroads with grape nuts who generally bought only French wines, and by 1982, Brounstein took the plunge and slapped a $100 price tag on his wine.
“The key was, he felt the quality was there,” Ross said. “He was a brilliant marketing guy. Part of what he felt like he was doing was educating the public. Price was one way to communicate that.”
Boots noted, “He felt, ‘Why should France get top dollars? Why can’t California?’ We said, ‘OK, we can try it, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’ ”
It worked, and presaged the era of cult cabernets. Today, Diamond Creek wines cost $200, far less than many Napa cabs and, in my view, way worth it for those who don’t blanch at that figure.
And who have some patience. These wines, laden with backbone, concentration and depth, show best with several years of cellar age.
“He’d tell people, ‘Stick it in your closet and put a bunch of newspapers and shoes on top of it and forget about it,’ ” Ross said. “He liked to tell a joke about it lasting 100 years.
“But the one I like best is that a lot of people would buy it as a wedding gift, and he’d tell them, ‘Drink the Red Rocks Terrace on your 10th anniversary, the Gravelly Meadows on your 15th and the Volcanic Hill on your 20th.’ We’d get letters and then e-mails saying ‘Our marriage didn’t last, but your wines sure did.’ ”
Winemaking and building businesses were far from Brounstein’s only skills and interests. He attended the Sorbonne and painted throughout his life, even after he contracted Parkinson’s disease (“he just changed his style,” Boots said). He spoke several languages and enjoyed cooking. And he loved landscaping, an offshoot from his youth.
“He loved the parks in Minnesota,” Boots said. “He wanted to make this a park. So we ended up with a rose garden, a lagoon and about 12 waterfalls.”
He also valued his old friends, frequently returning for Minneapolis North High School reunions. “He was so proud of being from Minnesota,” Ross said.
“I never met anyone more upbeat and optimistic than Al,” Boots Brounstein said. “He was a force of nature.”
And perhaps even more than that Mondavi fellow, Al Brounstein bent nature to his will.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.