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Growing Diamonds

CONTINUATION OF our interview with
Rudy von Strasser of von Strasser Winery

(Click here to return to the beginning)

"We’re seeing a huge number of wine brands coming out on the market with the word ‘diamond’ in them..."

RvS: Because the word "diamond" all by itself is a great descriptor for expensive items. And a natural for a wine brand.

     Now we’re seeing a huge number of wine brands coming out on the market with the word "diamond" in them. Some of them are from the proposed Diamond Mountain area -- and some are not. You’ll see Diamond Oaks and Diamond Ridge and Diamond Terraces and Diamond Peak and yatta, yatta, yatta...

APJ: So the AVA will protect you?

RvS: To an extent. Yes, there will still be a lot of "diamond" brands out there, but only we can say "Diamond Mountain" on the label. Or it may become "Diamond Mountain District" -- like Stags Leap District or Spring Mountain District. That’s something we’re still discussing.

APJ: What did you have to do to prove that Diamond Mountain is worthy of an AVA?

RvS: The BATF looks at four different criteria. One, the name of the AVA has to be locally or nationally known. Two, there has to be historical or current evidence for the boundaries. Three, the area has to be geologically distinct from surrounding areas. And four, it has to be visible on a U.S. Geological Survey map.

APJ: Why the heck is it called Diamond Mountain?

RvS: A lot of people tell you a lot of different things. I think a lot of it has to do with rock outcrops in the area. There’s a lot of obsidian. Maybe it refers to the number of obsidian chips found here by early settlers. I think it’s probably named for the geology, but, to tell you the truth, I haven’t ever figured it out.

APJ: Is all the soil on Diamond Mountain pretty stony?

RvS: No, there are about four different soil types on Diamond Mountain. There’s a very deep, red, kind of heavy, volcanic soil. Diamond Creek has it on their Red Rock Terraces. And they have a lot of that soil all the way up by Sterling’s Peterson Ranch. And some of it comes down through my own bottom vineyard. My bottom vineyard looks very red in the winter when it gets moist, and it has a very deep soil. Very few rocks.

     There’s also a really white, powdery, soil -- with fractured rock outcroppings.

     And there’s that "riverbed" type of soil with a lot of round rocks in it...

     Anyway, the guy who’s writing the AVA application for us has hired a geologist and they’ve basically defined four different soils as predominant for this area. But that can move around...

"One thing we all have to understand is why the BATF has AVAs to begin with. It has nothing to do with the quality of the wine that comes from the area."

     One thing we all have to understand is why the BATF has AVAs to begin with. It has nothing to do with the quality of the wine that comes from the area.

     It’s just to make the consumer’s choice less confusing. It gives the consumers more information. That’s the only reason the BATF does it.

     And the fact is that an AVA is quite a large area. No matter how small it is, there are still going to be multiple microclimates, soils, exposures. And different qualities. There are plenty of vineyards on Diamond Mountain that make unbelievable wine...and plenty that make marginal wine.

PART 2: Starting out in the wine business

APJ: Let’s move on and talk about you now. Why did you decide to get into the wine business? You’re not from California, are you?

RvS: I’m from New York, actually, although I never tell anybody. Right outside of New York City. Westchester. A place called Pelham.

     My parents were into business. My father was on Wall Street. And my brother was studying business. And I was kind of the hippie of the family.

     I wanted nothing to do with New York City and nothing to do with business. So I went up to New England and studied agriculture. I wanted to be a farmer. I got into apple farming at the University of New Hampshire -- small fruits production, they call it. Rita doesn’t like me telling people that!

"I’m from New York. I was kind of the hippie of the family. I got into apple farming. I wanted to make hard cider..."

     I did a big paper on the economics of hard cider production. There’s an excess of organic apples up in New England and I wanted to make hard cider.

     I thought if I came to California for a year and worked in a winery, I’d learn the skills of winemaking, which is pretty similar to cider production. And I would go back to New England to make cider.

     So I came out to work at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1981, I think it was. Got a job in the retail room, conducting tours and working the cash register. I kept trying to get into cellar jobs, but everyone around here was only hiring Davis grads for wine work. And there weren’t that many cellar jobs. The wine business was much smaller than it is now.

"I went to U.C. Davis, got another Bachelor’s degree...and decided that wine was really a lot more fun than living in New England in an apple orchard."

     I decided to go back to school and learn winemaking from a school point of view. I went to U.C. Davis, got another Bachelor’s degree -- this time in fermentation sciences. Graduated in 1985. And just decided that the wine industry was really a lot more fun than living in New England in an apple orchard.

     After graduating in 1985, I wrote to Eric Rothschild at Chateau Lafite. I had a contact to him through a Hungarian friend of my mother’s who knew Eric from the war. So I wrote him a letter telling him I was a Davis graduate and looking to make great Cabernet and would welcome an opportunity to work a harvest at Chateau Lafite.

     At that point, Lafite was taking a student intern every year from [the French winemaking school] Montpelier -- to work at the winery. And Eric thought it would be a fun idea to have a California intern also. They put me up at the winery for a four-month harvest and I worked together with this other intern.

     We had such a good experience that Lafite decided to make this internship something that happens every year. And from 1985 on, they’ve been taking a Davis grad to France every year for an internship.

     I came back in 1986, looked around for jobs and became an oenologist for two years at Trefethen winery. Which I thought was neat, because Trefethen was very much of a high-technology oriented winery -- Lafite being exactly the opposite. At that point Lafite was a no-technology place.

     So at Trefethen I learned about filtration, I learned about lab work, I learned about numbers -- I learned about making wine in what I would call a U.C. Davis style. Which was very predominant in the early and mid ‘80s.

     I wouldn’t consider that my style at this point, but that’s a personal issue. I don’t mean that from a quality point of view.

     Then I became an assistant winemaker at Newton Vineyard. I worked up there in ‘88, ‘89 and ‘90. At Newton, I was more or less in charge of production. John Konsgaard, who was the winemaker, was very busy with marketing and construction projects around the winery -- and cave projects and various other things that Peter Newton had him doing. So I was in charge of winemaking on a day-to-day level.

     That was real fun for me, because although I didn’t have the responsibilities of a winemaker, I felt that I was running a pretty upscale and large winery.

"At Newton we also had Michael Rolland as a consultant. He was the one who showed me for the first time that wine is made by your palate..not by numbers."

     At Newton we also had Michael Rolland as a consultant for a couple of years. He was the one who showed me for the first time that wine is made by flavor and by your palate...not by numbers. We would spend an awful lot of time with Rolland in the vineyard -- walking the vineyards, tasting the grapes. Analyzing the potential wine in the vineyard before it came into the winery.

     He taught me the concept of knowing what a vineyard can produce -- what the current vintage is capable of -- before you make your stylistic decisions.

     We were fooling around a lot with extended maceration and different fermentation techniques. And rather than just blindly experimenting with them, I think it’s important to know what the potential is of the grape in the vineyard -- before you decide what to do with them in the winery.

     That was eye-opening for me. At other places, for example, we tasted Chardonnay juice. We would sample the grapes from the vineyard and I’d juice up the grapes -- and the winemaker would come in and we’d have ten glasses of grape juice. And you know what? They all tasted like grape juice.

     You don’t analyze a vineyard by tasting unripe grape juice. You analyze it by looking at the vines, looking at the clusters, looking at the amount of stress in the vineyard. And the soils. And tasting the fruit, tasting the skins, tasting the tannin levels in the skins. You need to spend a lot of time out there.

     And that’s probably the main basis of my winemaking here. To understand the vineyard. Completely. So I can make the best wine the vineyard is giving me. And steer the vineyard in the direction the winery wants to go.

APJ: How did you buy the Diamond Mountain property?

RvS: With a lot of luck! The wine market was very different in 1990. We were on the heels of the ‘89 vintage coming onto the market. The wine press has panned the ‘89 and they weren’t that nice to the ‘88 either. And a lot of winemakers had a hard time selling their wine in those days.

     Originally this property was owned by a man named Bill Bounsell -- who owned our property, Diamond Creek’s property and the property next to us, which is now called Reverie. It was all one property.

     Bounsell sold Al Brounstein the Diamond Creek parcel around 1968. Al started planting vineyards and when Bounsell saw this, he took out an old prune orchard in front of his own house and planted 2 acres to Cabernet. Those make up the older vines on what is now our property.

     Then Bounsell sold this property to Bill Roddis in 1975 and Roddis actually ran it as a winery. He turned the old barn into a winery and poured concrete floors, drains, etc. he ran it from 1975 until about 1984 as Roddis Cellars.

     But Bill Roddis didn’t do very well. His wines were incredibly tannic. They were considered twice as tannic as Diamond Creek in those days...

APJ: Wow.

RvS: And he didn’t make friends with the press -- and somehow it just didn’t work for him. So he put the property up for sale and it was bought in 1985 by a guy named Mark Gilbey, from the Gilbey Gin family.

     Gilbey lived in Senegal and kept this as a corporate retreat. He didn’t care a lot about the vineyard and had it absentee farmed by Pine Ridge. They actually made a Pine Ridge Diamond Mountain bottling in the mid or late 80s.

     When the property came on the market in 1990, Gary Andrus of Pine Ridge wanted to buy the property. But the sale fell through. Luckily for us, Pine Ridge was short of money at that time. Isn’t the case now -- they’re doing very well.

     Anyway, that’s how we were able to move in and make an offer on it. It’s a funny property, in that it has a lot of out-buildings, including a house, and everything was kind of run down. The vineyards weren’t in great shape. So it didn’t work for a lot of people. But it was exactly what we wanted.

     Since 1990, every penny we’ve put into the property has gone into super-structure -- into the vineyard. Into new trellising. Into new irrigation systems. Into double planting. Into good rootstock. And the winery building. The house really hasn’t changed all that much. It needs work.

     So it’s kind of a labor of love up here. I think some of the bigger wineries that looked at it didn’t want all the baggage that came with it. And some of the smaller people who looked at it -- it was just too much work for them.

APJ: What about having Diamond Creek next door?

RvS: Being next to Diamond Creek was a big incentive to me in the beginning. Not so much from a quality standpoint, but from a marketing level. I knew that this was a story waiting to be told.

     But even then I wasn’t sure it was going to work for us. I mean, now everyone’s coming into the market with $70 bottles. And the market’s buying everything. But back then it was different. A $30 bottle back then was a high-priced wine. So it was scary and stayed scary.

     For example, the property next to us -- the one that has become Reverie winery -- was sold in 1993 for $35,000 an acre. With good rootstock and 6-year-old vines. But I didn’t want to put an offer on it back then because I already had a lot of eggs in one basket.

     I could kick myself now! But I didn’t have the crystal ball then to know where the market was going.

APJ: How tough would it be to repeat your experience today?

RvS: It would be awfully tough. This property would sell for probably five times as much -- in the raw state, without the work we put into it.

"Repeating it today would be awfully tough. This property would sell for probably five times as much...and even then, it just wouldn’t be available. The only way to start out these days is to buy grapes."

     And even then, it just wouldn’t be available. I’m looking for good-priced land on the valley floor for Freestone [von Strasser’s second, lower-priced label]. Deep soils, big crops, for fruity, okay wines but not the most intense wines -- and even those sites are selling for substantially more than I paid for this property.

APJ: So if you were starting out today, where would you look?

RvS: If I were starting out, I’d buy grapes. I think the only way to start out these days is to buy grapes from a grower. Find a really good vineyard out there, pay him a lot of money and make the wine at a custom-crush winery until you have cash-flow enough to build your own facility.

     Because nobody who has a great vineyard is going to be selling it in this market. Unless for some reason they really have to -- and then there are plenty of people in line who know them and are going to take it.

APJ: What about other regions in California?

RvS: Well...I’m a Cabernet guy. And for Cabernet, I don’t think there is another region. Not to say that there aren’t some great pockets in Sonoma that make good wine, but this is all I know. I know Napa Valley Cabernet and for Napa Valley Cab, this is a great area....

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