CONTINUATION OF our interview
Rudy von Strasser of von Strasser Winery
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"Were 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 were 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. Youll 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. Thats something were 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. Theres a lot of obsidian. Maybe it refers to the
number of obsidian chips found here by early settlers. I think its probably named
for the geology, but, to tell you the truth, I havent 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. Theres 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 Sterlings 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.
Theres also a really white, powdery, soil -- with
fractured rock outcroppings.
And theres that "riverbed" type of soil
with a lot of round rocks in it...
Anyway, the guy whos writing the AVA application
for us has hired a geologist and theyve 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
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
Its just to make the consumers choice less
confusing. It gives the consumers more information. Thats the only reason the BATF
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: Lets move on and talk about you now. Why did you decide to get into the
wine business? Youre not from California, are you?
RvS: Im 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 doesnt like me telling people that!
"Im 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. Theres 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, Id 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 werent that many cellar jobs. The wine business
was much smaller than it is now.
"I went to U.C. Davis, got another Bachelors
degree...and decided that wine was really a lot more fun than living in New England in an
I decided to go back to school and learn winemaking from
a school point of view. I went to U.C. Davis, got another Bachelors 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 mothers 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
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, theyve 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 wouldnt consider that my style at this point, but
thats a personal issue. I dont 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 didnt
have the responsibilities of a winemaker, I felt that I was running a pretty upscale and
"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
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
We were fooling around a lot with extended maceration and
different fermentation techniques. And rather than just blindly experimenting with them, I
think its 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
Id juice up the grapes -- and the winemaker would come in and wed have ten
glasses of grape juice. And you know what? They all tasted like grape juice.
You dont 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 thats 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 werent 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 Creeks 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 didnt do very well. His wines were
incredibly tannic. They were considered twice as tannic as Diamond Creek in those days...
RvS: And he didnt make friends with the press -- and somehow it just didnt
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 didnt 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. Isnt the case now -- theyre doing very
Anyway, thats how we were able to move in and make
an offer on it. Its a funny property, in that it has a lot of out-buildings,
including a house, and everything was kind of run down. The vineyards werent in
great shape. So it didnt work for a lot of people. But it was exactly what we
Since 1990, every penny weve 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 hasnt changed all that much. It needs work.
So its kind of a labor of love up here. I think
some of the bigger wineries that looked at it didnt 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
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 wasnt sure it was going to work for
us. I mean, now everyones coming into the market with $70 bottles. And the
markets 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 wouldnt
be available. The only way to start out these days is to buy grapes."
And even then, it just wouldnt be available.
Im looking for good-priced land on the valley floor for Freestone [von
Strassers 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, Id 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...Im a Cabernet guy. And for Cabernet, I dont think there is
another region. Not to say that there arent 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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