CONTINUATION OF our interview
Rudy von Strasser of von Strasser Winery
(Click here to return to previous
PART 3: The von Strasser Reserve Wines. What makes them so special?
APJ: Lets talk about your reserve wine. The one with all the Petit Verdot in
it. It sure blew people away at MacArthur last month.
RvS: The reserve wine is kind of an interesting concept.
As a winemaker, every time you sit down and make blends,
there is a financial reality...you have to make enough wine for you to earn a living. I
would never buy a bottle of wine from someone who said theyre not making any money
on it. Just like I wouldnt buy a car from someone who said theyre not making
any money on the sale of the car.
Thats the driving force in any business.
Theres got to be a profit margin to make it interesting for someone. And if
theres not, then in my opinion theres probably not enough emphasis in the long
term for someone to produce a really great wine. Thats what drives a great wine.
There are other things that go along with it, but I think there has to be an economic
"When I make my Diamond Mountain blend...I already kick
out at least 30% of my wine. But I still need to make a certain amount to make this
When I make my Diamond Mountain Cab...I already kick out
at least 30% of my wine. Sometimes 40% doesnt make it into my blend. Because I am
trying to make the best wine I can off my property.
But I still need to make a certain amount of wine to make
this property work. So there are things that push me -- beyond the desire simply to make
the best wine I can.
And that happens at any winery. At Newton, at Trefethen,
at Lafite --you dont sit there and say "Were only going to bottle ten
barrels, because thats the best wine, and the rest is going to go down the
"Still, the other side of you is saying, Gee,
Ive got this unbelievable lot here. What if...? Every winery does that, but
most of them never get released."
Still, as a winemaker, the other side of you is saying,
"Gee, Ive got this unbelievable lot here and another one there. What if I made
just two or three barrels of this unbelievable wine?"
Every winery does that, but most of them never get
released. At Newton, we made a wine every year that internally we called "the Ultra
Wine." Im not sure if it was ever released or what it was called if it was. It
wasnt a marketing term, but that was the cellar name for it.
APJ: Actually, I think its a pretty cool marketing term!
RvS: It is cool. I thought about using it once, but I dont know...too
Anyhow, that wine at Newton was invariably more
Merlot-based than my wine here. Because at Newton, the focus was really on Merlot. But the
first wine anybody ever reached for in the making of this Ultra...was the Petit Verdot.
You have ten or fifteen bottles in front of you which
represent all your favorite lots in the winery. And the darkest, the most concentrated,
the most interesting of them all was always the Petit Verdot. Not that it necessarily
would make such a great wine on its own, but...its just such a neat wine. And
its so different than most of the other Bordeaux grapes.
At Newton, even in the Ultra blends, Petit Verdot was a
reasonably small percentage. Maybe five or ten percent.
But my feeling always was, "Gee, I would like to
make a wine based around this. Maybe not 50% of the stuff. But how about if we really try
to capture this characteristic that always draws winemakers to this wine?"
APJ: So what is this characteristic?
RvS: Well...its like when youre tasting Syrahs. The favorite Syrah of the
tasting groups at wineries is always going to be the Sean Thackery Orion. Because
its black and inky and thick. Maybe its not the greatest wine to drink. But if
youre a winemaker, youve got to appreciate that wine.
"So I took about 3/4 of an acre here -- a terraced,
hillside block -- and planted Petit Verdot from cuttings I took from Newton."
And thats sort of what the Petit Verdot is like to
me. So when we moved up here, I took 3/4 of an acre -- a terraced, hillside block -- and
planted Petit Verdot from cuttings I took from Newton. And the goal was, really, to try
and make a bottling based on that.
APJ: Did you plant the Petit Verdot in 1990 or graft it over?
RvS: I planted it in 1990. So its a pretty young vineyard. But Petit Verdot
clusters are very small and the crop is very light. And it just has a certain intensity to
it at a young age.
By the way, Im never against young vines. The
concept that an older vineyard is bound to make a better wine is ridiculous. Its
something owners of old vineyards use in marketing, because theyve got it.
APJ: Explain what you mean.
"The very fact that a vineyard is 80 years old is
partially due to the fact that it was making good wine when it was 10, 20 and 30 years
RvS: Its a theory I have. I dont know if Im right or not but...well,
people always think that old vineyards make better wine. You look at these century-old
Zinfandel vineyards, right?
But how did they get so old? Well, I think the reason is
-- they were making great wine when they were 20 years old. So when the owner had to
decide whether to keep them or not, he kept them.
If that vineyard wasnt making good wine when it was
young, it would have been pulled out! And if it wasnt making good wine as a younger
vineyard -- the fact that it got older wouldnt help it make good wine.
So the very fact that a vineyard is 80 years old is
partially due to the fact that it was making good wine when it was 10, 20 and 30 years
old. And Ive made many wines in my years in California from one or two-year-old
vines that are unbelievable. In fact, sometimes the first couple of crops off a vineyard
are the best.
And sometimes the quality goes down as the vines get
older. Sometimes as vines get older, or find their own water in the ground, or the root
systems become very developed, the wine quality goes down. Thats why youll see
a great estate dip in quality sometimes. As a vineyard manager, you have to analyze and
farm vines differently as they age.
APJ: Getting back to your Reserve wine. Do you think the soil in that block has
anything to do with its character?
RvS: Something. This block was an odd spot on the old vineyard. When Bill Roddis
originally cleared the hillside, rather than burning all the scrub, he just pushed it into
one corner of the vineyard and just left it there.
So when I bought the property, there were these huge
piles of brush which were years old. And all the topsoil around the piles had been eroded
away. Because he just never bothered to seed it or terrace it. You walked this stuff and
it was hard, it was white ash, it was rocky -- it was just nasty looking.
So we took that area, we burned the piles, we ripped the
soil, we picked up rocks and we terraced it. And we planted into it. The vines took a
little while to get established, but theyre doing quite well up there.
APJ: Your trellising there looks a little unusual to me.
RvS: Petit Verdot is a very vigorous variety in general. And to grow it in most soil
conditions, you have to leave a lot of buds to slow down the vigor of the vine. Its
a lot like Cabernet Franc in that way. So I put a special trellis system into this spot.
Its called TK2T and its a New Zealand system designed to leave a lot of buds
on the vine.
But you know what? I found the soil was so poor up there
that I cant leave half the buds that a TK2T trellis allows to grow. So Ive got
this weird trellising system up there that isnt really doing me justice, because
Im cutting off half the shoots anyway. Its too big of a trellis system.
So, what Im saying is -- the site is very
important, because its a de-vigorating site. My Petit Verdot is one third to one
quarter of the vigor that Newton or anyone else has from the same variety.
"I only try to make about 100 cases of the Reserve.
Its not a culling of all the best lots."
APJ: Whats the size of your production for the 1997 Reserve?
RvS: I only try to make about 100 cases of the Reserve. I dont want to ever take
away enough wine to interfere with the Cabernet blend. The von Strasser Estate Cabernet is
what were here for, its what were known for and I dont ever want
that to change.
The Reserve is not a culling of all the best lots.
Its a special winemaker goal of taking this Petit Verdot and building a wine around
it. To highlight some of the characteristics of the Petit Verdot, but make it complex and
The blend that I used in the last few years is 40% Petit
Verdot, 40% Cabernet and 20% Merlot. So it actually has as much Cabernet as Petit Verdot.
And I only make 4 to 6 barrels of it, because I
dont want to take very much of the best stuff away from the Cabernet blend. Plus,
the Petit Verdot is an important part of the Cabernet blend, although a smaller
percentage, and I dont want to use it all up in the Reserve.
Part 4. What makes a wine ageable?
APJ: How do you think your Reserve will age?
RvS: We are trying to make the Reserve elegant. All of my wines have a certain balance
One of the things I learned at Lafite is that a wine that
ages well is not necessarily a wine that hits you over the head with tannin when its
young. Its quality of tannins, balance, acidity, length of finish -- those things
And a little bit of luck. You know, at Lafite, we drank a
lot of old wines when I was there. Whenever Eric Rothschild had a party, the head of the
kitchen would bring us all the partials that were left over. This is going back to the
1800s. And half the wines were great -- and half the wines were over the hill, even at 15
years old. Same vineyard blocks, made the same way.
The ageability of a wine is always partly a matter of
luck. Ive bought plenty of wines thinking theyre going to age well and they
dont. And Ive opened up plenty of bottles wondering "what the heck is
this thing doing in my cellar," and they were great. As Im sure you have.
Our society always wants to define everything, because
were scientific. But the reason a wine ages is very hard to define.
APJ: Whats your typical production size for the Diamond Mountain Cab?
RvS: Were up to about 2,000 cases a year now, with the 97 and 98
vintages and beyond. The vintage were selling now is 1996 and thats a tiny
vintage. Only 1,200 cases.
APJ: So the 98 vintage was bigger than the 96 vintage.
RvS: Yes, 1996 was very small, but our first vintage was just 700 cases. So look where
APJ: Whats your goal?
We cleared 5 acres last year. But at full production, our
property would have had the ability to make about 3,000 cases even without those 5 new
acres. So maybe, with this new acreage, well be able to make closer to 4,000 cases.
And if we do, the Reserve blend will get a little bigger also. But at this point its
Part 5. Where do you stand on hillside planting regulations?
APJ: I wanted to talk a little about hillside planting regulations.
RvS: Im all in favor of it. Very important. At the same time, Im all in
favor of hillside farming.
If you dont have a hillside ordinance, what you get is a
lot of people who just go out there and doze the land. And they dont have deep
enough pockets or a long enough game plan to be able to take care of that property in a
A hillside ordinance forces you to have an erosion control
plan -- which you never had to do in the old days. And it forces you to have one that
works. With the right sized pipes. And the right-sized inlets. And the right-sized slopes
on the terraces. And thats expensive.
"A hillside vineyard is a thing that youve got to
be out there taking care of every winter."
So the ordinance effectively takes anyone who cant
afford it out of the clearing business. In a way, thats not very American. But a
hillside vineyard is a thing that youve got to be out there taking care of every
winter. Making sure your drains are open. Making sure your cover crop is planted. Instead
of discing, which is cheaper, we have to go out there and weed-whack by hand.
You have to farm it differently and its more
expensive. But it takes more care to keep it from sliding away. If a hillside is taken
care of properly, theres very little negative impact to the environment.
APJ: That being said, does the ordinance limit you from planting any areas on your
own property where youd like to be growing?
RvS: No, not really. Weve gotten what we need through the process. We did that
last year and got permission to plant. And Im glad I put money into it and did it
right. Because we had pretty bad winter this year and virtually no problems.
APJ: I notice that youre planting in between some of the old rows now. Are you
doing that everywhere?
RvS: Yes, we plant the inside and outside of each terrace. In the old days, people used
to plant only on the outside. Now we plant both sides. And on the flat spaces, where you
dont need terraces, now we plant very tight rows.
APJ: What kind of spacing are you looking at now?
RvS: My favorite spacing is six feet between the rows and four feet between the vines.
Ive got a four-foot tractor and six feet is the narrowest I can farm. If I had a
small block somewhere, it wouldnt hurt to go tighter, but at some point you have to
have equipment to deal with it.
Part 6: Whats so great about unfiltered wine?
APJ: Lets talk about winemaking now. I know you make unfiltered wines. Why?
When did you develop that philosophy?
RvS: I developed that thinking at Newton. To make red wine the way I think it needs to
be made, theres just no reason to filter.
Sure, sometimes you have to filter. If you make a white
wine that you want to release early, like a Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling, or something
else thats only going to be in the winery for five to six months...theres no
way youre going to get that wine to be not cloudy without filtering out the
suspended particles. So filtration is great, for those wines.
You cant really make a Riesling without filtering.
Just about every great Riesling in the world has been filtered.
"I really dont think filtration hurts a wine.
Thats a myth. But the way we make red wine, theres no reason to
And, by the way, I really dont think filtration
hurts a wine. Thats a myth.
But we make red wine in a style where we rack every 3
months. Racking is important for a red wine for many reasons. And its in barrel for
basically 2 years.
By the time the wine is ready to bottle, theres
nothing left to filter. The last few racks, for that matter, are basically brilliantly
clear. Youve removed all the sediment by racking.
And because of that -- if you make red wine the way we
make red wine -- there is no reason to filter.
Now if you felt there was a bacterial problem or a
potential refermentation later down the road -- you gotta filter! It would be terrible to
have a wine start fermenting in the bottle.
But we have quite clean winemaking. And were very
sure that all the fermentation is finished. By the end of harvest, even. So why should I
I think if I had to filter the wine I could probably do
it in a way that didnt affect the wines adversely. But filtering definitely
isnt going to help my wines, so why do it?
Unfortunately, I think people are just looking at the act
of filtering. And they make too much of it. You wont make better wine by simply not
"When youre striving not to filter...it leads you
to a winemaking style where you make better wines. The important thing isnt the
filtration. Its the winemaking that gets you there."
But when youre striving not to filter...it leads
you to a winemaking style where you make better wines. The important thing isnt
filtration. Its the winemaking that gets you there.
APJ: Can you ever ruin a wine by filtering?
RvS: Occasionally. No question about it. But I think the majority of filtrations add a
characteristic that for most people would be unnoticeable. Most of the great wines of the
world are filtered.
Its also unfortunate that the word
"unfiltered" has become a marketing term. Its buzzword. Theyre using
that now to sell wine that isnt very high in quality.
Part 7: How do you tame those famous Diamond Mountain tannins?
APJ: Before I tasted your wines, I frankly didnt have the patience to buy
Diamond Mountain wines. The tannins were just so ferocious. What do you do that makes your
wines so supple?
RvS: It comes back to tasting the fruit. We dont pick our vineyard until we feel
that the tannins in the grapes are mature.
When I taste the grapes, I actually spit out the middle
of the grape -- because thats where the sugar is and 24% sugar can mask a lot of
things. But you spit out the sweet part and chew and chew and chew the skins as you walk
along. Thats where all the tannins are. And you can tell the difference between a
very green, immature tannin and a mature tannin -- which has a much softer, rounder feel
So we only pick grapes when were sure the tannins
are mature. Regardless of pH, regardless of Brix, regardless of any other variable in the
vineyard. Because those other variables can all be dealt with in one way or another.
Too many people in the 80s and 70s were
picking because of pH. They thought the acid would make sure you had a stable wine. That
may be the case, but you can always add acid to the must, or to the finished wine.
But if youre going to pick your grapes when the
tannins are immature and the flavors arent developed -- what do you have? You have a
good pH but nothing else!
So thats a major part of making an elegant wine.
The other part is aerating the wine a lot when its young. Both during fermentation
and when its aging in barrels. We add a lot of oxygen and aerate the wine a lot.
And the maceration period -- the length of time we keep
the wine on the skins during fermentation. Thats very important. The tannins
definitely develop while in the tank. So you have to taste all the time its there.
But I dont taste every day -- I taste every other
day. The changes are subtle and if you taste every day, you dont notice the
difference. Its kind of like, you never see your kid growing, but if you go away for
a week and come back...wow, that kid is big.
"Ive developed a system where I can drain my
free-run juice without ever touching the skins."
Ive also developed a special way of draining our
tanks so that we can extract the free run juice without ever touching the skins.
Because, when youre checking the tannin levels,
what youre tasting is the free run juice. And if you dont drain the tank the
right way -- well, youre not getting what you tasted.
So I put a stainless steel screen mesh behind my bottom
valve -- and Ill drain my tank for 24 hours by gravity. Just letting it drip, drip,
drip into another tank, without ever disturbing the skins.
By the time the tank has drained for 24 hours, Ive
actually extracted the same free-run fraction as another winery would by doing it the
APJ: Okay, whats the old-fashioned way?
RvS: In the old-fashioned way, a winery would just drain the tank for an hour or two,
until it stops flowing quickly. Then they push the skins into the press with some of the
free run -- and they press lightly. And any juice they squeeze up to a certain pressure
would still be considered free-run.
But my feeling is, after 3 or 4 weeks in the tank, the
skins are ready to fall apart. Theyve been in an alcoholic solution for weeks. If
you touch the skins theyll pulverize in your hand.
So if you shovel, sluice or even touch those skins,
youre going to extract hard tannins. So thats why Ive developed a system
where I can drain my free-run juice without ever touching the skins.
APJ: What do you do with the press fraction?
RvS: Almost all of it goes into Freestone. The von Strasser is initially only free run.
Later on, when I evaluate the wine, I may add a barrel of press wine to the blend.
APJ: How much new oak do you use?
RvS: For our main Cabernet blend, we use 50% new barrels every year. And for the
Reserve, we use 100% new barrels. It shows how intense the fruit in the Reserve is,
because that wine is not at all oaky.
APJ: No, it isnt. What kind of flavors are you driving for?
RvS: One of our goals at von Strasser is to have the fruit and the vineyard terroir
characteristics to be the predominant aroma and flavor.
I want our wines to smell like cassis and brambles and
blueberries. All those wonderful things. I dont want it to smell like toast. Wine
writers tend to like toast, but we make wine for consumers.
Part 8. The 1998 vintage...and coming soon, The Diamond Cartel!
APJ: Describe the 98 vintage for us.
RvS: The nightmare vintage. Well, its funny.
During the last two weeks, Ive done a lot of
tasting of the 98s with other winemakers. And Im finding that I had a bleaker
image of the wines than they really deserve.
APJ: The tastings I did last month convinced me that 98 is pretty darned good.
RvS: Well, it was a very hard vintage. It was a very late bud break. Just like 1999 --
were just starting to see bud break now [note, the interview was conducted on
It was a vintage of mixed fruit set. Some vineyards set
really well, but some vineyards set terribly. Some people will tell you they had very low
yields -- and some say they had pretty good yields. I dont think anybody had
exceptionally high yields.
The summer had some unbelievable heat waves. I think we
had one heat wave which hit about 115 degrees [Fahrenheit] in most of Napa Valley. And it
stunted and scorched a lot of vines. Shriveled a lot of leaves. Sunburned a lot of fruit.
I mean, the average temperature for the season was pretty
normal. But this one particular heat wave did a lot of damage.
And the Cabernet harvest was unbelievably late! For
whatever reason, the vintage never caught up. You would think that the heat waves might
speed things along, but the fact is that vines shut down after 90-92 degrees. They just
dont do anything.
Up here, we picked most of our property at the end of
October to the beginning of November.
APJ: But isnt a late harvest supposed to be good?
RvS: The problem is, by that time, the nights are very cold. And there was a little
water on the ground, from some of the rains we had.
"Cabernet doesnt get rot -- but at some point the
vines start shutting down. You have a hard time ripening the fruit. What scared me was
that it took an awfully long time to get there."
Now Cabernet doesnt get rot, so you dont have
to worry about rot -- but at some point the vines start shutting down. And you have a hard
time ripening the fruit.
We did finally reach the sugars we wanted here. We picked
pretty much in the low to mid 24s [as measured in degrees Brix]. But what scared me was
that it took an awfully long time to get there. And we kept asking ourselves, "are
the vines going to make it?"
Rather than picking in the cool of the morning, we picked
in the heat of the day to try to allow the sun to boost the sugar a little bit higher. And
we were under the gun, trying to get it in before winter really hit.
Thats very untypical for us, because were on
a relatively hot spot on Diamond Mountain. Were south-facing. And normally our vines
just fly to ripeness.
Anyhow -- as I tasted the wines early on, they
didnt seem to have the intensity of color or character that I remembered in the
fermenter. And that was my early impression of the vintage. It was okay, but not super.
But now Ive done four blind tastings with other
winemakers. Ive taken my Cabernet and my Reserve from 96, 97 and
98 -- and Ive tasted them all in a setting where I dont know which is
which. And I cant pick them out.
APJ: Well, thats kind of how I felt too.
RvS: Yes, and thats why I do blind tastings. When I taste lots that are
identified, I find that my same comments often come up every time. But some of that
probably comes from my preconception of the wine.
So you see, its not easy for us either sometimes!
I still wouldnt say 1998 is the best year
weve had. Ill say its a good year -- on par with the average weve
seen in the 90s.
APJ: What do you think your best vintages have been?
RvS: My favorite wine Ive ever made is the 1991. The 94, 95 and
96 are all super.
I dont know -- you know, theyre all pretty
good! The 93 is a pretty light wine for us, but its a wine I just love having
with dinner these days. Its not our most intense wine, but its a wonderful
wine on its own.
Again, it all comes down to this. If you put wines
together -- as a winemaker or a wine judge -- we always pick out the darkest, most intense
wine as the best wines. But is that going to be your favorite wine to drink for dinner? I
All of our wines are well-balanced, theyre all
still very fruity and none of them are even close to being over the hill. Some are big and
broody, some are elegant and full of finesse, and its okay to be either.
APJ: Before we let you go -- are there any exciting plans for the future youd
like to talk about?
RvS: Yes! Let me tell you about The Diamond Cartel project.
Now that well have an AVA, we are hoping to make
more Diamond Mountain designated wines. We feel that we know this area very well and that
were as suited as anybody, if not more so, to make great wines from Diamond
So we increased our winery permit to 10,000 cases this
year, just for that goal. This November, were going to be digging a cave behind our
hills, which can hold 10,000 cases worth of wine.
We want to attract some of these smaller, high quality
plantings from Diamond Mountain. Were trying to get them to bring us their grapes --
either sell the grapes to us or do something with us as a partnership. And well make
wines out of their vineyards and give their vineyards a designation.
I want to keep the von Strasser name separate from that.
Weve spent 10 years building up the von Strasser identity and I think people know
that von Strasser is our estate wine. So I dont want to take my existing label and
all of a sudden have 5 new vineyard designations under it.
At the same time, my Freestone label doesnt demand
a high enough price or image to bottle these new vineyard-designated wines.
"The new label is going to be called The Diamond
Cartel and its a cartel of small Diamond Mountain vineyards. We have
three vineyards that have already committed to us..." The Diamond
Cartel and its a cartel of small Diamond Mountain vineyards. We have
three vineyards that have already committed to us..."
So Im creating a new label. And the new label is
going to be called The Diamond Cartel. Ive already trademarked that name. And
its a "cartel" of small Diamond Mountain vineyards. Kind of a play on the
diamond business -- a fun name.
We have three vineyards that have already committed to us
for The Diamond Cartel. There will be two levels of wine. The top wine for each property
is going to be vineyard-designated -- and that will be 30%-40% of that particular
The second level of Diamond Cartel is going to be a
Diamond Mountain bottling. And that wine will be a little less expensive. More of a
restaurant concept. You see, as Diamond Mountain becomes an AVA, were going to see a
lot of Diamond Mountain wines in the $50-$60 price range. And my feeling is, I want to
have the top wines competing in that range. But whats going to be missing is a
price-range thats a little more accessible -- especially for restaurants.
So thats the plan for The Diamond Cartel. Depending
on how many people come to me, I could have as many as 5 or 6 or 7 different designations
"When you give someone the vineyard designation, you put
a lot of equity there. If they take the grapes away, I have nothing. So you gotta pay well
and you gotta treat people well."
One important thing I realize is -- when you give someone
the vineyard designation, you put a lot of the equity into their name. Because if they
take the grapes away, I have nothing.
So you gotta pay well and you gotta treat people well.
And thats part of being a small winery -- the personal relationships you can have
When Ive pitched people, Ive been very open
about where the profit margins are, how I can share it with them and Ive offered
some of these people to come into partnerships. If they bring the grapes, Ill bring
the winemaking and we can split the profit.
And therefore they will make much more than if they just
sold the grapes. At the same time they wont get anything until the wine is sold.
APJ: They share the profits and the risk too.
"Im trying to create a system where someone would
never want to leave me and start their own winery."
RvS: Right. Its a neat project from a wine label point of view -- but also from a
business point of view. Im trying to create a system where someone would never want
to leave me and start their own winery. Hopefully theyre never going to leave me,
because theyll be doing well with me, without having to do all the work.
At the same time, if somebody builds a house on Diamond
Mountain and has 3/4 of an acre of cabernet in front of them, well, I can bottle all that
if I feel the wine is good enough. Thats the fun thing about this label.
APJ: What will the first vintage be for The Diamond Cartel?
RvS: Well get two vineyards in 1999 and a third vineyard in 2000.
APJ: Best of luck!
NOTE TO THIRSTY WINE LOVERS: von Strasser wines are hard to find but not impossible.
They're distributed in New York and New Jersey by Michael Skurnik Winesand
available in Washington D.C. at Bassin's MacArthur Beverage. I've seen them for
sale in Napa Valley at one of my favorite stores, Oakville Grocery. If you want
to learn more, click here to link to the
von StrasserWeb site.
Top of page
Back to previous page
Back to beginning of interview