Brad, the elder, is an LA dermatologist who has been collecting wine for more than 50 years. He’s been running an informal tasting group for all that time. Brad, the younger, is in real estate, and has been part of the group for 15 years. They often meet at Marino, where chef Sal Marino creates a menu for their wines. The chef may have been spending more time with the group at a recent cabernet dinner, since his father-in-law, Roberto Guldener, was in town, and had joined the tasting. Guldener, the founder of Terrabianca (Radda in Chianti), was seated next to me as we made our way through a range of Napa Valley reds.
Brad, the younger, was opening an auction lot he’d purchased long ago, six bottles of Diamond Creek 1991 cabernets, of which five remained: Red Rock Terrace, Volcanic Hill, Gravelly Meadow, Microclimate 3 from Red Rock and the Gravelly Meadow–Lake Blend. I hadn’t known the latter two existed. And I was excited to get to taste another Diamond Creek cabernet he brought from his cellar: the Lake Vineyard bottling from 1984. Others in the group had contributed 1991s: the Robert Mondavi Reserve, Kathryn Kennedy Estate, Montelena Estate and Groth Reserve. It was one of the great vintages of the 1990s, one of the last old-school cabernet vintages before ripeness began to take off in Napa Valley.
Over the course of the evening, I got a Tuscan perspective on mature Napa Valley cabernet—Guldener had grown cabernet sauvignon in Radda, for his super-Tuscan Campaccio and he was interested to taste the Diamond Creek wines. We discussed how the Volcanic Hill was continuing to open over the course of the night. For both of us, Red Rock Terrace had been the top wine, and remained in that prime position, but Volcanic Hill slowly raced to catch it.
Reactions around the room varied. I overheard a real estate developer across the table turn to his friend and say, “I keep changing my mind.” I looked over and it was clear that he was frustrated.
“I keep changing my mind,” he repeated to his friend. “I was wrong about the ones I liked at first.”
“You weren’t wrong,” I said across the table. “The wines are changing.” He and his friend looked up. “The wines are changing by the minute. It would take a lot longer for you to change.”
His friend laughed. “His wife would agree with you,” he said.
The conversation and the tasting moved on, and I left the poor guy to suffer in silence. Whether or not he would admit it, he didn’t like a moving target. In any case, what made these Diamond Creek wines great was exactly that—they were shifting in the glass, showing different facets of themselves. They were actively changing, not deteriorating, but developing. The Volcanic Hill, in particular, continued to offer more freshness as the evening progressed.
The dinner itself progressed from rabbit porchetta to maccheroncini Amatriciana. Then Chef Marino offered roast squab followed by Wagyu beef cheeks. Plenty of protein to handle the tannins of the wines, and another reason our perceptions of the wines continued to change.
The 1991 Gravelly Meadow was the most difficult bottle on the table, and I wondered if it had a tinge of TCA. The tannins were rustic, the fruit austere in its blackcurrant-skin saturation.
I had never tasted a blend of Gravelly Meadow with fruit from Lake, the vineyard across the creek and just up the hill to the west, where Al Bronstein had dammed off a small lake to provide irrigation water. The 1991 was firm, juicy and clean, showing more influence of caramelization from oak aging and a bit more volatility than the other bottlings.
The 1984 from Lake Vineyard was a true, old-fashioned Napa Valley cabernet, formal, with a tight structure and lean elegance. The fruit was still fragrant, the tannins cool, as if aged in a cave.
The freshest of the other Napa Valley 1991s was the Montelena, bright bold and juicy, still tight in its structure.
But the standouts were the 1991 Volcanic Hill and Red Rock Terrace.
The vines planted on a south-facing hillside of white volcanic tuff produced an edgy Volcanic Hill in 1991, the tannins opening in layers, meaty, rich, brisk and peppery.
Across the creek, the north-facing terraces on red, iron-rich soils offered a wine with delicate red fruit, lush and delicious, fragrant with plummy cabernet depths. The 1991 Red Rock Terrace was long on fresh fruit; there was a purity to this wine that stood above everything else on the table, including the Red Rock Terrace Microclimate 3, more powerful than the wine made from the entire vineyard, though tight and tough in that blackcurrant power.
Later, I asked Graham Wehmeier, the current winemaker at Diamond Creek, about this mysterious wine. He believes the number had to do with the picking sequence—as in a later, third round of picking. “In terms of the location,” he told me in an email exchange, “that equates to the lower part of the block. I can’t speak to how it behaved back then (it was the first part of the vineyard to be replanted, in the mid ’90s), but these days it is the most powerful part of Red Rock.” He finds that section, being the closest to Volcanic Hill, can hint at Volcanic Hill’s tannins.
Tasting the luscious and plummy 1991 Red Rock Terrace with his father-in-law, Chef Marino admitted that he’s always thought Diamond Creek was too tannic. “I like voluptuous,” he said. “this is voluptuous fruit. The fruit shines.”
The takeaway: Red Rock with squab, Volcanic Hill with Waygu beef cheeks.
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