2011 Joseph Phelps Insignia and Diamond Creek Cabs

For my 3-day birthday weekend in September, Rona and I decided to take Evan to Napa Valley. At 3.5, he is of the age when he would hopefully enjoy running through vineyards, pick grapes hanging in full glorious ripeness, and last through gourmet restaurants (while watching iPad, thank god for that!) I had a bit of extra motivation for Napa this time, because 2011's are just coming out, affording me an opportunity to evaluate something special for Evan's birth-year collection (he was born in 2011).

On my short list were Dunn, Phelps, Diamond Creek, Mayacamas, and Harlan. And Ridge of course, but that's another trip, not Napa. I was able to book Joseph Phelps and Diamond Creek this time, while the others requested to follow up later in the year, after the harvest. Visiting two major wineries with a kid in a 3-day weekend was perfect. One winery per day (2-3 hrs) is more than enough, and in the day in between, we drove to the very cool African Safari (Safari West) in Santa Rosa. Keep in mind that many wineries don't take appointments on weekends, so one has to plan for a weekday. Phelps accommodated on a Saturday, while Diamond Creek worked out for Monday.

Joseph Phelps

Joseph Phelps is in my opinion one of the best wineries to visit in Napa Valley. Not only are the wines good and historic, but also there is a fantastic visitor center overlooking Napa Valley, and you can book a picnic table and bring lunch while sipping their wines. Right now they are in the middle of a major renovation, so the old visitor center built out of the original winery (which has since been re-located lower down the hill) has been gutted and is being re-built from ground up. It will be an impressive, expansive space with room for classes, private and public tastings, etc., accommodating more visitors. In the meantime, a temporary visitor center was erected down the slope, in a vineyard, after some 20-year old Cabernet vines had been sacrificially ripped out. Once the new center is up next Spring (hopefully), the temporary one will be demolished, and the vineyard replanted. So it's an expensive operation, but obviously Joseph Phelps can afford it!

Considering the quality and the price of the wines, the winery has relatively large production. On average 12,000 cases of Insignia in a normal year (varying from 10,000 to 15,000, depending on the vintage), it was 12,000 in 2011. While most quality-oriented wineries in Napa had to reduce output in 2011 due to very difficult growing season, Phelps has six estate vineyards to draw on for the flagship Insignia, and therefore they were able to maintain their annual production level for this wine without sacrificing quality. Overall Phelps volume is ~65,000 cases (i.e. close to 800,000 bottles.)

2011 Insignia is also noteworthy as the first vintage composed from all 5 major Bordeaux grape varieties sourced from estate vineyards. First vintage with all estate fruit was 2004.

We went through the solid line-up of Phelps' wines, obviously my focus and anticipation were on the Insignia.

2011 Insignia is a very polished wine, classic deep dark-berry Cabernet flavors, with smooth tannins, perfumey herbs and tobacco. Even though 2011 is supposed to be a cooler vintage, the wine certainly has plenty of deep palate-staining fruit, full body and 14.5% alc. Acidity is good by Napa standards (i.e. still a bit lower than what I seek in old world wines) and the wine comes across as very refined and quite balanced. The slightly more pronounced tobacco, herbs and spices (a good thing!) betray a cooler vintage. While by Napa standards, perhaps this wine may be considered "shy" by some, to me this is the direction I like and wish they went even farther. Their regular Cabernet is no slouch either - has similar flavor profile, just less of everything, and certainly less refined. At about 1/3 of the price, it is worth considering. Note to self: buy cooler Napa vintages from good producers. We also tasted a 2006 Insignia from super hot vintage, and it showed pretty well, though not as balanced and polished as 2011.

One Chardonnay and two Pinot Noir are from their Sonoma Coast property called Freestone. Nicely balanced for California. Chardonnay shows some oak but not excessively. We enjoyed the 2012 Pinot Noir blend of all their Sonoma Coast vineyards and the 2010 "Quarter Moon" single vineyard higher-end bottling - more complex, with cooler fruit, medium body, hints of fermented dried prunes, complex whiffs of stems and spices, the extra year of age also helped I think. The 2011 was more fruit forward, but still not a fruit bomb. Nicely done for Cali, though certainly not for burg palates, although 2010 is quite interesting, needing just a touch more acidity.

On my way out I was happy to purchase a magnum of the 2011 Insignia for Evan's birth-year collection. In cold storage, I am optimistic, it will see Evan's 30th birthday in fine shape!

Diamond Creek

Took me three years to set this one up, ever since I ran into them at Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries, and loved their 2007's.

They don't see much general public, and this relatively small (12-employee) family winery has a long-standing reputation among wine connoisseurs. The property is not easy to find, there isn't even a sign on the road. They host two big events per year for their members, and otherwise it's a fairly exclusive property to get a visit to. So I was happy when Phil Ross agreed to receive us.

Diamond Creek was the first winery in California to focus exclusively on Cabernet-based wines. They were also a pioneer in bottling single-vineyards, with the goal to express individual and distinct terroirs of their three main vineyards - Red Rock Terrace (7 acres), Volcanic Hill (8 acres), and Gravely Meadow (5 acres). Occasionally, in an exceptional vintage a fourth vineyard - Lake (3/4 acre) - gets bottled, but not in 2011. Lake vineyard (on the far shore of the man-made lake) was planted in 1972 - it is the coolest, slowest ripening vineyard, that has only been bottled 14 times. Gravely Meadow is the next coolest vineyard, located on a relatively flat ground, lower than Red Rock and Volcanic Hill. There is one more (unnamed) vineyard that grows 100% Petit Verdot used as a blending grape for their cabs. The special micro-climate of the property with little to no fog in the morning provides for early morning sun warming up the vines, while the cool breeze coming through a cut in the Mayacamas mountain range from the Pacific ocean and Russian river cools the vines in the afternoon. This results in longer and cooler growing season (which is good for grapes). Special care is taken during harvest to pick only mature grapes, which means multiple passes through the vineyard. In 2011, due to cooler, rainier season, about 1200 cases (30% less than normal) were produced as the winery decided early to drop much fruit to assure ripeness. Average annual production is under 2000 cases. While the winery certainly has the opportunity to expand their vineyards and their production, they have decided against, in order to focus on quality rather than quantity. There are fewer than 100 magnums of each vineyard, and I was excited to snag a mag of Volcanic Hill for Evan's birth-year collection, hand-signed and dedicated to Evan by Phil Ross.

Diamond Creek Vineyards was founded by Al Brounstein and his wife Boots in 1968. The first vintage that was released was 1972. Al passed away in 2006 at the age of 86, while Boots (now 87) is still actively involved. A visionary and renaissance man, Al created a beautiful property out of foresty hillside on Diamond Mountain, west of Calistoga. He envisioned a lake, vineyards, waterfalls, island, and never hired any landscape architects. It took years of clearing the terrain, building and landscaping to make this incredibly natural looking oasis. This area had had some history of grape growing of indigenous varieties by native Indians. But Al was the first modern man to cultivate here using European varieties.

Man-made lake, with the Lake vineyard seen on the far shore.

His step-son (Boots' son) Phil Ross - director of Sales & Marketing - conducted the tour and tasting. Now 65, Phil has been working on the property for 25 yrs. He was very gracious and knowledgeable. Evan loved running through the vineyard, tasting grapes, and riding in a golf cart trough the breathtaking territory.

And so the story goes...

Al studied art in France at the University of Sorbonne art school and spoke French fluently, along with several other languages. In 1950 at the age of 30, he moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles and started a proprietary drug distributorship called Standard Brand Company which became successful. In 1960, on a whim he took a French wine class at UCLA instead of French literature that he was interested in, since they only had one French related class and it was on wine appreciation. And loved it! With that, Al caught the wine bug and started looking how we can change his lifestyle in that direction. A winery he paid close attention was Ridge (in Santa Cruz Mountains). Al started visiting his friends at Ridge, and even worked several harvests there, which eventually led him to finding a mountain property in Napa Valley in mid-sixties. With encouragement from the famous Louis Martini and Andre Tchelistcheff, he bought 80 acres on Diamond Mountain for $100k, planted 20 acres of it with St. George root-stock (phylloxera resistant variety, which proved fortuitous in the 80's when Napa got hit by phylloxera, thus to-date Diamond Creek has some of the oldest surviving Cabernet vines in California). A lover of French wine, particularly Bordeaux and Burgundy, and a pilot, he smuggled vine cuttings from Bordeaux via Mexico. The vines were acquired from three of the four original Bordeaux first growths (it's a secret which three), and planted in all the vineyards. The vineyards are field blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, harvested and vinified together. After he had started clearing the terrain, he discovered three distinct soil types, which naturally yielded themselves to three different vineyards. In a pioneering move, Al decided to vinify and bottle separately, as per great domaines of Burgundy. While he loved both Bordeaux and Burgundy, he correctly thought Napa was more suited to Bordeaux varieties. In the 46 year history of the estate, there have only been two winemakers - Jerry Luper, who was there for 20 years, and the current winemaker Phil Steinschriber.

[Note: for additional information about Diamond Creek, I found Al Brounstein's interview with Wine Spectator, published in 2006, very illuminating. As well as another article here.]

Tasting impressions

2011 Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace - Similar to Volcanic Hill but less stony. Cool, with perceptible tannins, black cherries, forest and dark berries, almost silky (once you get past the tannins). Should be very silky eventually. Super drinkable.

2011 Diamond Creek Gravely Meadow - Much more open, fruit forward, creamier nose (almost cheese and liqueur). Beautiful palate, redder fruit, plush and inviting but cool, definitely riper, some dry plum coming through (a hint of raisin), very tasty although the cheese/milky aspect is a little distracting right now.

2011 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill - Stone and dark deep fruit. Slightly more tannic than Red Rock, but the tannins are not massive, dark berries, forest trees, no chocolate, long finish. This is the most intense of the bunch. Delicious.

Tasting Joseph Phelps and Diamond Creek gave me insight into the much-maligned 2011 vintage in Napa Valley, and fascinating stylistic contrast between the flagship wines of these two esteemed estates.

First, on 2011, supposedly the worst vintage in Napa in years if not decades...
All I can say, based on this very small sample, is if this is a "bad" vintage, bring it on! I recognize that in a challenging vintage like this, a winery has to do more work, stricter selection, cutting down yields, and perhaps not making as much profit. But it seems to me that it is perhaps the price to pay to make more balanced wines in the hot California climate. Mind you, these 2011's are by no means shy or lacking, in my opinion. They are rich, suave, deep, and well balanced, and unmistakenly California. The cooler year imprinted slightly better acidity, lower alcohol, and more complexity, which is manifested in nuances of herbs, spices and minerals un-clobbered by fruit. In a typical Napa vintage, the richness and chocolatiness will dominate the wine. Certainly over the years, California wineries have perfected that style to a very high bar of quality. However, in 2011, I see more balance. The Insignia is still a rich full-bodied wine at 14.15% alcohol (note: a Robert Parker review stated 14.1%), and comes across complex, polished and refined. The fact that Parker gave Insignia a slightly lower than usual score (90-93) is further indication that this wine is quite up my sleeve more so than a product of a "typical" high-scoring "blockbuster" year. Diamond Creek's wines are more rugged, darker, stonier, cooler, and at lower 13.5% alcohol, a little leaner and easier to drink with food. Diamond Creek's mountain expression and restrained sensibility reminds me of my favorites Dunn and Ridge - the old-school California classics, whereas Joseph Phelps occupies a spot somewhere in between the old school and the cult cabs, reminding me of Opus, Dominus, etc., certainly not reaching the concentration of Bond or Harlan.

In the end, I am quite intrigued and excited by the 2011 vintage in Napa, and will certainly continue to look for opportunities to taste and drink more of them.


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