This past February, a wine dealer convicted of setting a 2005 fire at a warehouse in Mare Island, Calif. housing over six million bottles of Napa wine, valued at more than $200 million, was sentenced to 27 years in prison. Mark Anderson, from Sausalito, was said to have set the fire to cover his tracks in a long-running wine embezzlement scheme.
The California warehouse - or what’s left of it - lies in ruins. Yet all of the bottles remain inside as evidence of the crime - one that hit more than 90 winery clients hard. Among the destroyed bottles are Rudy Von Strasser’s Diamond Mountain District cabernet sauvignons, including his entire 2003 vintage and almost all of 2002.
At the time of the fire, I was happily displaying Von Strasser’s 2000 and 2001 cabs on the wine list at Russets, and I was enjoying 97s and 99s (in half bottles) that were hiding in the back of Jimbo’s Liquor in Basalt. When I heard about the fire, the list of names came up, and soon after, I was sadly informed there would be no more Von Strasser for a while.
That “for a while” lasted approximately seven years for me, and recently I figured it was high time to track down what became my favorite wines of Napa. And, since my friend - and former Roaring Fork Valley resident - Keith Webster is using some barrels of Von Strasser’s juice in his initial spec-run blend for a wine-making project, I asked him to set up a little get-together up on Diamond Mountain.
We drove up and out of fog and heavy, dark purple clouds that loomed over the valley floor, winding up the narrow, rain-slickened road under giant redwood trees. What a sense of place!
At the top, we met up with Rudy and lightheartedly tasted/talked our way through the Diamond Mountain District estate, single vineyard and reserve wines. How overwhelming the smell of mossy evergreen and redwood that permeated the setting, infusing the smoky, berry and cocoa aromas of the wines as we sniffed and sipped. The depth of flavors as a curve, like the rim of the glass: nature’s arc with color, power, and grace, saturate these elixirs of Diamond Mountain.
We walked the property with Rudy’s trusty Labradors, played some stick-and-ball, and talked about many subjects. We noticed the bull’s-eyes on the hillside above the vines, which led Rudy to engage in a long discussion of archery - even turning us on to a local bow-maker. He led us to the winery, which is housed in a barn dating back to the 1860s. History: yes. Function: yes. Modern day winery splendor: no.
To this, Rudy happily confesses to using no designers or architects to build his winery dream. The rugged individualist admits that most local wineries’ landscaping budgets are more than his total operating budget.
But Von Strasser did not sleepwalk into this dream. He first studied apple farming at the University of New Hampshire, in order to craft hard cider, and later moved to Napa hoping to gain more knowledge of fermentation. He worked with Robert Mondavi for a year, before enrolling at UC Davis to study enology. In 1985, he talked his way into a Bordeaux internship, becoming the first American to work at Lafite-Rothschild.
Upon returning to Napa, Von Strasser worked for Trefethen and Newton before starting his own winery and vineyards, circa 1989. A decade later he championed creation of the Diamond Mountain District A.V.A., recognizing this special appellation above St. Helena and Calistoga, first planted in the 1860s by Jacob Schram, who later founded Schramsberg. Special because of both its human and natural history, the area’s soils are made of soft tufa and decomposed volcanic rock and glass – hence the name. The area is high and dry, sitting above the fog line; but at higher elevations the nights are cool, and the crunchy, light, porous soils cool easily, providing vines relief from daytime intense sun and scorching heat.
We went inside another jewel of this property: the candlelit cave, (the “Diamond mine”) and casually sat at a long table and talked shop, mostly about the nature of safety regulations, tax laws and the difficulty of distribution (filing taxes in every state that you do business in) and how Von StrasserCK is basically doing away with it, leaning on his tasting room/wine club for most of the sales of his 5,000-case production. Actually, Keith and Rudy did most of the talking while I groped dusty magnums and wooden crates of “pre-fire” library wines from the 90s.
While some claim Von Strasser’s reserve wine is California’s “biggest,” it is much more secretive than, say, wines from across the valley to the east, like Pine Ridge’s Howell Mountain or Chapellet’s Pritchard Hill. I would say it’s more understated, with French winemaking sensibilities and vineyards that employ natural stress and vigor.
For Von Strasser and his magical property, there is a theme of the phoenix rising; from hills made of volcanic fire to a new vineyard purchased with the insurance check from the arsonist’s inferno. This is Rudy Von Strasser’s Diamond Mine. Yet another gem well worth unearthing, if not for the first time, then surely to revisit after a long time gone.
Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.