3 Pioneer Wine Producers of the Mayacamas Mountains

Tasting notes from three important Napa Valley Wineries

Recently I visited Napa Valley with my good friend and Underground Wine Letter contributing editor John Morrill. We saw old friends and some new ones, but also revisited three wineries that I first went to in the early 1970s shortly after they produced their first wines. For decades, all continued to produce traditional wines that are balanced and have the ability to age for a very long time.

Diamond Creek and Mayacamas are still going strong. Sadly, Diamond Creek is without its founder and guiding light, Al Brounstein, who passed away in 2006. But today, under the direction of his widow, Boots, and her son, Phil Ross, along with long time winemaker Phil Steinschreiber, they are continuing the tradition that I am sure would make Al proud. At Mayacamas, Bob Travers remains owner and wine maker. With help from his son, Chris Travers, he is still going strong after 44 years at the helm. He continues to follow his long-standing philosophy of making wines that are balanced and capable of aging for a very long time. At Ritchie Creek, Pete Minor, owner and winemaker, has retired and now sells his cabernet sauvignon grapes — 5 tons from six acres! Unfortunately, the grapes are blended with other grapes so the property no longer has a visible identity. Pete does continue to make a very small quantity of estate pinot noir for personal consumption.

These three iconic Napa wineries pioneered growing grapes and making wine from the Mayacamas Mountains of Napa Valley. This mountain range separates Napa from Sonoma and extends north to south from Diamond Mountain in Calistoga (now Diamond Mountain American Vinticultural Area or AVA) to spring Mountain in St. Helena (now Spring Mountain American Vinticultural Area or AVA) to Mt. Veeder in Oakville (now Mt. Veeder American Vinticultural Area or AVA). Below are the stories of these three pioneer wineries and notes on some of their wines.

Diamond Creek Vineyards
Founded in 1968, Diamond Creek is California’s first exclusively cabernet sauvignon estate vineyard. The first vintage was 1972. Visionary pioneer Al Brounstein defied conventions and planted Bordeaux varietals on secluded Diamond Mountain. Four separate vineyards — Volcanic Hill, Red Rock Terrace, Gravelly Meadow, and Lake — produce a small amount of long-lived wines that are elegant with great depth and richness. Later a small amount of petit verdot was planted and since 1999 this has been blended into all the wines and now accounts for 2 to 3 percent of each bottling.

Below are notes on some older Diamond Creek Cabernets tasted there as well as notes on the 2010s tasted from barrel.

2000 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Red Rock Terrace Napa Valley
Dark in color this Red Rock Terrace has an earthy berry-tinged perfume with a hint of cedar. It is rounded and supple with a plummy fruit showing hints of earth and cedar. Balanced with a nice finish this wine is nice to drink now and should hold for many more years — Recommended Plus.

2001 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Volcanic Hill Napa Valley
Dark in color, this wine has a deep perfume showing plum like fruit with hints of earth and cedar. It is rich, rounded and supple showing plum like fruit tinged with hints of spice and a faint dusty undertone. The underlying tannins are balanced and while the wine is approaching maturity, it is still a few years away — Highly Recommended.

2004 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Volcanic Hill Napa Valley
Dark in color with a deep perfume of cassis and plums with a kiss of vanilla and spice, this Volcanic Hill is a baby. It has lots of deep rich fruit and balanced tannin, but will repay aging for at least five more years — Outstanding.

2005 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Volcanic Hill Napa Valley
A classic Volcanic Hill, this wine is very dark in color and has a stunning perfume of cassis plum and cedar. With great intensity and fruit, the wine is rich with great structure and a very long finish — Outstanding Plus.

2006 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Gravelly Meadow Napa Valley
Dark in color, this wine has a deep perfume with a faint dusty quality. On the palate it is rounded and balanced with lovely cedar tinged plum like fruit. Already appealing, this Gravelly Meadow should age for many years — Highly Recommended Plus.

Barrel Samples: 2010 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
The notes below are based on tasting from one barrel of each wine. The wines are listed in the order tasted. At the time of my tasting the decision whether or not to bottle the Lake separately had not been made. Since the first vintage bottling in 1978, Lake Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has been made in only 13 vintages. After the tasting, my recommendation was to bottle the Lake separately. I think this is the likely outcome. If so, that would make 2010 the 14th bottling of Lake in the last 32 years.

2010 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Lake Napa Valley
Seven barrels of this wine were produced in 2010. It is really stunning. The color is very dark and there is a gorgeous perfume of cassis and mulberry with floral nuances and a kiss of spice. The wine is rich and lush with great complex fruit showing blackberry and cassis with hints of plum cedar and spice. Beautifully balanced this 2010 Lake is yet another classic in the making — Exceptional Potential.

2010 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Volcanic Hill Napa Valley
This is a rich wine packed with fruit. It is very dark in color and has a deep perfume of cassis and blackberry with a touch of spice. There is lots of spice-tinged fruit and the wine is tannic but balanced with richness and depth. This should be a terrific Volcanic Hill — Outstanding Plus Potential.

2010 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Gravelly Meadow Napa Valley
Very dark in color, this Gravelly Meadow shows a deep perfume of plum and cassis with a touch of spice. With gorgeous fruit and lovely balance, this wine is seductive and rich yet with elegance — Outstanding Plus Potential.

2010 Diamond Creek Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Red Rock Terrace Napa Valley
Very dark in color, this is a lovely Red Rock Terrace with a lovely berry perfume accented by a faint floral spiciness. With gorgeous fruit and balance this wine will likely show very well in its youth but also has the structure to age for many years — Outstanding Potential.

Ritchie Creek Vineyards
More than 30 years ago, my wife Laurie and friends Geoffrey Troy and Ed Lazarus, Underground contributing editors, first visited Pete Minor way up on Spring Mountain. Through a mutual friend we had learned of his wines and were impressed with them and that led us there. We found Pete working in the vineyards. A dentist by profession, he purchased the eight-acre property in 1966. At that time there were only 30 wineries in Napa Valley so he was a real pioneer — in every sense of the word. He cleared the land and planted the vineyards in 1967. The original vineyard was four acres of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Later there was a bit of pinot noir and an obscure white varietal that he planted. He also built a house and in 1974 built the winery. All of this was done completely without any outside help and he did this mostly on weekends and some weekdays while still maintaining his dental practice in the Bay area.

From the beginning in the 1970s, the wines were balanced and very flavorful. Total production in an average year was only 800 cases. The cabernets have stood the test of time and have aged beautifully. Our visit this year was the first in some 30 years. Things are still pretty much the same except Pete has retired and no longer makes Ritchie Creek Cabernet. We had a wonderful visit and hope to revisit soon. Drinking the old wines will be a lot of fun. I still have a lot of them in my cellar and can match them up with some of the newer wines for comparison. But, sadly, I cannot direct you to the wines. However, should you ever see them for sale buy them if they have been well cellared. 
 

1983 Ritchie Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
This is a lovely old cabernet that is very claret like in style. It has a deep color with amber tones and an amber edge. The perfume is cedary with a forest like nuance and subtle hints of floral spiciness. Elegant and refined, the wine has lovely cedary fruit and is balanced and rounded with a very nice finish — Outstanding.

2007 Ritchie Creek Cabernet Sauvignon spring Mountain Napa Valley
Alas, as mentioned earlier, this is the last vintage for Ritchie Creek Cabernet. Produced in a very small quantity, it will be difficult to find. But, if you see it, buy it. Dark in color, the wine has a deep perfume of plums and cassis with hints of blackberry and cedar. It is supple and rounded with heaps of cedar tinged fruit yet is has great underlying structure. The balance here is stunning and this should be an elegant seamless wine as it full develops over the next 15 to 20 years — Outstanding Plus.  $50

2009 Ritchie Creek Pinot Noir Spring Mountain Napa Valley
This wine is made from one acre of vines planted in the early 1980s. Production is typically around 50 cases and the wine is not sold commercially. This 2009 is gorgeous. It has a deep color and a gorgeous floral berry perfume with a kiss of spice. Elegant, supple, and refined yet loaded with fruit and flavor, this pinot noir is simply delicious — Outstanding.

Mayacamas Vineyards
Mayacamas has a long history dating back to the early 19th century. In 1968, Bob Travers and his wife Nonie purchased the property. (To read the complete story of Mayacamas Vineyards click here.) My first visit there with my wife Laurie and friends Ed Lazarus and Geoffrey Troy, Underground contributing editors, was in the early 1970s. The winery was very traditional and gravity fed. The vineyards were scattered around the winery. And, it was a real journey to get there. Revisiting there this year for the first time in some 30 years, everything is still pretty much the same. There are some stainless steel tanks and the vines are a lot older, but that’s about it! The setting is remarkable with views to San Francisco Bay, the city, and the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day.

The wines here are classic California wines. The mountain vineyards produce very small quantities of intensely flavored fruit. Originally, Bob Travers used 30 percent new wood for the red wines and 20 percent new wood for the whites. Now those percentages are reduced by one half to further minimize the influence of the wood. Mayacamas produces only about 1,500 cases of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay a year. The 1970 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon is legendary. It took more than 20 years for the wine to finally hit its stride, but today it is marvelous. I took one on this trip and it was stunning with no signs of fatigue at all! Likewise, the Mayacamas Chardonnays, unlike most California chardonnays, can be very long-lived, improving with time and taking five or more years to peak and holding well beyond. There are also a few hundred cases produced each year from estate-grown merlot, pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc.

The 2010 vintage produced a small crop of high quality fruit. Likewise, Bob really likes his 2011s, but it was the smallest crop ever.

Below are notes on current and future Mayacamas wines tasted there and at home as well as the 1970 cabernet sauvignon from my cellar which we drank in Napa. The sauvignon blanc and 2009 chardonnay were just released. The 2006 cabernet and 2007 merlot were released last fall. The 1999 cabernet is the current library release as is the 2005 chardonnay.

2010 Mayacamas Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Mt. Veeder Napa Valley
There were 325 cases of this wine produced. Light yellow in color, this sauvignon blanc is light yellow in color and has a lovely perfume showing a hint of citrus and a faintly floral herbal nuance. It is rounded and flavorful with herbal tinged fruit and an underlying citrus tinged crispness. Unlike many of the fruit forward sauvignon blancs from California, this one has depth and structure and will benefit fro a year or more bottle age. In fact, in tasting the wine over five days it was more open and rounder after the third day — Highly Recommended. $25

2009 Mayacamas Vineyard Chardonnay Mt. Veeder Napa Valley
This vintage produced 1,158 cases. The wine is light yellow in color with a faint golden hue and shows a lovely floral perfume with hints of apple and peach with a nice citrus crispness. It is flavorful and has wonderfully integrated fruit showing just a tinge of vanilla. Very pure and expressive, the wine opens with air. Best decanted well in advance of serving, and I would expect this wine to improve for several years and keep well beyond. Bob recommends drinking it now and through 2018 — Outstanding. $30

2005 Mayacamas Vineyard Chardonnay Mt. Veeder Napa Valley
This recent library release from the winery is a great example of the extra nuances that evolve in Mayacamas Chardonnay with a few years bottle age. The wine is light yellow gold in color and has a gorgeous perfume that has floral notes tinged with apricot and peach and a faint citrus undertone. It has great fruit, again with peach and apricot, and is very pure and rounded with a nice underlying crispness. This is a classic California chardonnay that is balanced, well defined, and expressive. Tasted over nearly a week the wine held beautifully — Outstanding Plus. $45

2006 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Napa Valley
This vintage produced 1,388 cases. As is customary with Mayacamas Cabernets, they are aged two and a half years in wood and bottle and then released for sale after five years. This 2006 is the fall 2011 release and the 2007 will be released this fall. Blended with 14 percent merlot and 1 percent cabernet franc, this cabernet has a dark color and a deep floral berry perfume with hints of mint and plum. It is impressively rich and flavorful and has great structure. The flavors are complex and show berry fruit with mint and spice nuances. The wine also opens with air and then shows a more rounded and supple impression. Ideally, this cabernet should be laid down for a few years and undoubtedly it will continue to evolve for many years thereafter — Outstanding Plus. $65

2007 Mayacamas Vineyards Merlot Mt. Veeder Napa Valley
There were 600 cases of this wine produced. It is blended with 10 percent cabernet sauvignon and was released for sale last fall. The wine has a dark color and a deep perfume showing plum and floral notes with a tinge of spice. It has lovely fruit and balance and is supple and rounded showing a faint herbal and spice note. This is a very nice merlot that drinks well now, but should also keep for many years — Highly Recommended. $35

1999 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
This is a gorgeous cabernet that shows the benefits of a decade or so of bottle age. It is blended with 2 percent merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc. The alcohol is 12 ½ percent. The wine is dark in color with a gorgeous spice tinged mulberry perfume. Flavorful, rich, rounded, and supple, this cabernet has very pure fruit and a gorgeous finish. It is delicious to drink now, but this wine should age effortlessly for 10 or more years — Outstanding Plus.

1970 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Mountain
My friends and I all loved this wine when it was first released. I bought a case of bottles and a case of magnums. After waiting a few years, I tried a bottle and the wine was completely closed and quite tannic. It remained in this state for about 20 years and then gradually began to open. This is the first bottle that I have opened in the last 10 or so years. I still have most of the bottles from the original case and all the magnums. At last, the wine has reached the peak of its evolution and has fulfilled the promise of its youth. This is a classic California cabernet. Dark in color with some amber at the edge, the wine has a stunning perfume of cassis and cedar with a faint hint of mint. It has tremendous richness and fruit and a wonderful cedary complexity. The wine is rounded and flavorful and the finish goes on and on. For sure it is delicious to drink now, but there is no hurry. My guess is that the magnums will still be great 20 or more years from now. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say that for myself! No matter, the wine is great and well worth the wait — Extraordinary.
 

—John Tilson, Underground Wine Letter

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