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People 9 minutes 02 August 2019

A Conversation with Diamond Creek Vineyards’s Boots Brounstein and Phil Ross

Boots Brounstein, a Napa Valley legend, has passed away at the age of 92.

wine in memoriam

Spritely and vivacious to the end, Boots Brounstein was one of Napa’s great personalities, and with her passing at the age of 92, the Valley has lost another important piece of its living history. Boots and her visionary husband Al were part of California wine’s pioneering generation, founding Diamond Creek Vineyards in 1968 in the forested hills southwest of Calistoga. The striking quality and considerable longevity of the wines they made, as well as their trail-blazing decision to embrace the concept of terroir by bottling the Cabernet Sauvignon produced from four distinct but contiguous vineyards separately, entitle them to a leading place in any Napa Valley hall of fame. When Al Brounstein lost a long battle with Parkinson’s—a disease which he used to joke gave him “the fastest hands in the West”—in 2006, Boots stewarded the Diamond Creek legacy into the future. Anyone who met her will remember her as a gracious hostess and lively conversationalist, whose tangible love of life was just as inspiring as the wines that she and her late husband produced. 

-William Kelley, Robert Parker Wine Advocate reviewer for Burgundy, Chablis, Beaujolais, Champagne, Madeira and English Sparkling Wine

Interview by Erin Brooks, Robert Parker Wine Advocate reviewer for Oregon, Sonoma County and California Central Coast

Where did you grow up? 
Boots: I was born in Oakland. My dad had a business there. I left there when I was quite young, maybe two years old, and moved to L.A. I stayed there until my dad decided to have his business in San Francisco. In 1937, they had the fair and the Golden Gate opened. I do remember that. The whole city celebrated the Golden Gate. We all had to wear western clothes and if we didn’t, they’d put us in jail two or three minutes. It was a fun time to live here. Then I went back to L.A. I went to high school and college there. I got married in L.A. and had my two sons in L.A. I stayed there until I met Al. 

How did you meet Al? 
Boots: I had my two boys and I was divorced. It was a blind date, a setup by mutual friends. He took me in the Hollywood hills for a drink with a beautiful view of L.A. We just talked. On the second date, he got tickets for the tournament of roses and invited us all to go. He was a pilot and flew an airplane. He decided he’d take my boys to see the airplane. “Do you want to see the inside? You want to take a ride?” he asked. I said, “I’m not going to let my boys go out in a single engine!” So, he got me up in the airplane.
Boots and Al Bronstein circa 1980. (Photo courtesy of Diamond Creek Vineyards.)
Boots and Al Bronstein circa 1980. (Photo courtesy of Diamond Creek Vineyards.)
Tell me about Al’s background. How did he get into wine?
Boots: He was born in Canada. He went to Minnesota and then moved to California because he didn’t like cold weather. He started his business from scratch when he was in his 20s. When he was in his 40s, he was bored with his business. It took him where he wanted to go and he could fly his airplane, but he was looking. Al had to be challenged.

He really didn’t know much about wine but he liked it. He was drinking Paul Masson, nothing decent or good. He was into anything French. He spoke the language really well, and he always liked to take courses at UCLA. He saw a course about French wines. There were the words “French” and “wine” and so he took the course. They tasted the great growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy and he was absolutely intrigued. I don’t think he ever went back to drinking Paul Masson! So, he went to Bordeaux, went into the fields and spoke with the workers. It all came together.

Al was interested in wine when I met him. I was working at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. I didn’t know much about wine. We had a date and I remember going to the wine buyer at the hotel and saying, “I’m going on a date with this gentleman and I want to bring a special wine,” because Al was very knowledgeable about French wines and wines around the world. The buyer suggested a French wine of course. I took it to dinner. I think wine is romance, I really do, and Al talked about it as the years went on, that that was a very romantic evening with an incredible wine. Neither of us remembers the wine, just it being a romantic evening, a nice restaurant, good food, good company. Wine is social, it brings people together. It’s a wonderful memory.

What was it like on Diamond Mountain back then? There must not have been much up here.
Boots: Well, I could always find a parking space! It was quiet. We certainly didn’t have the traffic we have now. There were no restaurants. If we wanted really good food, we had to go into San Francisco. And you have to realize there was nothing up here. We made the wines here in redwood tanks. There was no building. And we rented equipment. We had no facility for our barrels and used other wineries. This was 1970. There weren’t as many vineyards or wineries. It was empty land. I remember when the signal went up in St. Helena and in Calistoga. “What are they doing with a signal in Calistoga?” we would say. It’s not the same valley, but it happens.

Phil: There was no home here. So Al commuted to Napa every day until they decided to build a home here. Napa was really rural. You felt like you were out in farmland. At that time, there was still cattle in the valley.

Boots: Oh my god, it’s all so long ago. 

Were you nervous about moving with Al to Napa Valley? 
Boots: It was my second marriage and my kids were already grown. I wasn’t scared. I was a little intrigued, I think. I thought, does Al know what he’s doing? I had to learn about wine. He was much more knowledgeable than I was. I just was at his side promoting the wine, because nobody had heard of us. I guess it was love. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I guess when you love somebody, yeah, you just don’t think about it.

Why did you and Al decide on Cabernet Sauvignon and on a hillside vineyard? That was really pioneering back then.
Boots: I really do think Al was a complete visionary. What did he see here to make him buy this property? I really can’t answer. He was a maverick. He discovered that he had three different vineyards here—nobody in the valley was separating vineyards into terroirs at that time. Al said, “Our vineyards are different.” He had them analyzed and the soils are different. So he kept the wines separate, and the wines were different. So we bottled three wines. Al would take his three bottles into retailers and say, “Hi, I’m Al Brounstein. I have 20 acres in Napa. I have three different vineyards within the 20 acres.” The retailers would look at him quizzically and say, “You have three vineyards? Blend them together, I’m not giving you that space on my shelf!” Al said, “When Domaine de la Romanée-Conti blends their Romanée-Conti, I’ll think about it.” He’d tell retailers, “I don’t have enough wine, you can’t taste them. I won’t have anything to sell.” The retailer would say, “Goodbye! Good luck!”

Phil: What really got his interest going was that wine course at UCLA in 1960. That exposed him to some really great wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. And he knew some of the original owners of Ridge Vineyards, before Paul Draper.

Boots: Al would go up to harvest with Ridge. This is before Diamond Creek. Ridge was in the mountains. And it was Cabernet Sauvignon. Al wouldn’t even look at the valley floor. Cabernet, that’s all he was interested in. No other varieties, no white wine. And definitely hillside. When he first came up here, there weren’t a lot of plantings of Cabernet. Château Montelena was up here, but there was nothing in the mountains. The only hesitation he had was whether this was good spot for Cabernet. The guru at that time was André Tchelistcheff. Al called him and said, “I have this piece of property up here and I want to see how you feel about planting Cabernet up here?” André said, “I think it’s a great spot.” Al loved to hear that. He consulted Louis Martini, Sr. and said, “What do you think?” Everybody that he talked to said they thought this was really an ideal spot for Cabernet. Al said, “They know more than I do, so I’m going to buy the property.” And he did.

He was different. Al had an extreme amount of charisma. He was fun. Another interesting thing about Al, he could never have partners because he had to do it his way. And I kind of let him do it his way. And if he made a mistake, he was never upset with himself. He would say, “Well, that didn’t work, let’s try this.” 

Was it ever challenging to have a partner who was such a visionary?
Boots: I felt very much a part of things. Because we did a lot together. We traveled together. I think we were a team. Like the way he named vineyards. Al always kept a little notebook next to him and a lot of work was done from the bed. One night he said, “I have the name of the vineyards! Red rock terrace—red soil, it’s rocky, it’s a terrace. Volcanic Hill—a hill with volcanic soil. Gravelly Meadow—it’s a meadow.” Those ideas came in the middle of the night and he’d say, “What do you think, Boots?”

Have you faced specific challenges in this industry as a woman? 
Boots: There were a lot of strong women at that time. Jamie Davies from Schramsberg, Molly Chappellet, Alice Heitz. I thought, wow, can I keep up with them? But everybody was so nice. There was no feeling of competition. We never felt, oh boy, buy my wine and not yours. That’s not in this industry to this day. It’s not there. Absolutely not.

What have been some of the keys to you and Al’s success with Diamond Creek? 
Boots: The first word that comes to me—I think we were lucky. Really and truly. I kind of believe in luck. This is the property we picked, the timing, it was an incredible time in this valley to begin a winery. And Al was a visionary. He knew what he wanted, and nobody was going to change his mind. We would go to tastings and people would say, “Where’s your white wine? What do you mean? Of course you make a white wine, we want to try it!” Because most people made a red wine and a white wine. Al was totally uninterested. They just couldn’t understand. But Al didn’t care. He had blinders on. This is what he wanted. And I just went along with it because I figured, why not?

Phil: He wanted to put quality in the bottle. That was extremely important.

Boots: Absolutely. He felt we could make a wine as good as the French. There was no question about that.
(Photo courtesy of Diamond Creek/Facebook.)
(Photo courtesy of Diamond Creek/Facebook.)
Phil: He didn’t want to just make any wine. Taking that class at UCLA exposed him to the top Burgundian properties and first growth Bordeaux wines. That was the game changer. After that class, it motivated him that he wanted to recreate that in California.

Boots: Well, he wanted to go into the business, but it didn’t happen overnight. It was only after he took the course and tasted all those wines that he really, truly, sincerely felt that here in Napa Valley, we could make wine equal to those in France. But he also felt that he had learned from them. He always said it in French, that he learned from the French.

What legacy do you think Diamond Creek has had on the Napa Valley?
Boots: We’re pretty tiny. I like to feel it’s in the bottle. The legacy is in the bottle.

Phil: Well, I think you’re being very humble. Because I think that if you talk to other vintners in the valley and ask about Diamond Creek, they would say what you and Al did was pioneering in a lot of different areas. What Al was doing, which is now common in the industry, was not common at that time. Al and some of his other colleagues had to set that precedent which is now the norm.

Boots: I remember, he would keep referring to terroir to retailers, and they didn’t know what he was talking about.

Phil: You and Al were one of the first single vineyards.

Boots: Yes, and we weren’t interested in anything but Cabernet.

Phil: And what about price point?

Boots: We were the first people to have a $100 bottle of wine. It was our Lake Vineyard wine, from little less than an acre. Al felt that our wine was worth the same amount of money they were getting for the first growths. He was highly criticized when he raised his prices. But it just rolled off of him. So we were the first to sell a $100 bottle of wine here in Napa Valley.

Phil: Didn’t he also think of price as changing perception of California wines? Ok, with French wines you don’t blink an eye, but you do with California.

Boots: He felt that, especially with Bordeaux wines, and also Domaine de la Romanée-Conti even though it was Pinot Noir, he felt our wine was as good and worth that. So he had this little tiny vineyard, that is to this day quite an incredible wine. And he said, “Why not?” So he put a $100 price tag on it. And it did sell. At the time, people thought, who’s going to buy that wine? Well, it sold out very quickly. At the second Napa Valley auction, it brought in the top bid. It was a lot of money in those days. Michael Broadbent was the auctioneer. He and his wife became our dear friends. We were so tiny and it brought the top bid and Michael was like, who the heck are they? He came to visit and we became very, very close personal friends. Very few people had ever heard of us.

Phil: In 1972 it was $7.50 a bottle. That was still more than other people, who were charging $5.00.

Boots: Al had an uncle who was a banker and he said, “Why would you want to sell $5.00 wine and go into the wine business?” Al said, “I don’t! I want to sell $7.00 bottles of wine!”

Phil: Even back then, you could get first growths for around $20.00. If you compare it to real estate, look what it went for then and what it does now.

Boots: All you have to do is look at the price of a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread.

What are your hopes for the future of Diamond Creek? 
Boots: Well, I hope that family will remain here. I guess a lot of people hope for that. I have grandchildren and sons. That’s what you hope for.

How do you define terroir?
Boots: Oh. Well, it’s interesting soil. It’s a word that Al picked up because he spoke French. So I think the French use it even more than we do, even today. We became very good friends with May-Éliane de Lencquesaing from Pauillac’s Château Pichon Lalande. We used to go visit, and they would visit us, and we would share what we were both doing. She was honest about how they made wine and Al was honest about what he did. He always thanked the French, he always did. And of course, now you have a lot of French owning California wineries.

What advice would you give to young people who want to start their own wine estate?
Boots: I think it would be impossible today. We did not have a lot of money and you didn’t need it then. Today it would be somewhat impossible, first of all, just to buy land, to start from scratch—whew! People who buy vineyards and wineries that are already established, you need a lot of partners or money. And I would say, be sure to enjoy what you are doing. And work hard.

What will Napa Valley look like in the next several decades?
Boots: Probably more vineyards. I hope the beauty of Napa Valley stays. I think people care about this valley. The people that live here, there’s going to be change. Life is change. And you just hope for the best. I still love living up here. I have my secret places where I park the car.

Phil: She hasn’t shared those secret places with me!

For you, what makes a great wine? 
Boots: The vineyards. I never tire of this view.

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