1. Set the scene – what was the year and the moment you uncovered what would become the Diamond Mountain District?
In 1990, my wife Rita and I bought a small vineyard and winery/barn near Calistoga on Diamond Mountain Road. The grapes had been going into single-vineyard bottlings since the 1970’s – originally by Bill Roddis who planted the vineyard and called it Roddis Cellars, and then by Pine Ridge Winery. Being a Cabernet Sauvignon producer, I always knew the area as Diamond Mountain. My neighbor Al Brounstein had made the area and name famous with his 4 different Diamond Creek Winery single-vineyard bottlings (Volcanic Hill, Red Rock Terraces, Gravelly Meadow and Lake Vineyard). In 1987 he set a new-world record for being the first winery to charge $100 per bottle.
Once I started labeling my own wines, I quickly realized that although the region was known as Diamond Mountain locally, it was not an official AVA. An American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is a specific type of appellation of origin used on wine labels. An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. At that point there were 11 AVAs entirely within Napa County (Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain District, Stag’s Leap District, Oakville, Rutherford, etc.), and one AVA that meandered between Napa and Sonoma County – Carneros. So I spearheaded the project of petitioning the government (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) to add Diamond Mountain to that list.
2. How do you go about making a new AVA?
Getting an AVA approved is a long, and political process. Nobody wants to be directly on the wrong side of the boundary line. Therefore instead of being the sole decider, I put together a committee of vineyard property owners that were clearly in the middle of the area known to the wine world as Diamond Mountain, and together we decided on potential boundaries. We also hired a local historian to do extensive research of the use of the name, and a detailed study of the soils and weather of both our region and those surrounding it. One of the things that ultimately made it easier was a rule by the BATF that a boundary line needed to be visible on a USGS map. This limited us to choosing features such as roads, rivers, and elevation lines as boundaries, instead of people’s property lines.
We did run into a trademark fight with a neighbor who owned the trademark to the words ‘Diamond Mountain’. Luckily there was some historical documentation of the region also being called ‘Diamond Mountain District’, and as that appeased the owner, we all decided to use that name as the official designation. All in all, the process took about 2 years to complete.
3. How did you get people excited about this new AVA?
It was not hard to market the area, as the connoisseurs already knew the name, and also understood the concepts of AVAs. In the market for higher-end wines, being able to explain how unique and rare a grape source is, from County (Napa) to AVA (DMD) to Single Vineyard (Sori Bricco, Vineyard 2131) adds to the consumers understanding and enjoyment of the experience, and ultimately the value of the bottle. That is why a wine labeled California sells for less than one from Napa Valley, etc. And since the entire DMD is only about 500 acres in size, there is never very much of it to go around.
4. What made you decide to sell your winery that was named Winery of the Year 13 times?
I decided to sell my facility in 2021 for various reasons. A large percentage of my sales were to fans visiting the winery, tasting the wines, petting my dogs, chatting with me, etc. It was very personal. However, in 2017 and in 2020 Napa Valley experienced two very destructive wildfires. Although our wines and property were spared, visitation to Napa Valley dropped in half during those years. Then the covid-forced closure for the better part of a year further impacted our visitation and sales. As we slowly recovered from these unforeseen downturns, I had to reassess the amount of risk that I was willing to take. By this time, I had already started to make some wines for the Naked Wines group, and after a discussion with them, realized that I could continue to produce wines from my same vineyards but under their licenses and at their facilities. NW had a much larger consumer base (the Angel community), and was more adept at using modern marketing and sales techniques than I was. So it was a win: win; reducing my risk exposure but continuing to make great wines, and reaching out to a larger welcoming audience.
5. What are the current “diamonds” of Napa that you’re excited to share with Angels?
Currently I have two labels or brands in the Naked Wines portfolio. Of course, I brought over my original von Strasser label, under which I make a Diamond Mountain District cabernet sauvignon, and two single-vineyard bottlings – one from Sori Bricco Vineyard and one from Vineyard 2131. These wines are the same style and grape source as I have been using for years at my old facility, and the wines for which I was awarded’ Winemaker of the Year’ 13 times. In addition to this brand, I created a new label when joining NW called The Strasser Collection. I use this for all my non-DMD fruit. Under The Strasser Collection I bottle a North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, and a Central Coast Gruner Veltliner. I am most excited about this last wine, even though it is the least expensive, as I was the first winemaker in California to grown and produce this uniquely Austrian white grape, and have received a lot of praise from the wine trade for its unique yet traditional character.
“Watercolor marketing piece that I had made by a local artist, Mark Matioli, made for us way back in the early 90’s.”