20th Anniversary Story
This upcoming 2009 harvest marks a major milestone for the von Strasser Winery: our 20th vintage of making Diamond Mountain District wines. On June 7, 1990, my wife Rita and I purchased an historic, yet neglected property on Diamond Mountain. At 31 years of age, I had 7 years of winemaking experience and zero years of business sense under my belt. I had graduated from the famed Enology program at U.C. Davis, interned in 1985 at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, worked for two years as enologist at Napa’s Trefethen Winery, and then spend three years at Newton Vineyards as Assistant Winemaker. I knew that I could make great wine: I hoped that together Rita and I could create a great winery.
The first few years, Rita and I ran the winery and the vineyards entirely by ourselves. However, after almost ruining both of our backs by hauling equipment over these hillside vineyards, we decided to take on help. In 1992 we hired a brand-new vineyard management company started by Jim Barbour, who would soon go on to make a name for himself as one of the top vineyard management companies in Napa Valley. As our Estate expanded, in 1998 we decided to take over the farming ourselves and hired a talented young vineyard worker named Gerardo Alfaro to become our vineyard manager. The only help that we had in the cellar those first half dozen vintages where Rita’s family, who live in Sonoma, and my dear friend Gino Greene (where are you Gino?), an old UCD friend of mine whom I had hired at Newton Vineyards as a crush help. Gino and his dog Otter spent many long nights helping us make those early vintages.
In 1992, I broke my ankle in a kayaking accident in the Sierra Nevada foothills one week before harvest started. Rita bought me a director’s chair embossed with my name, and I sat in the winery ‘directing’ her on how to do all of the harvest work. The 1992 is indeed Rita’s vintage.
In 1993, a great opportunity arose which allowed me to expand my vineyard holdings. A neighbor’s property directly across from my driveway included a three-acre prune orchard which they were interested in planting. Since they did not have the expertise, they asked if I could help. The result of the negotiations was a 25 year lease on the property, which we planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. This property has been bottled as a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon named Post Vineyard since 2000.
The next milestone in the von Strasser Story came in the late 1990’s when I spearheaded an effort into acknowledging Diamond Mountain District (DMD) as an official appellation (AVA). As diverse regions within the Napa Valley was slowly being defined as smaller, sub-AVAs (Stag’s Leap District, Howell Mountain, etc.), I felt that DMD, due to its unique soils and microclimates, deserved this official recognition as well. After a year of hard work, in 1998 we became the 13th sub-AVA in Napa Valley But the payoff for my efforts was greater than just the recognition for the AVA. Through my groundwork, I met all of the vineyard owners on the mountain and found some beautiful, small vineyards being ‘wasted’ by being sold to large wineries and lost in their large blends. (An example of this was a Chardonnay vineyard named Aurora which was going into Round Hill’s California chardonnay program). Three years after taking over the vineyard, our single-vineyard bottling was voted the highest scoring Chardonnay of the year by Wines and Spirit Magazine.
Access to these new vineyards allowed me to increase my production. But rather than blend everything together into one large bottling, I decided to keep all of the wines separate and create a ‘single-vineyard’ tier of wines. In 1999 I bottled five separate wines for a total of 3,700 cases, up from 750 in our first vintage.
In 2000, I embarked on a major facility upgrade. I excavated 6800 sq. ft. of caves for aging my barrels, the first new caves build in DMD since the turn of the century. I refurbished the old barn, originally built in 1880’s to be a state-of-the-art production facility. And I remodeled our house, which overlooks the entire property, to make room for our now-growing family.
Although my winery now specializes in single-vineyard Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, I have tried to continue to be both creative and experimental in my winemaking. I have a couple of Firsts under my belt, which I am very proud of. For instance, I am the first California winery to grow and release a bottle of the Austrian white grape varietal Grüner Veltliner. I first planted Grüner in 2005 in part because of my Austrian Heritage, and also in part because all of the independent growers in my AVA where switching over to Cabernet Sauvignon, due to its escalating value.
I have also attained a unique position due to my strong reliance on the Bordeaux grape Petit Verdot. Those fans who are familiar with my wine know about my fondness of Petit Verdot. I make a few barrels of a Reserve bottling each year which contains 40% Petit Verdot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Malbec. (My 2004 was chosen ‘Wine of the Year’ by Connoisseurs Guide to Fine Wine). I am also the only winery which produces a port-styled wine from the Grape Petit Verdot. Petit is an unusually concentrated grape making a wine very dark in color, and very aromatic in the blue-berry/cassis spectrum. It was a natural experiment to try this varietal as a port in 1994, and we like it so much that we plan on making one every few vintage.
I have had my shares of Firsts, in terms of wine reviews as well. I am currently on an 8-year in a row streak as being chosen a ‘Wineryof the Year’ by Wine and Spirits magazine, and I have been fortunate enough to have my bottles grace the cover of 5 different major wine magazines over my 20 years. I have been chosen one of the top wineries in Napa Valley to visit by both Martha Stuart Living and The Wall Street Journal.
My business has survived a major warehouse fire, in 2005, in which I lost mover 13,000 cases of wine to an arsonist. I have gone from making 750 cases in 1990 to making over 6,700 cases of recent vintage. I have gone from selling my wine predominantly through wholesale (restaurant and retailer) channels, to selling predominately directly to my customers. I have over 1,000 visitors to my winery each year, and an active mailing list of over 7,000 fans, who always have first access to all of my new releases. We now have an extensive email and facebook list, which allows us to communicate effectively with such a large group. I feel like von Strasser has a relationship which each and every one of our customers.
The first 20 years of von Strasser Winery has been a great ride and a lot of fun. I invite everyone to share in the next twenty with us: I promise to make the experience worthwhile.