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Napa pioneer Brounstein dies

Al Brounstein, the founder of Diamond Creek, California’s first Cabernet Sauvignon-only estate, has died aged 86.

He had battled Parkinson’s Disease for 23 years but succumbed due to complications at his home near Calistoga in the Napa Valley on Monday, 26 June. His wife Boots was at his side.

‘When he came home from the hospital the other day, he held all the employees’ hands and told them what he expected of them, what he wanted for them, in the future,’ his widow said on Tuesday. ‘He was surrounded by love and now he’s at peace.’

Brounstein was most proud of the fact that in the early days of the Napa Valley Wine Auction a case of his wine earned a bid of more than US$5,000. This June, a Diamond Creek aficionado paid US$120,000 for a collection of Lake Vineyard cabernet that included magnums, double magnums and one 9-litre bottle.

Decanter has long recognised the enduring power of Diamond Creek, which has been a popular feature at the annual Decanter Fine Wine Encounter for a decade. A measure of Brounstein’s popularity is the huge number of tributes pouring in from Napa neighbours.

‘Al was at the forefront of establishing the quality of Napa Valley wines,’ fellow vintner John Shafer told the Napa Valley Register. ‘He took a lot of pride in his wines. He set the standard for the first wine auction … his wines were his babies. And everybody loved him.’

Wwinemaker Mike Grgich said Brounstein was ‘a man who made some of the best wines in the Napa Valley. He was always associated with quality. People loved and admired him – he was a hero going through that disease. He fought so many battles and won so many victories. We will miss him.’

‘He was a bright guy, motivated and artistic,’ neighbor Jamie Davies, chair of Schramsberg Vineyards’ board of directors, told the Register. ‘He had a great sense of humor, even with Parkinson’s disease. He didn’t let it hold him back (because) he loved life.’

Decanter’s advertisement manager John Cullimore, who has known the Brounsteins for more than 10 years said, ‘he was a skilful businessman who never complained about his illness, and an excellent host who welcomed all ages. He had joie de vivre.’

As renowned for his wit as he was for his blockbuster cabernets, Brounstein was applauded for working and living with a debilitating neurological disease for 23 years. In recent years, he took up the paintbrush and his canvases not only sold well but were used for brand labels.

In 1967, aged 47, Brounstein bought the land in the Napa Valley hills near Calistoga on Diamond Mountain that would become Diamond Creek Vineyards. It was the first commercial vineyard established on Diamond Mountain since Prohibition.

Basing Diamond Creek on the model of the great estates of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, Brounstein planted his property as three separate vineyards, Red Rock Terrace, Gravelly Meadow and Volcanic Hill, named for the different soils found in each vineyard. In total, only 20 acres were planted. It was one of California’s first boutique vineyards.

He later added a fourth vineyard, Lake, and the 1978 Lake vintage was the first California wine to break the US$100 retail price barrier for a 750ml bottle of wine, the Wine Spectator calling it ‘One of the greatest [Cabernets] from California.’

Brounstein was unflagging in his work on behalf of Parkinson’s sufferers, raising US$750,000 last year. In 2003 he was presented with the “Buddy” Award for Enduring Spirit at the 10th annual Morris K. Udall Awards.

Brounstein is survived by Boots, with whom he would have celebrated a 37th wedding anniversary on 30 June, his son, Gary, and stepsons Phil and Chuck Ross, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A private burial is planned in Los Angeles. There will be a celebration of Al Brounstein’s life at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena on 27 July.

Written by Craig Butcher, and Adam Lechmere

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