by Fred McMillin
for October 9, 1997

Diamonds Are a Couple's Best Friend

Prologue: Mount Diamond is one of the best-defined hills west above Calistoga in the northern Napa Valley. ...from Bob Thompson's "Wine Atlas of California"

The Couples:

  • Jacob and Anna Schram—Jacob, a penniless barber from Germany, arrives in San Francisco in 1854, marries Anna, saves his tips, and for "a trifle," buys virgin land on Mount Diamond. Anna manages the winery when Jacob is in the Valley cutting hair. By 1880, Schramsberger wines are some of the U.S.A.'s best.

  • Robert Louis and Fanny Osbourne Stevenson—In 1880, the Stevensons start up Mt. Diamond to visit the Schrams. The Scotsman later wrote, "We plunged into the thick of the wood. A rude trail rapidly mounting; overhead and on all sides a bower of green and tangled thicket, still fragrant and still flower- bespangled with early season...we struggled toughly upwards, canted to and fro by the roughness of the trail." The rest of the visit went swimmingly, with Robert Louis testifying to the quality of Jacob's wines in his "Silverado Squatters."

  • Jack and Jamie Davies— In 1965, the couple purchases and moves into the ninety-year-old Schram house. During their first vintage, the new crusher quits so Jamie removes her shoes and finishes the job. Determined to make the country's best sparkling wine, they gain national attention when President Nixon takes 13 cases of Schramsberger to a globally-televised summit meeting in "Peking" with Premier Chou En-lai. The year was 1972.

  • Bill and Patsy Roddis—In that same year, the Roddises are planting Cabernet Sauvignon vines on another part of Mount Diamond. Bill works the vineyard in a golf cart. A helicopter chief-gunner in the Vietnam war, he is a quadriplegic but nevertheless Patsy and Bill become commercial vintners.

  • Rudy and Rita von Strasser—A few years ago the von Strassers become the newest winemaking couple on Mount Diamond, puchasing the Roddis property. Rudy is a U.C.-Davis wine science grad with experience at Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and several California wineries. Rita worked some Domaine Chandon harvests, and then it was on to Beringer. Cabernet is their thing, and their Freestone-label '94 grabbed my panel. The 15 tasters gave it a "Highly Recommended" rating. No wonder Robert Parker Jr. has selected Rudy as one of the masters of the Cabernet.
The Wine:
1994 Freestone Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
von Strasser Winery; Diamond Mountain
Tasting Notes—Stressed-vine intensity, tannins softened by extended maceration, sweet oak (100% French).

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

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