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Segueing from Grape Grower to Winemaking ~ Diamond Ridge

One of the most natural progressions in the wine industry is from the humble farmer, who has been growing grapes for sometimes generations in a family; and then one day, the light bulb goes on…

“I wonder what these grapes would taste like if I made the wine?” is usually how this goes.

Yesterday’s example of the evolution was from Suisun Valley. Today’s story is about Diamond Ridge Vineyards.

I’ve just come in contact with this Lake County grower who has stepped outside of his “grower only” box. His name is Jacob (Jake) S. Stephens III. With a lifetime of farming experience to perfect his craft of grape growing, Jake has recently announced his own Lake County appellated wines. He’s another example of growing the grapes and wanting to know what they would do under his own controlled conditions.

How he came to have his name is a great story. From Jake:

The Diamond Ridge Vineyards name comes from the Lake County diamonds found on the property. It was early spring 2000, and I was standing on a volcanic cornice in the middle of the ranch with two irrigation engineers. We were discussing the engineering challenges that we might face when we began trenching in the different soils types, the various types of rock, and the ridge we were perched upon. It was that very moment that we focused on the diamonds found in the rocks below, and the name Diamond Ridge Vineyards sprang to life.

Honestly, Diamond Ridge has got a great group of buyers, and their critical acclaim might have been enough for some people:

  • The Hess Collection
  • Ledson Winery of Sonoma
  • BR Cohn Winery
  • RH Phillips Winery
  • Trinchero Family Estates/Sutter Home Winery
  • WineSmith
  • Zina Hyde Cunningham Winery

But, that wasn’t enough for Jake. He hired Clark Smith as his winemaker, and together they’ve created Jake’s own wine brand called Diamond Ridge Vineyards. All of Jake’s namesake wines are from his own Diamond Ridge vineyards. While the name Diamond Ridge may be new to you, some of the names above certainly aren’t. It’s these prestigious wine companies that have purchased DRV grapes and won awards, and is what led to Jake wondering and making his decision to produce a limited series of wines. These wines now really showcase what’s in the mountainous soils of his Lake County property. His vineyard elevations range from 1,400 feet at the south end of the ranch, to 2,200 feet at the North end. (I’ve got to get up there and take pictures, but you can go to his Diamond Ridge site and see the spectacular panoramic view. I took this shot years ago in Lake County.)

With companies like the one listed above say to him, “These grapes are worthy of our brand,” it only makes sense that grapes this good also need to be on the shelves of wine shops, supermarkets, and on wine lists as their own label, too, and so Jake and Clark created the following:

  • Diamond Ridge Vineyards 2007 “Aspects” ~ Lake County
  • Diamond Ridge Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc ~ Lake County
  • Diamond Ridge Vineyards 2008 Petite Sirah ~ Lake County
  • Diamond Ridge Vineyards 2007 “2 Jakes” Red ~ California
  • Diamond Ridge Vineyards NV “2 Jakes” Rosé ~ California

Jake’s practices:

“In the stern, rocky soils at DRV, high yields aren’t an option. My mantra can be summed up in one word ~ quality. We grow top quality grapes because we have to. Distinctive wines perfectly reflect the environment in which they’re grown. Our ace in the hole is that our site allows us to grow fruit of comparable, and sometimes superior, attributes. This is done at a fraction of the cost of land in other regions, and is the principle driver of grape prices.

“Our unique combination of sought-after characteristics and reasonable prices results in a tremendous value for others. This is the key to our success. Our wines deliver intense fruit aromas, color, minerality and remarkable palate energy, the qualities that have become our stock and trade.”

Wanting to know for myself, I asked for samples, tasted the wines, and here’s what I found:

Diamond Ridge Vineyards 2007 “Aspects” ~ Lake County

MY NOTES: This Bordeaux blend with a twist of Petite (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petite Sirah) had a gorgeous nose. Lots of black fruit and a touch of yummy plums (Cab Franc is very distinctive for me, and always brings out the best in any wine, I’ve found),and a touch of spice. On the palate, rich blackberry and a bit of a spice finish were very pleasant. The finish was long and lingering. This wine will age well for the next 10 years… easily. (Suggested Retail ~ $28.00)

Diamond Ridge Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc ~ Lake County

MY NOTES: When I worked at Ironstone Vineyards, I came to realize – for their marketing efforts -t hat they grow more Cab Franc than anyone else in the state of California. When I got there, they were hanging their hat on Merlot, as the variety was losing favor. Knowing that they had more Cab Franc than anyone else, I developed a program for my boss, who could redirect their focus. Why I’m bothering to write this is that you need to understand, if they were growing more than anyone else, I got to taste a lot of Cab Franc, and have come to know it pretty well. It’s safe to say that I really love Cabernet Franc, and Diamond Ridges brought me back years to a time when – if I wanted a red wine – I’d pull Cab Franc from my wine shelves.

Why? It’s so rich and plummy. It’s takes Pinot Noir to the next step, and just explodes inside of your mouth, and Jake’s drove me wild. It’s just a gorgeous wine, and done extremely well. (Suggested retail: $24.00)

Diamond Ridge Vineyards 2008 Petite Sirah ~ Lake County

The busier of the group, ever so flavorful and every bit a Petite to write home about. All the flavors you’d expect, black fruit and blueberries prevailed, with a lingering finish that told me I’d like to taste this wine once a year, for the next 15 years. I can see where it’s going, and would like to go along for the ride. (Suggested retail ~ $18.00)

Diamond Ridge Vineyards NV “2 Jakes” Rosé ~ California

Rich aromas and flavors led me to believe that there would be residual sugar with this one, and it wouldn’t be “dry.” But I was very wrong. Starts out with fresh, juicy spring strawberries, dripping with flavors of pomegranate and red raspberries, as well as strawberries for me. The flavors followed through with all of the fruit on the nose. It’s the nicest Merlot Rosé that I can ever remember having, quite honestly. (Suggested retail: $9.95) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Diamond Ridge Vineyards 2007 “2 Jakes” Red ~ California

The Jakes wines have a playing card label. According to Jake, “Every grower is a bit of a gambler. My father, Jake Stephens II, and I hit the jackpot when we established Diamond Ridge Vineyards in the volcanic hillsides near the town of Clearlake, CA.”

This wine is a full-bodied, rustic wine that’s a blend of 61 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 31 percent Merlot and eight percent Petite Sirah. Very enjoyable, this rustic blend that Jake refers to as a “Cowboy wine” is drinkable now and would be much better for lighter dishes. (Suggested retail:  $13.95)

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