Rudy von Strasser
Owner and Winemaker
von Strasser Winery
1510 Diamond Mountain Road, Calistoga
5,000 case production
Interview by Diana H. Stockton
Photograph: Priscilla Upton
On a clear, warm day in early February on Diamond Mountain, three men were moving through vineyard blocks pruning grapevines during this interview. Napa Valley was in need of more rain, but Rudy von Strasser counseled enjoying the beautiful morning. “Whatever we get, we get, so let’s enjoy the sunshine because it certainly beats cold and uncomfortable,” and Rudy is no stranger to cold and uncomfortable winters. He grew up in New York City, where his parents met after World War II—his father had come from Austria and his mother from Hungary.
Rudy went off to college at University of New Hampshire (UNH) for a degree in Pomology because of his interest in fermented beverages— fruit wines. This was the 1970’s, after all, he dryly observes. Rudy grew up with wine on the table, usually white, and usually rather sweet but called “dry” by his father who knew what he liked and liked being known as someone who drank dry white wine, as he advised his son to always do. After UNH, Rudy came out to UC Davis to learn to make wines so he could go back home and make hard cider. While at Davis he worked at Robert Mondavi Winery in 1980. Then, with his degree in enology, went to Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux as its first intern from California. He spent the next two years at Trefethen Family Vineyards with Peter Luthi and David Whitehouse, and then two years with John Kongsgaard at Newton Vineyard. After that, Rudy felt ready to go out on his own.
He and his wife, Rita, bought their property on Diamond Mountain in 1990. 2010 was von Strasser Winery’s 21st harvest. As the von Strassers modernized and diversified the allCabernet plantings and added to their vineyard land, for a total of fifteen planted acres, Rudy took an active part in the formation of Diamond Mountain District AVA. He came to know a variety of small vineyards on the mountain as he grew to appreciate the specificity of the area and later embarked on leasing or buying fruit from a few neighboring vineyards. Ultimately, Rudy estimates he had ten percent of the appellation, or about 50 acres, under contract in the late 1990’s.
Two of the vineyards were in Chardonnay, the rest were red. In the 1970’s UC Davis had advised against planting red wine grapes on Diamond Mountain and recommended white wine grapes, so a lot of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling got planted. Still in disbelief, Rudy recounts Al Brounstein of Diamond Creek Vineyards being told he was crazy not to plant Riesling. Rudy did make two Chardonnays from grapes under contract, and one of them, a 2004, was Wine and Spirits Magazine’s top Chardonnay in California, but that vineyard was pulled because of phylloxera and then planted to Cabernet. One cannot dictate to a grower what to plant if there is a 40% difference in return, Rudy cautions, since a provider wants top dollar. He says the writing was on the wall. Von Strasser production went to single vineyard Zinfandel and Cabernet and the 50 acres under contract to 40.
The von Strasser vineyards are largely no till. A yearround crew practices sustainable agriculture without specific cover crops, per se, just what comes up. Vines are watered sparingly by a well fed drip irrigation system rather than reservoir. An extensive array of solar panels is in its fifth year of operation producing electricity for the property, and the winery caves Rudy drew the footprint for are now ten years old.
Von Strasser has always produced a rosé wine. Rudy is very proud of his “Eye of the Diamond” (its name a play on that ‘eye of the crow, eye of the partridge’ description of a rosé’s color). He says, “Rosé is so personal: its color, its crispness, alcohol.”
Photograph: Priscilla Upton
Rudy prefers a light color with crisp fruit for his rosé and is not about to make a wannabe wine with big color and alcohol. At first the rosé was composed of juice drained off the red wine musts to increase their ratios of skins to juice. Then the winery decided to ferment a blend of freerun from both red and white musts. Eye of the Diamond is predominantly Cabernet, but it is also Sauvignon Blanc as well as Malbec, Petite Verdot, and Merlot. Yeast is added and hydrations and sugar adjusted during its fermentation in the caves at 55° for an optimum 12% to 13% alcohol. Von Strasser makes 100 to 150 cases of Eye of the Diamond. Since Rudy likes to start a tasting at the winery with something crisp and cold, he is quite partial to the rosé and may also enjoy a sip or two while cooking.
Along with continuing improvements to the physical plant, Rudy realized something more than “five Cabernets” was needed for tastings at the winery, for a better progression of wines. Rudy’s choice was to plant alternatives to Cabernet or go outside the appellation, which he wasn’t about to do. The von Strasser wine label is in the shape of a diamond; its background squiggle is the topoline of the mountain. Rudy had to stay within the appellation. He knew there was already plenty of Chardonnay in California. Given his Austrian heritage and his taste in white wines, Rudy decided on Grüner Veltliner.
Napa Valley oldtimers told him Grüner Veltliner was planted in the Valley way back when, but he could find no documentation. He went to John Caldwell (“Obscurity being John’s forte”) of Caldwell Nursery in Napa for budwood. John just happened to have some from a client in the South Atlantic, about 300 canes that had been deemed too short. This was a great start and Rudy is credited with being the first to formally grow this variety in California (he thinks there may be a dozen today). John had found an acre of Grüner Veltliner at UC Davis that had been successfully propagated from two vines Harold Olmo had brought in from Professor Moog in Germany in 1939. Rudy admits to planting the Grüner Veltliner on less than great rootstock, just what was available from the nursery at the time, Riparia Gloire. Another block is on 10114. Both types are shallow rooted and need weekly waterings. Grüner Veltliner has a fairly big berry and can be a heavy bearer. Rudy prefers to crop it four tons to an acre. It ripens very early, in August, followed by his Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet, Petit Verdot and Zinfandel.
The von Strasser Grüner Veltliner is fermented cold, in the mid50°’s F in stainless steel. After fermentation and fining it is bottled. Rudy wants a taste of fruit, freshness and character. He calls Grüner Veltliner a fun variety, sexy. He says it tastes like a cross of Pinot Grigio with Riesling. It is not as fruity as Riesling, it doesn’t have the same terpene profile and should be drunk young. The first vintage of just two or three cases was in 2006. The 2007 vintage was still less than 100, but now the winery is up to 270 or 280 cases. When asked what to serve with it, Rudy says he doesn’t believe in all those foodpairing rules, that the wine goes great with salad, with soups, appetizers—especially crab cakes and sushi, even cheese.
Photograph: Priscilla Upton
Rudy bemoans trying to price domestic Grüner Veltliner, especially from a single vineyard on Diamond Mountain, because there is so much Austrian Grüner Veltliner available on the market for less than twenty dollars a bottle. He definitely does not recommend planting any more of the variety in the state. Rudy says most of the visitors to the winery have never even heard of it. At $30 to $40 a bottle, experimentation isn’t going to happen in the marketplace; von Strasser Grüner Veltliner is only available at the winery. Rudy did submit his 2009 to the AWC International Wine Challenge in Vienna (Austria being the fatherland of Grüner Veltliner) and it won the silver medal. He hopes to take gold with the 2010.
During the week, Rudy puts in a long day that includes not only work in the winery but also helping with his kids’ homework and putting them to bed at night. Rudy also likes working out in the gym; weekends and vacations he is apt to snowboard or go hunting or fishing. He also enjoys bow shooting and teaches archery for 4H in Calistoga. Rudy really likes working with kids. He wants his own to grow up knowing how to care for vines and make wine because when they go off to college and someone hears they grew up in a winery, they better have something to say.
In addition to his winemaking for von Strasser, Rudy also derives a great deal of satisfaction from consulting as a winemaker. He says it is wonderful to make something that you don’t have to sell. He believes there is no right or wrong with wine, just choices, choices of sources of fruit or different styles of wine. Each brand has a philosophy, a style and it must have focus. Rudy describes the von Strasser wines as longlived, not too tannic, elegant—not a blockbuster, easy to understand.