“The most unforgettable character I ever met?” That question kicked off an article written by A.J. Cronin in the September, 1939 issue of Reader’s Digest. From then on, the series of articles the Digest ran under the banner “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met” became the most popular series in the publication’s history. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, like millions of others, I very much looked forward to each Digest to read about that month’s unforgettable character. Back in 1967 the magazine picked out the best entries in the series and published them in a book, “70 Most Unforgettable Characters.”
In the introduction to that book the Digest editors wrote what makes “an Unforgettable unforgettable.” “All have one common attribute,” said the editors, “skill in that most difficult of pursuits, the art of living.”
That’s certainly the most prominent characteristic of the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met. She’s just completed her 90th year on this Earth perfecting the “art of living,” making today, Feb. 25th, her 90th birthday. She’s had an extraordinary life, and, in the last 365 days, the most remarkable of years.
Her name is Boots Brounstein. She’s the owner of Diamond Creek Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Founded by Boots and her late husband Al in 1968, it has the distinction of being the first California vineyard that produced Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively.
Boots was a divorcée and Al was a widower when they met. She had two teenagers and he had one. Getting into the wine business was Al’s idea. What Boots did so well was encourage and support Al, mostly in ways that he never knew. If anyone has ever been able to make their way seem like it was your way, it’s Boots.
It was around spring last year when Boots was told that Marvin Shanken, the owner, publisher and editor of the Wine Spectator, and James Laube, that magazine’s senior editor, Napa – along with the rest of the Wine Spectator team – wanted her to be a featured Wine Star during last fall’s New York Wine Experience. Each year the Wine Spectator asks just a handful of renowned vintners from around the world to make 15 minute presentations.
Her speech was vintage Boots. She gave Al all the credit he deserved and then some. For example here’s Boots talking about one of Al’s greatest challenges—when he found out, at age 64, that he had Parkinson’s disease: “At that time, he decided his life was over,” Boots said. “He was going to have to sell the business, and as he pulled the sheets up over his head one night, he said, ‘I’m shaking so badly, nobody is going to want to have anything to do with me.’
“Al lived under a lucky star. We had an appointment with this fabulous neurologist at Stanford Medical Center who talked to us for at least two hours and told Al that Parkinson’s wasn’t a death sentence. That he could continue his business for as long as he wants and life goes on. He should not let Parkinson’s take over.
“Then, as we were leaving, the doctor said, ‘You said that you meet about once a month with other vintners. The next time you meet, I want you to hold your head up high and say, “I have Parkinson’s”, and you’re going to find out that there are a couple of other people in the business who also have Parkinson’s.’ And that’s EXACTLY what happened.
“From then on, Al wasn’t going to let the disease get him down. He just kind of forgot about it…”
In fact, it wasn’t quite that simple. There were times Al fought depression with his Parkinson’s, and Boots was indefatigable in fighting it with him. One of Al’s great joys in life was traveling around the world, a lot of which he and Boots did after he got Parkinson’s. Without Boots’ continual encouragement, that traveling would not have happened. She was the wind beneath his wings that allowed Al to have as fulfilling a life as he had.
In 2016 Robert Parker helped make Boots’ year even more notable. Parker is the best known wine critic in the world.
On his website “Robert Parker: The Wine Advocate” on Dec. 21st, 2016, Parker listed his “Top 3 Greatest Wine Drinking Experiences” of the year. One was drinking a 1959 Charles Krug. A second was drinking a 1968 Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. And another was imbibing another Cabernet Sauvignon, a 1976 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill.
Then, a few days later, in the Dec. 30th, 2016 issue, Parker wrote this about the then latest vintage from Diamond Creek: “From the biggest of the three vineyards, the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Volcanic Hill comes from pure volcanic, iron-rich, rocky white tufa of volcanic origin. Marginally speaking, this is bluer and blacker than the [two other Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Diamond Creek] Red Rock Terrace or Gravelly Meadow. A tour de force of perfection, this wine offers up crème de cassis, blueberry liqueur, licorice, earth, truffle and graphite. It displays spectacular richness, magnificent balance and texture, and a long, incredibly pure finish of close to a minute. This remarkable, full-bodied elixir should drink beautifully for another 30+ years, if not longer.” [I added the emphasis.]
And with that Parker rated the wine 100 points. That’s out of a possible 100 points. Now, Parker is no stranger to great wine. According to the website of “The Wine Advocate,” in the past 25 years Parker himself has tasted and rated 82,307 wines. Of those, he’s given 437 of them 100 points – though never before to a wine from Diamond Creek. One of Parker’s colleagues, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, wrote in the recent Jan. 19th issue of The Wine Advocate, “Granted, the existence of perfection in wine is hotly debated. There are critics, including those that have adopted the 100-Point Scale, that argue there can never be a 100-point wine. I find this a curious stance. Surely it is pointless to set a grading system with a glass ceiling keeping the top grade unobtainable and therefore the highest score a wine can achieve is an arbitrary figure somewhere below?”
She continues, “Of course, Robert Parker and his team of reviewers (myself included) at Robert Parker Wine Advocate whole-heartedly maintain that if you apply the 100-point scale, there must be such a beast as the 100-point wine. But to be clear, ‘100’ is a rare score that is never given without careful consideration and much deliberation. To qualify for 100 points, a wine must be without ‘faults’ and of the highest quality, considering factors such as fruit ripeness, intensity, complexity/depth, balance, length and a singularity about the wine – a unique signature that not only interests, it excites.”
What an achievement for Boots and Diamond Creek. How exciting! She’s like owner Robert Kraft when his Patriots won the Super Bowl in that unbelievable comeback this year. She’s like Thomas Ricketts, whose Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series last year for the first time in 108 years. She’s like Joan Kroc, when her San Diego Padres finally made it to the World Series.
Parker wasn’t the only one to rate Diamond Creek’s 2013 Volcanic Hill wine 100. Joshua Greene is the owner, publisher and editor of Wine & Spirits magazine. He told me that he’s been drinking wine since he’s been a young teenager. Wine & Spirits has been using a 100-point rating system for more than two decades. During that time frame Greene has tasted thousands of wines. Until this past year, he’s personally only awarded three wines – all from France – 100 points: a 1996 Krug Brut Champagne, a 2002 Louis Roederer Champagne, and a 2005 Chateau Latour. Several months ago he gave the Diamond Creek 2013 Volcanic Hill 100 points. It was the first time Greene – or anyone at Wine & Spirits – has awarded a domestic wine that rating.
Greene’s reasons for awarding the Diamond Creek 2013 Volcanic Hill 100 points were different than Parker’s. Greene wrote of how the wine’s storage in oak barrels was handled in a particular manner by winemaker Phil Steinschriber. “In 35 years of blind tastings I have never come across a California cabernet that handles oak as graciously as this vintage of Diamond Creek’s Volcanic Hill,” Greene wrote. He also wrote, “As I tasted this wine over several days, there was a moment in the chaos of a young Napa Valley cabernet when it reached the sublime.”
When I called Greene and asked him to elaborate on the Volcanic Hill, he said that it had “an extraordinary beautiful flavor, an explosive richness.” He said that it “wasn’t powerful in an aggressive sense, it had an elegance and a refinement” that made the wine “transformative.”
Earlier in this essay I mentioned Boots’ speech in October at the Wine Spectator’s Wine Experience in New York. Boots dedicated her presentation to her late husband, Al, and she delivered her speech as if she had been making speeches all her life. In fact, she delivered it so well because she had rehearsed it privately dozens of times in the months leading up to the event. She told all about Al, and his vision that created Diamond Creek. Here’s a note someone who was at the speech sent to Boot’s son Phil, who runs the vineyard with her:
“Writing you on my way home from the New York Wine Experience. I felt so compelled to write and explain to you how amazing your mother Boots moved my soul. In my 23 years of attending that event, only one other speaker moved me but, not as much as Boots. Her passion flowed, her intelligence and wit were striking, and her love for her husband put tears in my eyes. Bravo to Boots and to your entire family.
“Life was just made a little better because of your mom,
“Please thank her for me.”
Boots lost Al 11 years ago. What I find so remarkable is what’s happened to Diamond Creek since Al died. It has thrived as never before, culminating in its 2013 Volcanic Hill getting 100 points last year. And yes, kudos to the two Phils, winemaker Steinschriber and Boot’s son.
But there is no question that the person most responsible for Diamond Creek blossoming and flourishing as never before is Boots, with her leadership through her passion, her compassion and her drive for excellence.
The editors of Reader’s Digest had these final words to say about their Unforgettables: “Each enriched a life with humor, wisdom, adventure, affection and with some special touch of humanity.” Boots has enriched many lives in these ways.
I don’t know exactly why, but my brother Phil and myself have almost never called our mom “Mom.” We’ve just always referred to her by her name, Boots.
And today, on your 90th birthday, please know that with us you’ve always rated 100 points.
(Photo courtsey Deepix Studio/Wine Spectator Magazine)