Napa Valley AVA
Rudy von Strasser also decided that Freestone’s wines provided an excellent platform on which to produce an artist series
When Freestone Napa valley wines were initially conceived, the project was designed as a celebration of fine wine, nature and the art of fly-fishing.
Fly-fishing? It might be wise to take a longer look at that one.
It seems that the time-honored skill of fly-casting ranks high on the priority list of owner Rudy von Strasser and Rudy was determined to celebrate his fancy in the best manner that he could find. He adopted the name Freestone from fisherman’s nomenclature; freestone rivers are free flowing rivers whose origins are very small and tend to grow larger as snow melts or rain runs off. These rivers eventually grow larger as they merge with tributaries and sometimes become dynamic streams of water.
To make Freestone’s involvement even more plausible in the effort to preserve these marvelous natural resources, Freestone donates part of its profits to an assortment of environmental and fishery-oriented organizations.
Rudy von Strasser also decided that Freestone’s wines provided an excellent platform on which to produce an artist series and Freestone set out to gather a number of important wildlife artists to spearhead its project. Thus far, renowned artists like Eldridge Hardie and Peter Corbin have produced labels for the winery. Additionally, Freestone has provided a forum for local Napa Valley painters. Pastelist Steve Gordon, Carneros artist Bob Minuzzo and trout specialist James Prosek who is widely regarded as the finest trout renditioner around have already contributed labels for Freestone.
With such personal appeal (albeit to a rather limited group of fly-fishing enthusiasts) as a grass roots base for its wines, today Freestone produces about 8,000 cases of Napa Valley appellation varietals from its winery on Diamond Mountain, on the western slopes of the Mayacamas, between St. Helena and Calistoga. The grapes for Freestone’s Sauvignon Blanc come from Napa’s cool southern section while most of the other fruit come from nearby Calistoga and northern part Napa Valley.
Rudy von Strasser created the Freestone entity in 1992 when he made the decision to confine his established von Strasser label to estate grapes only, a decision he realized would inhibit his winery’s growth due to availability. He envisioned Freestone as a catalyst for growth even though he knew the sales and marketing aspect of the Freestone brand would be more difficult than his estate selections from von Strasser.
“When we started our business (von Strasser) in the late 1980’s,” he commented, “all we needed was the Diamond Mountain appellation and everyone was interested. We sold all that we could make. But I realized if I was going to keep my quality up, I would have by necessity to limit my production. That’s when Freestone became a reality. I knew the category would be much more competitive and the profitability somewhat less, but it provided me with the growth I so sorely needed. Freestone also gave me an opportunity to bring a sport that I truly love to the general public’s attention, and I just couldn’t pass up the chance.”
He also credits his assistant winemaker Karl Antik, a UC Davis graduate whom he hired in 1999 with a good deal of Freestone’s recent success. von Strasser concedes that he himself was never much of a scientist, and relied heavily on his own palate and experience in making his wines. The addition of Antik, in von Strasser’s own words, “provides the brainpower the winery needs to take our wines to the next higher level.”
Even with limited production Freestone Napa Valley wines have made their marks in competitions and are beginning to find their way to restaurants and retail shelves around the country. As far as further growth is concerned, Freestone is content with its present level of production and has no plans for immediate expansion.
What is more important is the continued quality progression of the wines its produces, a facet of the Freestone business that Rudy von Strasser will continue to push.
Like its labels and attitude, Freestone wines continues to be a breath of fresh air in a wine industry desperately in need of such aspects. If we at Gold Medal Wine Club are correct, Freestone wines will continue on its meritorious run for quite some time.
Rudy von Strasser
For a man who has already accomplished a great deal for his 42 years, Rudy von Strasser might seem a great deal older to the casual observer.
A relative newcomer to the wine industry, von Strasser entered the wine business in 1989 via a rather circuitous route. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1980 with a thesis on hard-cider production under his belt, he set about to rejuvenate the cider industry. After a stint with Robert Mondavi, he was instead drawn to the wine industry and enrolled in UC Davis, graduating in 1985.
A family friend offered him an introduction to Baron Eric de Rothschild at Château Lafite-Rothschild and Rudy became the first American intern at the venerable château. After his year was up, Rudy returned to Napa Valley and worked for both Trefethen and Newton. In 1989, immediately after his marriage to his wife Rita, the couple began looking for a vineyard property on which to make their home.
A small block of property came on the market on Diamond Mountain that was originally planted in 1970 and was known as Roddis Cellars, but was currently being used by its then owner the British Gilby Gin Family as a corporate retreat. In 1990, the von Strassers bought the estate and began the task of renovating and modernizing the property. After several acquisitions, today’s von Strasser Estate comprises approximately fifteen acres of prized vineyards.
Several years ago, Rudy von Strasser began the problematical task of petitioning the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to acknowledge Diamond Mountain as an official (AVA) American Viticultural Area. He enlisted the help of many of his neighbors in the project and doggedly pursued his task. In late May of 2001, the undertaking was completed and the resultant Diamond Mountain Region wines are allowed to use the ‘Diamond Mountain District” appellation on their labels. By doing so, the BATF acknowledged both the history (138 years of grape farming) and the great quality of the wines produced by Diamond Mountain’s vintners.
Rudy von Strasser is also a close friend of Diamond Creek Winery’s storied owner, Al Brounstein, with whom he shares some common vineyard lines. He refers to Brounstein as ‘something like a Father to him”, although he concedes that the rivals have never shared common lists or customers.
‘Al has always been a great help,” von Strasser relates, ‘we have always worked together for the common good. Fact is our customers aren’t really the same and our wines don’t really have the cache of Diamond Creek’s. We fit our own niche and with that I am quite happy.”
von Strasser is of Hungarian/Austrian descent and doesn’t feel that he has made his mark at this point in his life. Some observers might disagree, but von Strasser’s resolution is persuasive.
He and Rita have three small children aged six, four and two and therein lies the motivation for Rudy von Strasser’s present aspirations. His family life is all-important to him and his winery’s current 14,000 total cases (8,000 Freestone, 6,000 von Strasser Estate) provide him with ample outlets for his enthusiasm and energy. He never regrets his exodus from the eastern environment his Wall Street father offered him and his proximity to big business.
With Rudy von Strasser, smaller is better as long as smaller is considered in concert with quality. His station within the confines of the Diamond Mountain appellation (comprising only 5,300 total acres, of which approximately 465 are actually under vine) assures that his desire for a diminutive, high quality facility will be fulfilled.
Perhaps most importantly, Rudy von Strasser is still a full-time winemaker and is gifted with the ability to test accepted winemaking mores and techniques. He has always been infatuated with the Petit Verdot grape, of which he has 1-½ acres under vine. Most of his reserves and self-phrased ‘ultra wines” have a massive dose of the varietal. He feels that Petit Verdot contains the darkest color and most intense blueberry-like aroma of any Bordeaux varietal, in addition to the most viscous mouth feel. This all adds up to powerful, stimulating wines and that description brings a smile to Rudy von Strasser.
‘Quality cannot be disguised,” he points out simply.
That benchmark embodies Rudy von Strasser’s efforts and his life. Try one of his wines and you will see what we mean.