December 9, 2019
by Bruce Neyers
The original poster for Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
A few years ago, through a combination of fortunate events, we sold some wine to a cruise ship line. In the course of the sale, I became friendly with the beverage director, and he soon offered me the opportunity to sign on for a cruise to Glacier Bay Alaska. In exchange, I agreed to conduct a series of wine tastings for interested passengers. Barbara and I left for our first major outing on a ship. Soon after getting underway, we were introduced to the passengers by the cruise director, and during the introduction we met Emil Miland, a cellist with the San Francisco Opera orchestra. Emil supported himself in part by performing on cruise ships during the opera’s off season. Barbara and I were occasional opera attendees, so we struck up a conversation with Emil, and it quickly blossomed into a cordial relationship — we attended his recitals, while Emil attended our wine tastings. I was struck not only by his talent but by his enthusiasm as a teacher, as he spent hours explaining classical music to me. We shared a few bottles of wine together as well. When the cruise ended, Barbara and I flew home to San Francisco, but we became more frequent opera attendees and ran into Emil regularly for several years. We’d often get seats in the front row from Barbara’s friend Robert, a Chez Panisse employee who doubled as the opera’s staff photographer. From our perch we could clearly see Emil and the other musicians in the orchestra pit. We exchanged pleasantries with him during intermissions, and occasionally got an insider tip or bit of gossip. He was a rock star to us, and clearly a fabulously gifted musician. We hadn’t seen Emil for a couple of years, until last Sunday when we attended a matinee of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Early Puccini works – of which this is one — were heavy on strings, I’m told, so Emil was pretty busy holding up his part of a demanding Cello performance. He was seated in the semi-circle formed around the conductor, along with the concert master, another cello, and the first violin, and the opera was lively and upbeat — at least for a love story that ends badly. Act III of Manon Lescaut begins with a stirring Intermezzo, as Puccini depicts the journey from Paris to the Harbor of Le Havre. The music is extraordinary, one of those tunes that you simply can’t get out of your mind. It includes a hauntingly beautiful cello solo, and Emil performs it with brilliance. At the conclusion of the piece — before the curtain rises on Act III — the conductor, Nicola Luisotti, motioned for Emil to stand. He did so, and was met with a rousing ovation. It was a highlight for us to witness. We had dinner with Robert after the performance, and he explained the background of the opera to us, including the importance of the Intermezzo. We told him of our meeting with Emil, who he knows, and he agreed to deliver some wine to him as a gesture of our appreciation. Once again, our world met Emil’s.
I recalled that Emil was fond of crisp, dry white wine, and selected our 2018 Chardonnay ‘304’ as a gift. We just sent a six-pack to him with our compliments. If you too have a fondness for dry white wine that is crisp, fresh and thirst-quenching, you owe it to yourself to try the Neyers 2018 Chardonnay ‘304’. It takes its name from the stainless steel tanks in which it’s fermented. Our winemaker Tadeo Borchardt – inspired by the classic wines of Chablis — fashioned it from grapes grown in the cool weather and rocky soils of two Sonoma County regions — the Carneros District on the north lip of San Francisco Bay, and the gentle slopes of the eastern end of the Russian River Valley. It has provided satisfaction to demanding wine drinkers for years, and can be found in places as geographically diverse as Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, California and Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak in Aventura, Florida. There are plenty of spots to enjoy a bottle in between too. We think it’s an ideal accompaniment to almost any Cello piece.
November 25, 2019
by Bruce Neyers
This report just came in from a local agricultural information source:
November 20, 2019 – Wine Industry Advisor
‘Wine grapes across California ripened at lower sugars, thanks to the extended, cool growing season, and vintners are praising the full flavors, fresh acidity and superb balance of the 2019 fruit.’
This is great news and accurately depicts the status, as well as our current state of bliss. As much as we appreciate the Wine Industry Advisor for their reporting though, it might be even more important to hear the verbal harvest report from Dave Abreu, given when he stopped by our St. Helena office a couple of weeks ago. Dave may be the most respected viticulturalist in the Napa Valley — if not he’s certainly on many short lists. When I asked him how his harvest was going, he remarked that 2019 may be the best year for wine grapes in his career. That’s extraordinary news. Look for some remarkable wines from the Napa Valley in vintage 2019.
We finished picking the last of our grapes three weeks ago, and above is a photo taken by my daughter Lizzie on October 21 when we picked our Neyers Ranch 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a cluster from ‘North Vineyard’, a parcel that Dave Abreu planted for us in 1992. The vines are 27 years-old, and the crop from this vineyard was 3.2 tons/acre. Note the ‘bloom’ or waxy substance on the skin that serves to trap the wild yeast that we rely on for fermentation. You won’t see a cluster more beautiful than this – anywhere. In the photo below, vineyard manager Raul is driving a tractor hauling two bins of just-harvested Cabernet Sauvignon from our ‘Knoll Vineyard’. Each bin holds about one-half ton. All grapes have been harvested by hand, working with a crew of 6-8 people.
November 22, 2019
November 19, 2019
by Bruce Neyers
Barbara and I have been on the road a bit over the past two months, and we’ve found ourselves tasting, serving and drinking our 2017 Roberts Road Pinot Noir more than normal. That’s good news, because production of this wine is so small we don’t normally taste it much at the winery. These recent sales trips served to reacquaint us with it. At the same time, we noticed the wine was tasting much better than when we began making it. Tadeo cited this improvement to low yields because of the recent drought years, cooler than normal growing seasons, and vine age as they’re now almost 25 years old. These grapes come from a vineyard in Sonoma’s Petaluma Gap AVA, a parcel of which is planted to budwood called ‘The Swan Selection’. In the early 1960’s, Joe Swan was a pilot for the now defunct Western Airlines. He’s pictured above at our house with Alice Waters in 1985. For several years he flew the route from San Francisco to Paris, and he’d spend whatever free time he had in France exploring vineyards. On one trip, he brought back vine cuttings from one of the most important Pinot Noir vineyards in Vosne-Romanée. He developed a vineyard with those cuttings on his property in Forestville, and beginning with the 1968 vintage the grapes from these vines became the base for his celebrated bottling of Pinot Noir, a wine that has long been the envy of the California wine industry. I drank a lot of Swan Pinot Noir with Joe over the years, as he was a close friend. He made only a barrel or two in most harvests, and I was singularly proud of my six bottle allocation. It was always California’s finest example of Pinot Noir. Once I asked Joe why it was so good. His reply was simple and direct: ‘It’s the plant material. I’m working with true Pinot Noir.’ Soon after his death in 1989 the vineyard was removed, but Mike Sangiacomo got some cuttings to plant on his family’s Roberts Road Vineyard. Mike is pictured below, standing next to the Neyers Block at Roberts Road.
We’ve been working with these vines now for almost 15 years, and the wine gets better with each new vintage. Well-made Pinot Noir combines strong but subtle fruit with earthy, mineral flavors. The soil at Roberts Road is principally basalt, which is porous – like limestone – and it’s broken up into small pieces, just as in the Côte d’Or. The wine is a strong purple in color, not unlike the grape skin, and the nose combines blackberry jam with coffee and stone. It’s a soft wine, with a wide range of flavors, both earthy and tropical, and it’s impossibly easy to drink.
November 4, 2019
-by Bruce Neyers
Barbara and I just returned from a week-long sales trip, and after some time on the road, we arrived home to help wrap up the harvest. For years, Barbara has rewarded me when I return from a sales trip with an ambitious welcome home meal. This time it was grilled marinated flank steak, served with heirloom tomatoes, and my favorite potato dish — one we first encountered at the Michelin Three-Star Lameloise, in Chagny — a ‘pancake’ of thinly sliced Yukon Gold discs fried with olive oil in a cast-iron skillet. It’s a relatively easy meal, or so she tells me, but the marinade part takes several hours, so it requires some planning. She put the steak in the marinade at 1:00 Saturday afternoon, expecting to grill it later that evening. Her recipe for the marinade is below:
1 cup olive oil
¼ cup Balsamic vinegar
¼ cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 garlic cloves minced
Leaves from four branches of fresh thyme
Combine all of the ingredients and stir. The steak should marinate for 6 hours.
Flank steak is relatively inexpensive, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious. Properly marinated and grilled, I think it’s the tastiest cut of beef you can buy, and a normal grocery-sized cut can easily feed four people. There are a few time-honored secrets to cooking the flank steak, though, and I was well tutored on them by Barbara before I was allowed to grill ‘solo’. Most important is a hot fire, preferably one built with Mesquite charcoal that covers the entire bottom of the grill. I use an old-fashioned Weber kettle grill, and it’s perfect. Flank steaks are seldom cut thick, so they cook quickly and need to be closely watched. As soon as all of the briquettes are glowing bright red, use your tongs to remove the steak from the marinade, turn it over and place it on the center of the grill for two minutes. The first turn should be east to west, then after another two minutes it’s time for a turn north to south. The final two minutes follow another east to west turn. This ensures that the entire steak has seen 8 minutes of relatively even grilling, and is now medium rare.
Proper slicing is crucial too. The grain of the meat normally runs along the longest dimension, and the slicing should be diagonal, about 45 degrees, against that grain. The slices should be between 1/16” and 1/8” thick, or as Barbara tells me, “Cut it as thin as you can.” Stack the slices on a serving platter and be mindful to save the well-done pieces from the ends. Even though they appear to be overcooked, they are among the tastiest, and have a wonderful crunchy texture.
Barbara served our flank steak with sliced tomatoes – lightly bathed in Neyers Vineyards olive oil then sprinkled with sea salt – and those crispy ‘Potatoes Lameloise’. The meal was delicious and a more than satisfying ‘welcome home’ to both of us. With it, I served our Neyers Left Bank Red, a wine that we made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grown on two parcels along the Left Bank of Conn Creek as it flows through our ranch. Over the past million years or so, the creek has brought down tons of gravel from Howell Mountain, leaving a deposit that’s about 50 feet deep. In 2014 Tadeo suggested we make a blend from these two vineyards, and I’ve been in love with the wine ever since.
One of my favorite red Bordeaux wines is Ch. Gloria, an unclassified growth from St. Julien founded in the early 1940’s by the late Henri Martin. M. Martin later became the winemaker at Ch. Latour, and then, the long-time mayor of St. Julien. Ch. Gloria is planted on one of the largest gravel deposits in the Médoc. Moreover, the blend of Ch. Gloria is about 55% Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance a blend of Merlot with some Cabernet France and Petit Verdot. The gravel serves as a restraint to the natural vigor of these two grape varieties, and brings out something wonderful in both.
The first time I ever bought a full case of wine to cellar, it was the 1966 Ch. Gloria. Recently, I purchased some 2014 Ch. Gloria and wanted to try it alongside our Left Bank Red. I was amazed at the similarity. Both wines were attractively soft, and while the aromas were fruity, there was a charming combination of minerality with fresh, bright cherry flavors in each of them.
If you haven’t had the chance to try the 2017 Left Bank Red, we think you’ll like it, especially with a grilled flank steak!
September 27, 2019
– by Bruce Neyers
“The Wine Exchange has been an important part of the wine trade for the past three+ decades, and from their Orange County outpost they have regularly provided their customers with great wines, many of them frequently available at prices that caught even my eye. I’ve enjoyed visiting them and selling them wine for much of my career. During a sales call, co-owner Kyle Meyer did a film interview with me for his series on wine history called ‘The Extract’. It’s a relatively short piece – about 15 minutes or so – and it was very well done. Kyle interlaced it with photos that do much to tell the story Barbara and I have enjoyed writing over the past years. Please take a moment to look at Kyle’s work. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
The wines Kyle is pouring for us are the Left Bank Red, the Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Sage Canyon Red. After watching the film, you’ll probably be inspired to drink some Neyers wine, so feel free to contact us for more information.”
September 4, 2019
by Bruce Neyers
|The 2016 Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon: The Wine Spectator Scoreboard has even more good news
We continue to read good things about our 2016 Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon bottling, and the high praise that has been heaped on this wine only adds to our enthusiasm. We were especially delighted with a recent review by James Molesworth in ‘The Wine Spectator’. Here’s what he had to say:
2016 Neyers Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Neyers Ranch’
“Not shy on ripeness, with lush fig, boysenberry and blackberry notes coursing through. Well-focused, this is girded by graphite and anise details that lend form and a refined structure through the finish. Drink now through 2027. 1,027 cases made.” 91 POINTS – James Molesworth
James’ comments will be published in the October 15, 2019 issue of ‘The Wine Spectator’. We still have stocks remaining so please contact your local Trinchero Family Estates representative for pricing and availability information in your area.
While you’re at it, don’t forget that Magnums are available. A wine with this much potential deserves to be enjoyed occasionally from a magnum – it ages longer and develops better.
We’ve included a photo of our Conn Valley Ranch Vineyard where grapes for this wine were grown. It was planted by David Abreu in 1995, using budwood taken from the John Daniels Block at Inglenook, then grafted to rootstock on his Thorvilas Vineyard. The view here is to the south, looking over our home towards Conn Creek, marked by the first tree line. The other, more detailed photo below is a grape cluster during the early days of crop set this year. Those small, BB-like pods are held closed by a thin, parchment-like covering. When dry, it falls off and the berry springs open to fertilize itself with pollen stored within the pod. It then matures into the grape we will harvest for the 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon.
August 20, 2019
by Bruce Neyers
We were advised that the October issue of Wine Enthusiast will feature an enormously positive review of the 2017 Pinot Noir ‘Roberts Road’, a wine that winemaker Tadeo Borchardt produced in collaboration with our long-standing friends, the Sangiacomo Family and their team at Sangiacomo Vineyards.
The Roberts Road Vineyard was developed in 1999 and sits at the northern edge of what is locally known as The Petaluma Gap, an especially cold and rocky area of eastern Sonoma County soon to be recognized as an AVA. While the Pinot Noir blocks on this vineyard were planted to several different clones — principal among them Clone 777 which originated in Morey-St. Denis — a small, one-acre block was reserved for planting to a non-clonal ‘selection massale’ that came from Joe Swan’s vineyard in Forestville. This plant material originated in Vosne-Romanée and was brought to the US and planted by Joe in the early 1960’s. For the next decade or so, it served as the source of Pinot Noir for bottlings under the Joseph Swan label, many of which were regularly thought to be among the highest quality bottlings of Pinot Noir from California. The Roberts Road Pinot Noir from Neyers Vineyards comes exclusively from the fruit grown in this small parcel.
The wine has impressed us for its traditional Burgundian characteristics, including the lovely purple robe, and an aroma combining exotic elements of jam, coffee and chocolate, followed by flavors that convey finesse, opulence and complexity. It’s an extraordinary example of what we can achieve with Pinot Noir in California, and we’re delighted to see the wine recognized in this way.
The photo above was taken by Mike Pucci, and shows the vines running to the southwest. The block planted to the Swan selection is at the base of this hill.
Neyers 2017 Pinot Noir ‘Roberts Road’
92 pts Wine Enthusiast
(The finished review will be published in the October issue.)
July 25, 2019
-by Bruce Neyers
I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone nicer than Joan Rombauer. I met Joan through her husband Koerner who, after retiring as a commercial pilot, began a small winery in St. Helena. Part of his start-up plan involved leasing space to other wineries, an idea now widely practiced, but one that was just beginning to take shape in those days. We were among their first clients.
Koerner loved to fly and had a twin engine Cessna. When he began to sell his wines, he invited me to join him on a sales trip, and soon, we were flying everywhere together – Washington, Oregon, Nevada and even Colorado. At one point, we began to make regular trips to Los Angeles which proved to be a great idea. Our trip would begin early in the morning at Angwin airport, about 15 minutes from my home, and it took about two hours to fly to Santa Monica airport. The terminal there offered rental cars, and I would book one for my arrival. When we landed, they would back it up to the disembarkation ramp, with the engine running — just like they did for rock stars – and I could be on the Santa Monica Freeway in ten minutes. We’d meet again near the end of the day and fly back to Angwin.
Joan would be waiting to drive Koerner home when we returned, and one night she suggested that Barbara and I plan to join them for dinner. Barbara had by then established a reputation as a talented cook, and it was sometimes awkward, as it made others uncomfortable, to cook for her. Joan could not have been more comfortable though, and when we arrived, she proudly announced that she had made her specialty that night, which was also Koerner’s favorite meal — meatloaf.
Now I have a very special relationship with meatloaf myself, one that goes back to my days as a student at the University of Delaware. During our senior year, after we were married, both Barbara and I had full course loads and worked part time jobs as well – Barbara’s in the university library, mine with a grad student at the Chemistry lab. We returned home late in the day, and Barbara would make dinner. Her cooking was limited, of course, by our extremely tight budget. On Monday we would have Sloppy Joes, on Tuesday grilled hamburgers. Wednesday was spaghetti and meatballs, then Thursday was Bell Peppers stuffed with ground beef. Friday was my favorite day, though, because Barbara would make meatloaf. She learned how to make it from her mother, Marie, who was the oldest daughter in a family with ten children. Marie’s father owned a grain mill on a farm in upstate New Jersey, and she became a very talented cook simply because she had to help run the farm. Marie’s brothers and sisters all loved her cooking, and after she married, so did her husband Harry. Barbara and her family ate well, and during the years we were dating, I was a regular dinner guest. I got to know Marie’s cooking almost as well as the rest of her family. A lot of her skills rubbed off on Barbara, so our year of tight budget dinners wasn’t nearly as painful as it might sound. Meatloaf Friday became an almost sacred part of our week, and Marie’s recipe added a few twists that made a meatloaf dinner more than respectable.
When Joan Rombauer announced that we were about to enjoy her specialty – and her husband’s favorite dinner – she had no idea that she was talking to a bit of an authority on the subject. Well, her rendition was spectacular, as good as Barbara’s on her best night! I took one bite and looked at Barbara, raising my eyelids in pleasant surprise. She responded accordingly. This was great stuff, and I could see why Koerner loved it.
Koerner played an important role that night too, as he had selected the wines. Knowing my fondness for French wines, he went to a local shop with substantial stocks of red Bordeaux and bought several wines that the proprietor told him would please me. He then included an older bottle of Neyers Cabernet Sauvignon, so we spent the night comparing the Neyers wine to the others while we enjoyed a great meal.
That dinner set the stage for our relationship as Joan and Koerner were our landlords until we built our current facility in Sage Canyon. If it wasn’t for these two gracious and enormously generous people, Neyers Vineyards would undoubtedly be a much different business today. We try to live up to their examples of generosity every day, and I think of Joan whenever Barbara cooks meatloaf. We lost Joan way too soon, but she left her spell on many, through her soft manner, gentle ways and simple kindness.
I forget the vintage of Neyers Cabernet Sauvignon we drank that night with Koerner and Joan, but since those days in the early 1990’s our vineyards have gotten older, our wine-making practices have become more refined, and our wines have continued to improve. Our 2016 Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is a beauty. It was recently singled out by James Suckling with the following notes:
Neyers 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Neyers Ranch’
“Both ripe and polished, this has a very appealing interplay of rather fine tannins and generous fruit. Then the full, supple tannins come through and move it in a drier direction that’s more compatible with the dining table. Drink or hold.”
90 POINTS – James Suckling
July 9, 2019
By Bruce Neyers
Golf isn’t a part of my life today, but there was a time – from around 1985 through 2000 — when both Barbara and I played often. It began when a neighbor of ours moved to Maui to take the job as tennis pro at the Kapalua Resort. We visited him often, and eventually he persuaded us to take golf lessons. After a few days of instruction, we went out for a round. We enjoyed the exercise, being outdoors in beautiful weather, and, of course, the cold beer at the end. Through him, we also met the resort’s golf pro, who soon suggested our winery be a sponsor of their Golf Tournament. We agreed. In exchange, he waived the golf fees for the rest of our trip.
At the time, there were two 18 hole courses at Kapalua. The older Village Course was a bit more rustic, but it was slower paced, and far less crowded. We made a daily reservation there, and played early so there was little or no audience watching us fumble along our way. One morning as we began to head out for our round, the starter – with whom we had also become friendly — asked if we would like some company. He had another twosome without a reservation and he suggested they team with us. He introduced us, and jokingly mentioned that we could probably answer their wine questions. One of the players was retired football great Fran Tarkenton. He was joined by a former teammate, a lineman named Ron Yary. I knew we were going to be way over our heads, but the two of them were certain that it would be fine. Ron even mentioned that he did have some wine questions for us. I suggested that after playing together for a few holes they could play ahead of us. They declined, insisting that they always enjoyed the game better as a foursome.
No one would ever doubt the athleticism of Fran Tarkenton, but he was effusive in his praise for Ron Yary, who he referred to as one of the most gifted players he knew. We went to the tee box for the first hole — a short, slightly uphill par 4 — and I hit a three iron that, while straight, didn’t cover much distance. But that was my game. Fran hit next and he creamed the ball, driving it almost to the green, but it sliced to the right, into the trees separating the 18th fairway. Ron hit his tee shot with even more power, but he hooked into a pineapple patch to the left of the green. From the ladies’ tee, Barbara – playing with her trusty five iron — hit her shot right down the middle of the fairway. We were out-muscled, but we played straight. I shot a par for that hole, Barbara hit a double bogey 6, and both Fran and Ron shot bogey 5.
When we got to the second hole – all tied after one — Ron said to Fran loud enough for us to hear that he hoped they weren’t being sandbagged by Barbara and me. Their reputations were safe, but they still suggested we have a small wager on the game. I asked what “a small wager” was, and they proposed a dollar on the front nine, another dollar on the back nine, and a third dollar for low team score. We agreed. Well, it didn’t take long for the wheels to fall off as we caved in from the financial pressure. The sixth hole – a long downhill par 5 — was especially treacherous, and Barbara shot a twelve. I barely fared better, with a nine. Both Fran and Ron shot pars.
The snack bar was at the 9th hole, and the starter met us there to see how the round was going. I apologized for our lack of competition and repeated my offer that they play ahead of us. They declined again, and said that playing with a foursome was an important part of the game. They both insisted on finishing with us.
As we began the back nine, they began to ask us questions about the wine business. We told them about our vineyards and winery, briefly describing our wines. I also mentioned that my favorite restaurant in the area – the popular Bay Club – was one of the best customers for our Chardonnay. Soon enough we were teeing up for our shots down the 18th fairway – recognized as the narrowest par four on Maui. We spent very little time in that fairway, but fortunately, I had bought another dozen golf balls at the snack bar, so we had enough to finish the round.
Fran and Ron were as affable on the 18th hole as they had been on the first, and both Barbara and I were delighted that these two talented athletes had been patient enough to play 18 holes of golf with us. We finished the hole, got into our carts and drove back to the starter’s shed to turn in our equipment. We walked to the nearby clubhouse, found an empty table, and ordered a beer. When the server arrived, I reached for my wallet to pay, but Ron was faster, and said, “Please, we’ve got this one.” He paid the server, took our scorecard and compared it to his. After a few strokes of the pencil and a slight furrowing of his brow, he said, “Looks like you owe us three dollars.” I paid him. We enjoyed another round of beer, and by this time our table was deluged by autograph seekers. Most of the people recognized Fran of course, but one young boy, pointing to Ron, asked who the other guy was, Fran didn’t hesitate. “Young man,” he said, “That person is Ron Yary, probably the best athlete I’ve ever known in my life. You should get his autograph.” Only a great athlete with enormous self-confidence could so ably redirect attention away from himself, towards a less famous athlete. How impressive. I’ve often thought about that moment, and reflected on what a great lesson it was.
Later that night, Barbara and I went out to dinner at the Kapalua Bay Club, and as the hostess seated us she pointed in the direction of a table on the next level. “I think you have some friends dining with us tonight,” she said. I looked in that direction and saw Fran and Ron, just as both of them lifted an empty bottle of Neyers Chardonnay. There were six people at their table, and they raised their glasses in a toast us. Fran and Ron were a class act.
The Carneros Chardonnay at Neyers Vineyards is produced using the most traditional Burgundian wine-making techniques. We work exclusively with hand-harvested fruit from three Carneros District vineyards, all of them planted to ‘Shot-Wente’ selection (see photo above). We ferment in 25% new French oak barrels from François Frères Cooperage in St. Romain, using native wild yeast. Secondary fermentation occurs naturally as well, with no added M/L starter.
May 29, 2019
It Was Probably the Best Sandwich Ever Made: An Impromptu Lunch with Alice Waters
I met Alice Waters on a Saturday afternoon in September 1971, soon after she opened Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley. I was working at Connoisseur Wine Imports, a wine importing business in San Francisco owned by two brothers-in-law, Art Formicelli and Bal Gibson. Art was an attorney in San Francisco, but he lived in Berkeley, and had heard about Chez Panisse when it opened. He met Alice there one night, and after learning of her interest in French wines suggested that she visit the store. Connoisseur was one of the largest fine wine shops in California at the time, and because of a wrinkle in the state alcoholic beverage laws, we could — unlike other wine stores — sell wine both to consumers and to other licensed businesses. Alice began to visit us regularly on Saturday mornings to assemble a few carefully selected cases that would then serve as the basis for the restaurant’s wine list for the next week or so. I loved waiting on her as she was filled with enthusiasm about every wine she saw, and she talked about France in a way that made it come to life for me. Moreover, I was comfortable answering her questions, and she seemed to listen attentively as I explained to her what I knew about the different wines. I was helping her load her car after one visit when she took a business card out of her wallet, and wrote on the back of it ‘Dinner for Bruce and guest’. She signed it, then handed it to me. ‘Come to dinner tonight,’ she said. ‘We’re grilling lamb from the Dal Porto Ranch.’ I’d never had lamb before and didn’t know anything about the Dal Porto Ranch, but an evening out was a big deal back then. When I arrived home, I announced to Barbara that we were going out to dinner that night. We ate magnificently at Chez Panisse – I can still remember many details about our meal – and after dinner, Alice sat with us and helped drink one of the bottles of wine that I’d brought along. It was the first of what became countless meals we have enjoyed at Chez Panisse, and the beginning of a friendship with Alice that continues today. One Friday night a few years ago, Barbara and I celebrated our wedding anniversary at Chez Panisse. In addition to making a special meal, Alice invited us to spend the night in her guest house, so we didn’t need to drive home after dinner. The next morning she suggested we have coffee at Cafe Fanny, the small coffee bar named for her daughter. After breakfast together we were about to drive Alice back to her house before going home ourselves, but she wanted to stop first at Acme Bakery to buy some bread. When she walked out a few moments later, she waved a loaf of Challah bread at us. ‘I’ve got a great idea,’ she reported. ‘They only bake Challah bread here on Saturday, and there was still some left. My tomatoes are ripe, and I’m going to make BLT’s for lunch!’ Spontaneity has always been one of Alice’s long suits. We drove back to her house with our loaf of freshly baked Challah bread, stopping along the way at a local charcuterie shop to buy some bacon. Once in her kitchen at home, she set about frying the bacon while Barbara went to the backyard garden with a basket and began to pick ripe tomatoes and some of Alice’s famous ‘baby lettuce’. The aroma of that sizzling bacon was making me even hungrier. Alice carefully sliced the Challah bread, and began to toast it in the stove. The bacon was almost done, and Barbara had already begun to slice the tomatoes and wash the lettuce. I opened a bottle of wine. What about the mayonnaise, I thought? I opened the refrigerator, looked around, and reported the bad news to Alice: ‘There is no mayonnaise,’ I said. ‘Of course not,’ she replied. ‘We haven’t made it yet.’ With that she scooped up a bowl that contained the eggs she had brought home from the restaurant the night before, cracked them and expertly separated the yolks. She started to whisk the eggs while she slowly added some other ingredients arranged neatly next to the stove. As she wielded the whisk, she handed me a bottle of Laura Marvaldi olive oil with its distinctive gold foil, and instructed me to slowly drizzle it into the bowl as she whisked it. After ten minutes or so she finished and handed me the bowl. ‘Taste it,’ she said. It was wonderful. At Alice’s house, I learned, you don’t buy mayonnaise — you make it. Alice began assembling the sandwiches. It was August, and it was already beginning to warm up in Berkeley. We sat down at the kitchen table, a little flushed. Alice opened a window to let in some fresh air, and I took a bottle of chilled rosé from the refrigerator. ‘August is always the best time to drink Tempier rosé,’ she remarked. Maybe, but that sandwich was the best one I have ever eaten.
Not long after that, Barbara and I visited Chez Panisse to meet with Jonathan Waters – no relation to Alice – who for the past two decades has been the talented and knowledgeable wine buyer there. Alice stopped by and sat with us briefly as we tasted through a handful of Neyers wines with Jonathan. It was a Friday afternoon and she was leaving to prepare dinner at home for some guests visiting from Italy. I asked her if she would like to take one of the Neyers bottles home with her. She didn’t hesitate, and reached out immediately for the bottle of ÂME Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that we had just tasted. She’ll probably never know just how flattering that gesture was.
We recently began shipping our 2016 ÂME Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This remarkable wine comes from vines planted by Napa vineyard manager Dave Abreu in 1996 on the highest and rockiest parcel on our Conn Valley Ranch. It’s a Massale Selection vineyard developed from budwood that originated in Margaux, and was brought to the US in 1940, then planted on the Inglenook property. The yields were barely two tons per acre, and the wine was fermented using only native, wild yeast, aged 16 months in 60-gallon François Frères barrels, then bottled unfiltered. It’s a complex wine, rich and loaded with wild blackberries, cassis and minerals. The finish is bright and long, and it’s sure to complement anything you’d like to try it with. By the way, Barbara frequently makes the Chez Panisse version of fresh mayonnaise, and if you’d like the recipe, please write and we’ll get a copy off to you. You’ll never look at store bought mayonnaise the same way again.
Our mailing address is:
PO Box 1028
Saint Helena, CA 94574-0528
May 27, 2019