Neyers Vineyards

Bruce's Journal

May 19, 2020

Chicken Dinner with Joe Phelps

by Bruce Neyers


Chuy Ordaz at work in his vineyard

I started working for Joe Phelps in March of 1975. He hired me as the National Sales Manager, then gave me a job description that was three pages long, covering everything from laboratory analysis to visitor tastings. The next 17 years were the ride of a lifetime, but looking back on them today, I can’t help but feel a touch of nostalgia.

Joe lived in Colorado then, and he would fly to California every Monday morning, pick up the car he kept at his construction company’s regional office, then drive to the winery. He’d normally arrive around 5:00 or so, and I’d wait around for him. We’d meet in the office for an hour or two, then he’d invite Barbara and me out to dinner with him. Later in the week, we’d return the hospitality, and ask him to our house for dinner. He enjoyed the home-cooking, and we would try wines from my cellar. One of my favorite meals was sautéed breaded chicken breasts, a dish Barbara had learned to cook from a restaurant friend. Joe liked it enough to occasionally ask Barbara to prepare it. Before long we began to call the dish ‘Joe’s Chicken’. I still like it so much I ask for it on my birthday. I would always serve it with a red Burgundy. After dinner in those days, we’d sit up late into the evening — Joe talking to me about business, while we talked about Burgundy.

The dish is best when it’s prepped two days in advance, so we don’t have it often. Barbara made it last week, though, and it wasn’t even a special occasion. I asked her to write down the recipe, and after looking at it, I thought to myself ‘Something this delicious should be more complicated’! I still love French Burgundy as much as ever, and since we were being joined by our daughter Lizzie, I brought out a special bottle that night. I also opened a bottle of 2017 Pinot Noir ‘Placida Vineyard’ for comparison.

The success of Pinot Noir from California is the wine story of the last 30 years. I drink our Neyers Pinot Noir often, and try to serve one whenever I open a serious red Burgundy. The Pinot Noir ‘Placida Vineyard’ is a wine from grapes grown on the Russian River parcel that Chuy Ordaz planted 15 years ago, using ‘Heirloom’ budwood from the original Joseph Swan vineyard in Forestville. I was amazed at how Burgundian the Placida Vineyard bottling was. I wasn’t amazed — but I was really pleased — at how delicious the Sautéed Chicken Breasts were.

I couldn’t help noticing that after we’d eaten everything, the bottle of Placida Pinot Noir was empty, while the bottle of red Burgundy – a pretty consequential one – was half full. To my mind, Tadeo’s 2017 Placida Vineyard bottling is a great success, and a testament to his skills as a talented and gifted winemaker. It displays the irresistible combination of voluptuous fruit and complex minerality that defines all fine Pinot Noir. It’s soft and delicate too, and immediately attractive. It reminds me of some of the memorable bottles of red Burgundy I’ve enjoyed over the years.

I don’t get to eat those delicious Sautéed Chicken Breasts often, and I don’t often run across a Pinot Noir that I like this much either, so I’ll continue to act on both when the opportunity comes along. I only wish Joe Phelps were still here to enjoy both with me. I could use a little bit of his salty advice right now.

Breaded Chicken Breasts

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts pounded thin
½ cup of flour
½ cup fresh sourdough breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Italian Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
5 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Lemon wedges for serving

Preparation

In a shallow dish whisk eggs together with 1 tablespoon olive oil. In another shallow dish put flour.
In a third dish combine the breadcrumbs and grated Parmesan cheese.

Coat each chicken breast with flour, shaking off excess. Dip the chicken in the egg mixture, and then dip in the breadcrumbs and Parmesan mixture turning twice and pat so the mixture adheres to the chicken.

At this point you can refrigerate the chicken breasts and cook the next day.

Put remaining olive oil in a cast-iron skillet and cook the chicken over medium heat until chicken is browned. Approximately 4 minutes a side. Adjust heat as necessary during cooking.

Salt and pepper chicken before serving.

Serve chicken on a platter garnished with lemon wedges.

May 14, 2020

…..Perfect with the 2016 Neyers Ranch Cab

by Bruce Neyers


Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon vines – Looking north towards the ridge line

by Bruce Neyers

The shelter in place program has begun to grow tedious to many of us, but it seems to have brought out the best in Barbara, allowing her to focus on her cooking. I was more than a little pleased when she came home on a recent Friday with a bundle of fresh asparagus – it was the heart of the season in many parts of California.  She offered to make Hollandaise Sauce to accompany it, so I was, of course, thrilled. I immediately thought back to one of my Kermit Lynch trips to France – March of 2011, I think – when with a dozen fellow travelers, we finished up a long two-week road trip with dinner in Paris.

My French colleague, then, was Nadege Lanier, who coordinated our travels for years. She arranged for us to have our last meal together at a favorite stop of mine, Chez Villaret, hidden away in a quiet neighborhood in the 11th. Chez Villaret had everything we looked for after a busy road trip – great food, a spacious dining room (for Paris anyway), and a first rate wine list. They seated the twelve of us at two rounds in the far corner of the room and brought out several bottles of water, stacks of fresh levain bread, and a few bottles of the white Burgundy we ordered. Our server returned with menus, and announced that asparagus season had just begun, so fresh asparagus with hollandaise sauce was the day’s special. Every one of us ordered it to start.

Our server asked me to choose a wine to accompany the asparagus course. When I briefly hesitated, he directed me to the red Bordeaux section of the list, stating emphatically that’s where the best options were. The choices were many, most of them fairly priced, and I selected three bottles of a familiar St. Estèphe. Our server gave the order to the bartender — who was also the owner and the sommelier — and he looked at me, smiled, and gave a thumbs up. We were going to be fine. The wine was served, and after a brief wait, a cadre of kitchen staff and servers began to work their way to our table with platters loaded with fresh asparagus steamed to perfection. Each of us received a healthy portion. The chef himself followed and, pouring from a large ceramic pitcher, covered each mound of asparagus with a generous serving of the most beautiful hollandaise sauce I’ve ever seen – rich and aromatic. The wine too was delicious, and I couldn’t recall ever enjoying a red Bordeaux more.

Ever since then, I haven’t been able to look at a plate of asparagus without thinking of Chez Villaret, hollandaise sauce, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew hollandaise sauce was something that even talented cooks find difficult, but Barbara’s recipe was easy, she assured me, and an hour or so later, we sat down to dinner. The California-grown asparagus was magnificent, Barbara’s hollandaise sauce was extraordinary, and the bottle of 2016 Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon that I opened has never tasted better.

I suggested that Barbara share her recipe, and it’s copied below. I wish we could have each of you join us at our Conn Valley Ranch for a platter of fresh California asparagus smothered with Barbara’s hollandaise sauce and served with a glass of our 2016 Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe one day we will.

Please stay healthy, keep safe, and try to maintain a sense of good will during this test of our collective spirits. Continue to watch out for one another as well.

Hollandaise Sauce
Ingredients:

4 egg yolks
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup unsalted butter melted
Pinch of salt

Preparation:

Whisk egg yolks and lemon juice in a stainless-steel bowl until the mixture is thickened. Place the bowl over a saucepan containing barely simmering water (you can use a double boiler). The water should not touch the bowl. Continue to whisk and slowly drizzle in the melted butter until the sauce is thickened and doubled in volume. Remove from heat and whisk in the salt.

Yields 1 cup

May 11, 2020

Changing the face of a California Favorite

by Bruce Neyers

The lay of the land in Vista Notre Country

In 2018 we added the fruit from two neighboring vineyards to our bottling of Zinfandel, and renamed the wine ‘Vista Notre’. We were pleased to learn today that the June 30 Wine Spectator has awarded our 2018 ‘Vista Notre’ Zinfandel a score of 90 POINTS. Here are their comments:

“Sleek and floral, featuring precise cherry and cranberry flavors, with peppery anise accents. Snappy tannins show on the finish. Drink now through 2026. 981 cases made. Score: 90 POINTS” — Tim Fish

We’ve long been fascinated with these Zinfandel vineyards that sit east of Lodi, at the base of the Sierra foothills. The weather is artificially cooled by the Sierra Rotor effect, the soil is loaded with hardened rock – mostly quartz and granite — and the plant material comes from ‘Heirloom’ sources, so the clusters are small, and ripen evenly. We can make wine just loaded with flavor, and still keep the alcohol levels in balance, as we’ve done here.

 

May 6, 2020

A balanced bottle of food friendly wine

by Bruce Neyers

The 130 year old Carignan vines planted in the sandy soil of the Evangelho Vineyard

Dan Fredman has been an important wine industry personality for decades, as a retailer, distributor, and importer. He now combines his love for wine with his gifts for communications in his own company, and works with the wine industry on several levels. He recently wrote about the 2018 Neyers Sage Canyon Red, and had this to say:

‘The years Bruce Neyers spent with Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant are evident in this extremely Rhône inspired red blend from Northern California. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan meld gloriously. With no noticeable oak nor alcohol heat, it’s just a really balanced bottle of food friendly wine for under $30.’

Thanks Dan. I always appreciated your judgment.

May 5, 2020

Our Choice for Mother’s Day: 2018 Chardonnay, Chuy’s Vineyard

by Bruce Neyers

As we approach the year’s most important day of celebration, Lori suggested that we give thought to recognizing those whose value becomes even more important in difficult times, our mothers. I’ve been without my mother for over 30 years, while Barbara lost hers only 3 years ago. I’m fortunate, though, to still live with one mother and next door to another – my oldest daughter Liz. Recognizing Mother’s Day with a wine may seem whimsical, but I look at it as just a start. Let’s lift a glass to all mothers, past and present, and all they add to our lives.

True Chardonnay lovers, I’ve found, are most interested in the way this fascinating grape reflects its growing conditions. Rarely does the French term terroir take on greater meaning than with properly made Chardonnay. My years working with Kermit Lynch, and his select group of Burgundian wine makers, provided a series of amazing tasting opportunities, chances to experience  wines made from Chardonnay that displayed vastly different characteristics – wines, say, that were grown in pebbly marl at the base of the hill next to those grown on limestone scree, slightly higher up.

The vineyards of Perrières and Charmes in Meursault, for example, are adjacent to one another, and have an elevation difference of barely 10 feet. Still, many Burgundian winemakers consider the wines that come from them almost as if they were from different planets. The range of styles available to a Chardonnay winemaker are limited only by one’s imagination, and the dry-farmed, rock-strewn acreage we know of as Chuy’s Vineyard has made our winemaker’s imagination extremely fertile.

Tadeo Borchardt introduced me to Chuy Ordaz about 10 years ago, and I was immediately struck by the man’s combination of dignified grace and weathered ruggedness. When we first visited the vineyard that bears his name, these contradictions made sense to me, for the vineyard itself is a complicated mix. It’s a high elevation parcel, laced with rocky soil, steep terraces, and spectacular views. Sitting at almost 1200 feet elevation on the west-facing slope of Mt. Veeder, it’s uncanny that someone would have chosen the parcel to plant Chardonnay. It seems far too inhospitable.

Quite the opposite is true, though, for while grapes struggle to ripen here, the result is Chardonnay fruit that resembles little else grown in northern California. Here are grapes that have high natural acidity, broad ripe flavors, and a textural character that’s rarely encountered in the variety. Here is a Chardonnay that luxuriates in its individuality. When I think of terroir, I first get my mind around Chuy’s Vineyard Chardonnay. The best description for this wine is balance. Chuy told me once that he likes the Neyers version of wine so much better than earlier bottlings because Tadeo’s style has no single trait that stands out. He controls the texture so it’s soft; he obtains maximum flavor without extremes; and he lets the finish bring the other components together as one. This is extraordinary wine-making, but it couldn’t happen without extraordinary grapes.

April 30, 2020

The newly available 2018 Mourvèdre ‘Evangelho’

by Bruce Neyers

The Chicago Peach Rose

We bought our Conn Valley property in the fall of 1984, as a modest cabin, sitting on a gentle hill surrounded by 35-acres of mostly weeds. There wasn’t a single plant or tree near the house. We went to work prepping the plantable acreage for vineyards, and soon began landscaping the area around the house with a mix of sod, trees, and shrubs. Barbara insisted on plenty of roses.

A year earlier, we had traveled to the south of France for the first time. Barbara worked at Chez Panisse then, so with Kermit’s help Alice Waters arranged a visit to Domaine Tempier. I was able to tour the area’s vineyards and cellars with Lucien Peyraud, while Barbara spent time in the kitchen and gardens with his wife Lulu. Richard Olney saw that I needed a translator, and graciously accompanied Lucien and me.

At one vineyard, I asked why there were rose bushes planted at the end of each vine row, having never noticed that in a California vineyard. Richard quickly provided the explanation. Powdery mildew is one of a vineyard’s worst problems in France, he told me – more so in France than California due to the higher humidity in Europe. Roses typically show signs of an infection before the mold has time to move to the vines. Lucien then weighed in, noting that farming practices in France had improved to the point that they no longer relied entirely on this ‘Rose Bush Early warning system’.

The roses were still important to vineyard farming in other ways, he explained. They signal a shortage of moisture in the ground. Additionally, they serve as habitat for beneficial insects. Moreover, their flowers are more attractive than vines to some insect pests. The rose bushes keep the tractor drivers from making sharp turns at the end of the rows, reducing damage to both end-posts and vines. Most importantly though, they are just pretty to look at. Here I was in the south of France, learning the details of an important viticultural concept first-hand from two authorities — one a man who was arguably the world’s most talented writer on wine and food, and the other, one of the most respected grape farmers in France. I was gleefully taking notes in my green steno notebook, amazed at my good fortune.

When we returned to the house to eat, a leg of lamb was cooking over a bed of vine cutting coals in the open fireplace, while Barbara and Lulu alternately basted it with a mix of lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil, using a fresh sprig of rosemary. A small metal trough under the lamb held a collection of just-harvested, tiny potatoes that were cooking in the hot juice dripping from the meat. Nearby, magnums of Domaine Tempier red sat next to two decanters. I noticed that the table had been decorated with a beautiful bouquet of fresh roses from the garden, and explained to Barbara the connection between rose bushes and vineyards. I felt like a fountain of knowledge.

That visit was the beginning of Barbara’s plan to make roses an important part of our landscaping. Now, almost 4 decades later, I walk around the place that I’ve called home for all those years, and I see roses lining the walkway to the house from where we park our cars. Roses cover the outdoor shower alongside our exterior bedroom wall. More roses surround the propane storage tanks that power our wind machines, pumps and other equipment. Roses are scattered throughout the vineyards dividing parcels of Merlot from Cabernet Sauvignon. Roses shroud our large outdoor deck, and they shade most of the external walls of the house. They help us farm better, and contribute to our stewardship of the land. They do all of that, plus they are just pretty to look at.

This time of spring, the first blossom appears on the first rose bush that I pass after I leave the house to walk to my car. It’s called a Chicago Peace Rose, and Barbara planted it almost 30 years ago, on our south exterior wall, just outside the main entrance. The catalog describes the color as ‘Phlox-pink and creamy yellow, with subtle orange tones’. It began to bloom this week, and it’s so beautiful it stops me in my tracks. These days though, it does even more, as it’s a reminder to us that soon everything will be right again. It’s every bit as inspirational as a grape vine. There probably has never been a more important time in my life to simply have something pretty to look at.

That first trip to Domaine Tempier taught me much about life. I have never lost the fondness for Mourvèdre I acquired there — if anything, it has grown stronger. Over the years we’ve been able to locate Mourvèdre vineyards in California, and we’re thrilled to have another bottling ready for release. It’s the 2018 Mourvèdre ‘Evangelho Vineyard’ and it comes from a block of 120 year-old un-grafted vines grown in northeastern Contra Costa County, near Oakley. I could talk about it for hours, but for now I’ll just say that it’s delicious.

 

April 23, 2020

Cornbread Baked in a Cast-Iron Skillet

by Bruce Neyers


Frost protection wind machine in our recently pruned Cabernet South Vineyard – looking southeast

In her seemingly endless quest to put a smile on my face, Barbara recently surprised me with a platter of her homemade cornbread for dinner.  She baked it in the oven in a cast-iron skillet and served it with a thick slab of Niman Ranch apple wood-smoked ham, alongside some sautéed baby carrots and homemade local chutney. With it, I served a slightly chilled bottle of our 2017 Roberts Road Pinot Noir. This wine is showing very well and available to ship. It’s also featured in this month’s wine club.

I rarely see her cornbread more than once a year – mostly in the summer with her 4th of July Buttermilk Fried Chicken – but I sensed she was eager to see how fond I’d be of this long-time favorite on a chilly March night. It was the start of our 2020 frost season, too, so some special sustenance was appreciated.

We’ve had bud-break now all over the Napa Valley, and the fragile new shoots on the grapevines are vulnerable to frost. About half of our vineyards are protected by solid-set Rain Bird sprinklers that spray a fine mist over the vines preventing the shoots from freezing – which would destroy the cells. The balance is protected by a wind machine, a device equipped with an airplane propeller that moves the heavier, cold air away from the surface of the ground and replaces it with the warmer air slightly higher in elevation. The water application has several drawbacks, so if the frost is modest – like that night’s – we prefer to protect the vines using just the wind machine. It’s noisy though, and ours sits close to our bedroom window, making it hard to sleep. Sensing a short night in my future, I treated myself to an extra slice of cornbread.

Barbara said it took her about 30 minutes to make the cornbread, and she stressed the importance of baking it in the cast-iron skillet, rather than one of those devices that faintly resemble a metallic ear of corn. As a result, when finished, it looks more like a cake and is sliced accordingly to be served.

Cast-Iron Skillet Cornbread

Ingredients:

1 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter melted and cooled, plus ½ tablespoon of butter for greasing the pan
1½ cups buttermilk
2 eggs

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a large bowl sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Add the corn meal.

Whisk together the eggs and buttermilk

Add the eggs and buttermilk and melted butter to the dry ingredients. Combine until just blended, do not over mix.

Five minutes before baking the cornbread, put the cast-iron skillet in the oven to warm. I prefer one that is 8-9” in diameter, about 1½” deep

Pour the batter into a lightly buttered cast-iron pan.

Cook until the cornbread begins to brown on top about 20 to 25 minutes.

April 21, 2020

Perfect with the 2016 Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

by Bruce Neyers


Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon Vines Looking North towards the Ridge Line

The shelter in place program has begun to grow tedious to many of us, but it seems to have brought out the best in Barbara, allowing her to focus on her cooking. I was more than a little pleased when she came home Friday with a bundle of fresh asparagus – it’s the heart of the season in parts of California now. She offered to make Hollandaise Sauce to accompany it, so I was of course thrilled. I immediately thought back to one of my Kermit Lynch trips to France – March of 2011, I think – when with a dozen fellow travelers we finished up a long two-week road trip with dinner in Paris.

My French colleague then was Nadege Lanier, who coordinated our travels for years. She arranged for us to have our last meal together at a favorite stop of mine, Chez Villaret, hidden away in a quiet neighborhood in the 11th. Chez Villaret had everything we looked for after a busy road trip – great food, a spacious dining room (for Paris anyway), and a first rate wine list. They seated the twelve of us at two rounds in the far corner of the room, brought out several bottles of water, stacks of fresh levain bread, and a few bottles of the white Burgundy we ordered. Our server returned with menus, and announced that asparagus season had just begun, so fresh asparagus with hollandaise sauce was the day’s special. Every one of us ordered it to start.

Our server asked me to choose a wine to accompany the asparagus course. When I briefly hesitated, he directed me to the red Bordeaux section of the list, stating emphatically that’s where the best options were. The choices were many, most of them fairly priced, and I selected three bottles of a familiar St. Estèphe. Our server gave the order to the bartender — who was also the owner and the sommelier — and he looked at me, smiled, and gave a thumbs up. We were going to be fine. The wine was served, and after a brief wait, a cadre of kitchen staff and servers began to work their way to our table with platters loaded with fresh asparagus, steamed to perfection. Each of us received a healthy portion. The chef himself followed and, pouring from a large ceramic pitcher, covered each mound of asparagus with a generous serving of the most beautiful hollandaise sauce I’ve ever seen – rich and aromatic. The wine too was delicious, and I couldn’t recall ever enjoying a red Bordeaux more.

Ever since then, I haven’t been able to look at a plate of asparagus without thinking of Chez Villaret, hollandaise sauce, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I knew hollandaise sauce was something that even talented cooks find difficult, but Barbara’s recipe was easy, she assured me, and an hour or so later we sat down to dinner. The California-grown asparagus was magnificent, Barbara’s hollandaise sauce was extraordinary, and the bottle of 2016 Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon that I opened has never tasted better.

I suggested that Barbara share her recipe, and it’s copied below. I wish we could have each of you join us at our Conn Valley Ranch for a platter of fresh California asparagus, smothered with Barbara’s hollandaise sauce, and served with a glass of our 2016 Neyers Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe one day we will.

2016 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. 91 POINTS  – James Molesworth

Please stay healthy, keep safe, and try to maintain a sense of good will during this test of our collective spirits. Continue to watch out for one another as well.

 

Yields 1 cup

Ingredients

4 egg yolks
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup unsalted butter melted
Pinch of salt

Preparation

Whisk egg yolks and lemon juice in a stainless-steel bowl until the mixture is thickened. Place the bowl over a saucepan containing barely simmering water (you can use a double boiler). The water should not touch the bowl. Continue to whisk and slowly drizzle in the melted butter until the sauce is thickened and doubled in volume. Remove from heat and whisk in the salt

April 13, 2020

Terroir Based Red Wine

by Bruce Neyers

Cabernet Sauvignon in foreground, with Merlot in background, looking northwest towards Conn Creek. The closest vines have just been pruned

The best vineyards of St. Julien sit, for the most part, close to the Gironde River, so over the centuries, mounds of gravel have formed atop the limestone base, making the wines from the area round and gentle. These wines are attractive in their youth, but are among the longest-lived wines of Bordeaux.

Deep gravel deposits are uncommon in the Napa Valley, but the few that we have are found near year-round streams, normally in the hills above the valley floor. One such site is where Conn Creek passes through our ranch in Conn Valley, on a journey from Howell Mountain, southwest to the reservoir of Lake Hennessey. This trek of nearly 5 miles spends about 500 yards traveling through the southern-most reach of our 45-acre ranch. Over the centuries, it has deposited more than 50-feet of gravel in some spots along the creek’s left bank.

Soon after we purchased the property in 1984, our vineyard manager Dave Abreu brought in a consulting geologist who reported the presence of a significant gravel deposit. We developed the land closest to the creek to Merlot. A few years later, we purchased a neighboring 10-acre parcel, and planted the section on the left bank of the creek to Cabernet Sauvignon. We bottled our two ‘creek-side’ wines separately for several years until winemaker Tadeo Borchardt suggested that we produce a blended wine from the two parcels planted on gravel soil. This new wine was based on terroir rather than grape variety, and we named it ‘Left Bank Red’. Our inaugural offering was the 2014 Left Bank Red, and it was awarded a high score by the Wine Spectator, and selected as the ‘Top Value’ in their cover article.

The Merlot parcel is planted to a spacing of 5’ between vines and 9’ between rows, or 968 vines per acre. The Cabernet Sauvignon parcel is more tightly planted — 4’ X 6’, or 1814 vines per acre. Each block flowers and ripens at different times, so the blends vary from year to year — some years with more Cabernet Sauvignon, and some with more Merlot. The deep gravel soil favorably influences the wine, and each year the Left Bank Red is delightfully perfumed with an underlying note of violets and red fruit. The aroma is subtle but complex. There’s a remarkable softness, along with a blend of flavors that are approachable and satisfying. We seek elegance here, and especially in vintages like the 2018 Left Bank Red, we find it. We bottled 2293 cases.

March 30, 2020

Cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet

by Bruce Neyers

Frost protection wind machine in our recently pruned Cabernet South Vineyard, looking southeast.

In her seemingly endless quest to put a smile on my face, Barbara surprised me with a platter of her homemade cornbread for dinner last night. She baked it in the oven in a cast-iron skillet, and served it with a thick slab of Niman Ranch apple wood-smoked ham, alongside some sautéed baby carrots and homemade local chutney. With it, I served a slightly chilled bottle of our 2018 Roberts Road Pinot Noir. We just began to ship this wine and when we tasted it in Washington, DC recently it was showing especially well.

I rarely see her cornbread more than once a year – mostly in the summer with her 4th of July Buttermilk Fried Chicken – but I sense she was eager to see how fond I’d be of this long-time favorite on a chilly March night. It was the start of our 2020 frost season too, so some special sustenance was appreciated.

We’ve had bud-break now all over the Napa Valley, and the fragile new shoots on the grapevines are vulnerable to frost. About half of our vineyards are protected by solid-set Rain Bird sprinklers that spray a fine mist over the vines, preventing the shoots from freezing, which would destroy the cells. The balance is protected by a wind machine, a device equipped with an airplane propeller that moves the heavier, cold air away from the surface of the ground, and replaces it with the warmer air slightly higher in elevation. The water application has several drawbacks, so if the frost is modest – like last night’s – we prefer to protect the vines using just the wind machine. It’s noisy though, and ours sits close to our bedroom window, making it hard to sleep. Sensing a short night in my future, I treated myself to an extra slice of cornbread.

Barbara said it took her about 30 minutes to make the cornbread, and she stressed the importance of baking it in the cast-iron skillet, rather than one of those devices that faintly resemble a metallic ear of corn. As a result, when finished it looks more like a cake, and is sliced accordingly to be served.

Here’s the recipe, thanks to David Tanis, a friend and former Chez Panisse chef who now writes for the ‘New York Times’. By the way, a slice can be reheated the following morning, then served with some melted butter and maple syrup or honey, a country version of French toast you may want to introduce to those in your family who cooperate with the idea of ‘Shelter in Place’.

 

Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread

Ingredients

1 cup yellow corn meal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter melted and cooled, plus ½ tablespoon of butter for greasing the pan
1½ cups buttermilk
2 eggs

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a large bowl sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the corn meal.

Whisk together the eggs and buttermilk.

Add the eggs and buttermilk and melted butter to the dry ingredients. Combine until just blended, do not over mix.

Five minutes before baking the cornbread, put the cast iron skillet in the oven to warm. I prefer one that is 8-9” in diameter, about 1½” deep

Pour the batter into a lightly buttered cast iron pan.

Cook until the cornbread begins to brown on top about 20 to 25 minutes.