August 23, 2018
This is indeed good news, as word just arrived from the Editorial staff at ‘The Wine Enthusiast’, reporting that they tasted our newly released 2017 Chardonnay ‘304’, and scored it 91 POINTS. Now there’s a sound decision!
The ‘304’ Chardonnay from Neyers Vineyards takes its name from the type of stainless steel that is used to make wine fermentation tanks. It’s the highest of the ‘Food Grade’ levels of stainless, which makes it well suited for a range of wine related tasks. We also use one of our cement tanks to ferment a portion of this wine, but at no time does this wine come into contact with oak.
The grapes come largely from Paul Larson’s Carneros District vineyard, which may well be the coldest climate Chardonnay grown in northern California. Moreover, the vineyard is planted on the rocky outcropping of a former creek bed that provides the finished wine with a lovely mineral component. Fresh, bright and crisp, this is a wine that is full of flavor, easy to drink, and goes well with almost everything.
2017 Chardonnay ‘304’ – 91 Points from The Wine Enthusiast
This review will be included in their November ‘Holiday Issue’.
July 10, 2018
by Bruce Neyers
I’ve been reading the Daily Meal on-line for years, and I was regularly impressed with the content developed by Colman Andrews while he was Editor. I’ve always known him to be one of the most knowledgeable people in the wine and food business, so when he wrote me recently to ask if they could include one of my sales memos in an upcoming issue, I was flattered and immediately agreed. The piece Colman selected recalled a day I spent at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, almost 30 years ago, with Lady Bird Johnson and a group from the American Wild Flower Foundation. I’ve copied it below. You can also read it on The Daily Meal website at: https://www.thedailymeal.com/drink/drinking-zinfandel-lady-bird-johnson-napa
My son Mike was home one night recently, and I solicited his help pulling some hard-to-get-at bottles from my wine cellar. One of the bottles he moved was signed, and he asked me about it. I looked at the bottle and reflected on that wonderful day – almost 30 years ago – when I had lunch with Lady Bird Johnson.
I worked at Joseph Phelps Vineyards at the time, and we had been asked by The Wine Institute to host a lunch for a group visiting the Napa Valley for the American Wildflower Foundation. They wanted to have a lunch there, so we arranged for a local caterer to prepare the meal, and then dealt with the organizers to work out the details. One wrinkle did serve as a possible issue: there would be a pre-lunch talk by a University of California Professor named Walter Alvarez. His topic was The Theory of the Extinction of the Dinosaurs. The morning of the event I received another surprise when the group advised me that Lady Bird Johnson was joining them. Lady Bird, it turned out, was a founder of the Texas Wildflower Center, and much of her work over the past few years had involved promoting the understanding and awareness of wildflowers. She and her longtime friend, former press secretary Liz Carpenter, would be part of the group. The day began with a tremor of concern, but it was going to end without one.
The group arrived promptly at 10:00 am. Lady Bird – as expected — had a private escort, but I never had an inkling that she was anything other than a wildflower enthusiast. She was casually dressed but still strikingly attractive, and she held my arm as we walked on some stepping stones to the back of the winery. It was a beautiful, early spring day, and it crossed my mind that with the mustard and lupine showing at its finest, we were in a bit of wildflower nirvana. The group numbered about 25, and soon they were all seated on the wooden benches that surrounded the west-facing deck. I began to make some introductory remarks about the winery. A sentence or two into my welcome, Lady Bird interrupted me. Mr. Neyers, she said in her slow but enthusiastic draw, this view is absolutely delicious! She spoke those last two words as if each had 8 or 9 syllables, and I’m sure a blush of pride covered my face. I thanked her, but remember saying something about not having had a lot to do with the view. It was the wine for which I was responsible, and with that comment one of my colleagues began to give everyone a glass of chilled Chardonnay to enjoy before lunch. I started to introduce the wine when Lady Bird interrupted me again. Mr. Neyers, she asked, do you have Zinfandel? I paused for a moment thinking out my reply, then decided to take the path of least resistance: Why yes Ma’am we do. I’ll have a bottle brought here at once. Oh thank you, Mr. Neyers, she said. I just love Zinfandel. A tray of red wine glasses appeared, and Lady Bird along with one or two of the others took a glass of the Zinfandel. I talked for a few more minutes, and we went inside to the large oval table that had been set for the group. I hadn’t planned to join them for lunch or the talk by Dr. Alvarez until Lady Bird took me by the arm again and maneuvered me to a seat on the side of the table next to her. She then motioned to Liz Carpenter to take the seat on the other side of me, thus penning me in between them, while she directed Walter Alvarez to the head of the table. He will want to stand up when he talks, Lady Bird advised me, and this is the best place to watch him. As soon as everyone was seated, Professor Alvarez stood up, introduced himself, and held up two rocks, each about the size of a baseball. These rocks, he said, were part of the proof behind the Alvarez Hypothesis. He then went on to talk for the next hour or so about the Cretaceous Period, the extinction of the dinosaurs which he believed was caused by a giant asteroid striking the earth, and how a group of scientists he headed along with his Nobel Prize-winning father had determined this through several years of geological studies that measured variations in the level of iridium in the earth’s crust. We had a chance to examine the rock samples in detail as Alvarez explained how the one rich in iridium differed from the other. When he was finished, I felt like one of the smartest men in the world.
Alvarez took his seat amidst exuberant applause – far more than I expected for a wildflower conference – and our lunch began. Our server poured Lady Bird some Cabernet Sauvignon, and this time I didn’t wait for her to comment. Would you prefer Zinfandel, Ma’am, I asked. Why yes, Bruce, I would. Like I said, I just love Zinfandel. When my colleague brought some Zinfandel for the lunch, she handed a separate, unopened bottle to me — along with a pen — and said maybe you could get Lady Bird to sign this bottle for you. I would have never thought of that, but I offered it to her. She took the pen and said, I’ll just sign it to Bruce. OK? And so I ended up on a first name basis with a former First Lady, and a signed bottle of wine for my son to discover 30 years later.
We originally sent this e mail in the fall of 2016, updating at the time the availability of our 2015 Vista Luna Zinfandel. We just bottled the 2017 Neyers Zinfandel ‘Vista Luna Vineyard’ and it is now ready to ship. It’s a wine that I would have been proud to serve to Lady Bird, and I just know she would have liked it.
July 2, 2018
by Bruce Neyers
I’ve been spending some time going through my film collection lately, pulling out some old favorites for Barbara and me to watch, and I was especially pleased to run across a dusty VHS copy of ‘Operation Petticoat’ last week. This legendary film was a huge box office success when it was released in 1959, and a quick check on the internet reports that it was the third top-grossing film of the year. Moreover, it was the biggest financial success in Cary Grant’s long career. But it’s Tony Curtis who steals the show in this film, as Navy LT Nick Holden, a submarine supply officer who raises the art of military scrounging to new lows. In an interview just before his death in 2010, Curtis referred to it as one of his favorite roles. It was certainly one of mine. I could watch the film repeatedly and never tire of it. I could also listen to Tony Curtis talk for hours, without growing weary of his voice, or that enormous charm. On a night that seems like it was only a few years ago, on the road selling wine in Los Angeles, I was able to experience both. I was traveling that week with two French winemakers – one from Alsace, the other from the Loire – and after stops in New York, Chicago and Denver we arrived in LA, nearing the end of our trip. Both winemakers remarked how excited they were to be visiting Los Angeles. I wondered if they would still feel that way when we left! Fortunately they both spoke fluent English. We hooked up with our distributor at the airport, then checked into our hotel, before heading off for some sales calls. We finished our work day with a promising-sounding dinner at what would be my first visit to the ‘new’ Spago, an old favorite which had recently moved to fancy new digs in Beverly Hills. When we arrived at Spago, though, we learned that our host had failed to reconfirm his reservation, so it had been canceled. No problem said the wine buyer. He knew us, and simply asked that we get comfy at the bar while he found us a four-top – on a Friday night. At the bar, we learned that the Neyers Carneros District Chardonnay was on the list, so I ordered a bottle while we waited. After an hour or so, we were reassured by the wine buyer that we needed to be just a bit more patient. That’s when I noticed someone at the end of the bar who looked a lot like Tony Curtis. He was talking with the bartender, and both were laughing. While his hair was white, his face was unmistakable — just as strikingly handsome as I remembered him from the peak of his career. To be certain though, I asked the bartender – who had become a good friend by then – and my suspicions were confirmed. We ordered another bottle of Chardonnay and the bartender asked if we wanted to send a glass to Mr. Curtis. He likes Chardonnay, we were assured. I agreed, immediately. Tony huddled with the bartender — getting some information on who we were – then glanced over at us, took a sip, smiled and waved us all down to his end of the bar. We joined him, and a short but wonderful spontaneous party ensued. My French producer friends are probably still puzzled about the world of Hollywood, where you meet famous actors while selling wine. We finished that bottle and Tony ordered another one, all the time lauding the wine as one of the best he’d ever encountered. I was dizzy basking in the praise, while my traveling companions were having him sign Spago bar napkins to everyone they knew. We all felt like we were hanging out with an old family friend. Eventually his dinner companion arrived, and about that same time the wine buyer found a table for me and my companions. Looking back, the hour or so that we stood at the bar and talked with Tony Curtis, drank a bottle or two of wine, and fielded his questions about our lives in the wine business were extraordinary. Watching the first few minutes of ‘Operation Petticoat’ returned me to that evening. For someone who could list among his film credits such classics as ‘The Defiant Ones’ –- for which he was nominated for an academy award — ‘Some Like It Hot’, and ‘Operation Petticoat’, he was the most genuinely modest superstar I ever met. On top of that, he seemed to love Neyers Chardonnay. I’ll always remember him as that likeable guy I met at Spago who deflected every question I asked him in order to turn the conversation back on me. My two French suppliers returned home the next day, their suitcases stuffed with autographed Spago bar napkins.
Barbara and I went to Spago for dinner last month, and we were pleased to see they currently feature Neyers Carneros District Chardonnay by the glass. If you find yourself in Los Angeles, keep that in mind, and stop in for a taste. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the wine, and maybe you’ll create some of your own memories. There are bound to be plenty more of them there.
June 27, 2018
2016 Left Bank Red
We received word from the Editors at Wine Enthusiast that the July 2018 issue will feature a review of our 2016 Left Bank Red. The wine will be given a score of 90 POINTS.
Our 2016 Left Bank Red is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot. Both vineyards are planted in the gravelly soil at the south end of our Conn Valley ranch, on the left bank of Conn Creek as it flows through our property on its way from the top of Howell Mountain to the Napa River in Rutherford. The soil profile from a recent well drilling has shown the gravel deposit on this section of the vineyard is almost 40 feet deep, and with the combination of nearby sandy-loam and basalt soils, serves as an ideal spot for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to mingle. Both parcels are certified organic with CCOF, and we practice modern sustainable farming, seeding them each fall after the harvest with a customized cover crop seed mix, which is mowed, then plowed under the following spring to replace those nutrients taken up by the vines during the growing season.
Winemaker Tadeo Borchardt focuses on small yields, grown on vines propagated from heirloom budwood selections. Each vineyard is separately hand-harvested, and each cluster is closely examined on our sorting table before de-stemming. Fermentation is carried out using only native, wild yeast, and the separate wines are aged in a combination of new and used 60-gallon French oak barrels. We bottle the Left Bank Red after 14 months of barrel aging, without fining or filtering the finished wine. The blend is immediately appealing, with its combination of bright raspberry flavors balanced by the charm of the wild cherry component of the Merlot. The gravelly soil provides a subtle hint of minerality, making the wine both complete and complex. We bottled 2200 cases, all of them from estate grapes grown on our 45-acre Conn Valley Ranch.
~ Bruce Neyers
June 19, 2018
|‘Too much wine will dull a man’s desire – in a dull man.’
This observation from Henry Fielding’s 18th century masterpiece ‘Tom Jones’ seems well designed for today’s Zinfandel drinkers. For years California winemakers have tried to out-muscle one another in their zeal to produce Zinfandel with high alcohol. At Neyers Vineyards, we’ve been going in just the opposite direction. Noted wine journalist Randy Caparosa does a lot to explain this in his recent piece entitled “Why Big Time Producers Like Ridge and Neyers Are Mining Lodi for Zinfandel.” Here are excerpts from Randy’s story:
Since the early 1990’s, Neyers Vineyards has been producing a variety of handcrafted, minimal intervention, native yeast-fermented wines that are sold in the country’s finest accounts. Since 2008, Neyers has been sourcing Lodi-grown Zinfandel from the Bokisch family’s Vista Luna Vineyard, planted on the eastern edge of San Joaquin County, in the AVA known as Borden Ranch. Viticulture here is different from that practiced in Lodi. The vines are trellised on cross-arms, and planted in red clay-loam soil inundated with gravel and nearly boulder-size rocks of quartz and granite. According to Bruce Neyers, the quartz adds a mineral element, the region’s ‘Sierra Rotor Effect’ cools the otherwise hot climate, and the heirloom selection planted at Bokisch provides smaller clusters that ripen evenly. Neyers can, he says, produce a wine made from fully ripened grapes that has only 13% alcohol.
It shows too. The recently released 2016 Vista Luna Zinfandel has a bright floral nose, brimming with cherry/strawberry fruit, nuanced with baking spices of cinnamon and clove, and mercifully free of excessive oak. It’s more reminiscent of a Bordeaux-style red. The backbone is formed by the combination of crisp acidity and svelte tannin, rather than the ‘fat’ feel of alcohol typical of most California Zinfandel.
Thanks for the encouragement, Randy. We still have some of the 2016 Vista Luna Zinfandel available from Neyers. Check with your regional TFE sales rep for pricing and quantities in your market.
Randy’s article in its entirety can be read at: https://bit.ly/2Hm3mXX
June 18, 2018
June 5, 2018
by Bruce Neyers
We had some important visitors at the winery recently — two brothers who own a wine company in Belgium and distribute our wines there and in Holland. As we tasted through the selection of Chardonnay bottlings from Neyers, it was apparent that their top choice was our 2016 Chardonnay ‘Chuy’s Vineyard’. That was no surprise to us. ‘Chuy’s Vineyard’ is easily our most ‘Burgundian’ wine, so it’s reasonable that Europeans familiar with French white Burgundy would favor it. No, we don’t kid ourselves thinking that our wine is French. To the contrary, if we’ve learned anything over the past 30 years at Neyers Vineyards it’s been a broader understanding of the soils, the weather, the plant material and the geography unique to California wines. We rely on much more than the grape variety in our approach to winemaking, and this is an example.
The weather in California is too warm in many places to successfully grow Chardonnay grapes. The colder-climate locations better suited to the grape frequently skirt the San Francisco Bay. As a result, they contain clay which holds moisture through much of the growing season. Clay soils are especially efficient at delivering Nitrogen to the roots of grape vines, so grapes from the Carneros District tend to be high in Nitrogen when harvested. When yeast begin to ferment the sugar in these grapes, they draw on the Nitrogen as a nutrient; with lots of it present, the fermentation becomes more vigorous and finishes sooner. The attractive tropical fruit aromas that develop in the early stages of fermentation don’t have time to burn off. These exotic fruit aromas – known as esters — become an important part of the wine, and the millions of wine drinkers who love California Chardonnay find them charming.
On the other hand, most of the Chardonnay in Burgundy is grown at high elevations, in the rocky hills of the Côte d’Or, Chablis, Mâcon and the Chalonnaise. Although there’s clay in that soil too, it’s in small amounts, so Chardonnay grapes grown in Burgundy are harvested with lower Nitrogen levels. The yeast cells now have to work harder to convert the sugar to Ethanol and Carbon Dioxide, so the process takes longer. Attractive fruit aromas are still formed. They are soon replaced, though, by other aromatic constituents, compounds that more resemble earth or mineral. In White Burgundy especially, these sometimes smell of hazelnut – what the French call ‘Noisette’.
The growing conditions of ‘Chuy’s Vineyard’ Chardonnay more closely resemble those of Burgundy. This vineyard sits on the west slope of Mt Veeder on the Sonoma County line. It’s at 1200’ in elevation, and the soil is largely volcanic rock known as basalt. Because the grapes are harvested with low Nitrogen content the fermentation struggles, developing an attractive combination of minerality and hazelnut in the wine. Additionally, the slow fermentation favors the formation of Glycerol which gives the wine additional body and texture. This is what our Belgian clients were drawn to in the Chuy’s Chardonnay.
Which type of Chardonnay is better? The important thing here is not so much to favor one style over the other, but to embrace both for what they are: a result of the conditions under which the grapes are grown. As the legendary Harry Waugh once remarked when asked to explain a personal wine preference, ‘I plan to spend much of the rest of my life looking into this.’
June 2, 2018
May 28, 2018
Ben Leger of Lafayette, LA is one of those wine lovers who qualify as a legitimate prodigy. He’s been developing and overseeing restaurant wine programs since he was 19, and later became one of the nation’s youngest sommeliers. He now owns MySomm, a Lafayette, LA wine specialty shop built around its customers. One of Ben’s ways of introducing his clients to new wines is through his ‘Hump Day Special’, a weekly wine selection offered every Wednesday. This week’s choice was the 2015 Neyers Carneros District Chardonnay. Here’s what Ben had to say:
Neyers is one of the best wineries that has been introduced to me this year. They are making some really special wines. Bruce Neyers served stints at Mayacamas and Joseph Phelps wineries before becoming sales manager for a little importer called Kermit Lynch. Bruce was heavily influenced by the French style of winemaking and it shows in his balanced wines. This Chardonnay sees about 30% new French oak and it’s integrated into the wine perfectly. The malo-lactic fermentation that it undergoes does just enough to give the wine a lovely, round mouthfeel. MySomm Tasting Notes:
“The nose is explosive, showing aromas of lemon zest & caramel as well as notes of candied orange peel and butter-poached pear. The mouthfeel is what makes this wine in my opinion. It has a lush, elegant texture that really encompasses the palate. However, unlike some other California Chards, this never once comes across as fat or flabby. There is a pure line of acidity that runs straight through, from entry to finish. The flavor profile is equally exciting. There are complex flavors of orange crème brulée and caramel covered almonds with a jolt of key lime on the finish to brighten things up.”
May 9, 2018
By Bruce Neyers
In my Junior year at the University of Delaware I signed up for ROTC, so when I graduated in June of 1968, I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, then called to active duty in January 1969. I spent several months in Guided Missile School in El Paso, Texas, then was assigned to a unit in South Korea. I traveled first to Chuncheon, a beautiful, ancient city of 10,000 people located about 75 miles northeast of Seoul. From there I was sent another 50 miles northeast, to Missile Site Delta, on a mountaintop about a mile south of the DMZ. It was the most remote American troop position in the country. Assignment to Korea was a hardship tour, so families were not allowed to accompany servicemen. Barbara listened to the rules, then heeded the advice of her father – an Air Force General – and traveled there anyway. Two months after I arrived, she flew to Seoul and joined me. With the help of a friendly Sergeant and his Korean wife, we rented an American-style house in Chuncheon. We couldn’t live together, though, as I needed to return to my base for duty. Our first night we went to the officer’s club at nearby Camp Page for what would be our last dinner together for a while, and I left Chuncheon the next morning. A month later I was able to return, and by then the house was unrecognizable. It had been thoroughly cleaned, elaborately decorated with local artifacts, and comfortably furnished courtesy of our neighbors. Barbara had sublet a bedroom to a young woman named Younghi — a student attending a local girl’s college — who was invaluable to us. They hired a housekeeper who looked after every detail of our new home and Barbara’s new life. That night, we walked the short distance to Camp Page and once again went to the officer’s club for dinner. As we were about to be seated, the affable voice of Chief Warrant Officer Walter Reddick rang out: ‘Can I join you kids (we were both 23) for dinner,’ the chief asked? As the only American woman in a town that housed over 1000 soldiers, Barbara was already a bit of a celebrity, so I wasn’t surprised to have company. Chief Reddick was a likable career soldier, and a welcome dinner companion. Warrant Officers occupy an imprecise middle ground in the army, between Non-Commissioned Officers (Sergeants) and Commissioned Officers, but each one is normally a unit’s most knowledgeable authority in a specialty, giving them an enviable degree of independence. Mr. Reddick was the Battalion Supply Chief, and no one knew more about military supply. We were seated at a booth in the rear of the club, away from the crowded bar, and as Barbara and I looked over the menu Mr. Reddick asked, ‘Would you like some wine with dinner?’ I was puzzled by how he expected to get a bottle of wine in Chuncheon, but the mystery was solved when our Korean waiter approached us. Mr. Reddick gave him a long chain of keys and said, ‘Go down to my wine cellar, Mr. Park, and get a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape. Get the same wine we had last week with the Colonel.’ Mr. Park turned and left the club. A few minutes later he returned, clutching the still chilly bottle of red wine. He opened it like an experienced server, and handed it to Chief Reddick who poured us each a glass. It was delicious with my steak dinner, and I suddenly acquired a new interest. A few months later, I was promoted to First Lieutenant, and was transferred from the mountaintop outpost to Camp Page, where I was put in command of HQ Battery, and permitted to live off base with Barbara. Barbara in the meantime had become even more important to the community, teaching English to the wives of local politicians and businessmen. She volunteered at the local community center, taught Math at Younghi’s school, and even took Tae Kwon Do lessons at a local martial arts studio. On Saturday nights we would join Chief Reddick at the officer’s club for dinner and another wine experience. One day the Chief gave me a dog-eared copy of Alexis Lichine’s ‘The Wines of France’. I read it repeatedly and constantly asked him questions about French wines, many of which we enjoyed together. The long Korean winter eventually gave way to spring, and my 13 month tour came to an end. At our going-away party, Barbara was presented with an honorary award for having survived her experience as a civilian in Chuncheon. With dinner, Chief Reddick poured us a glass of Châteauneuf du Pape. I learned that I was assigned to The Presidio of San Francisco, and we prepared to move on with our lives. I was determined to learn more about wine.
Eight months later I was discharged from the army and went to work for a small wine company in San Francisco. Soon after, we moved to the Napa Valley. Eventually we started our own winery, and decided to produce a Châteauneuf du Pape-styled wine from California grapes. We call it Sage Canyon Red, and it’s made from Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. It has quickly developed a large and enthusiastic following. We crush these grapes by foot — a French technique called ‘Pigeage’ designed to keep the stems from being broken during fermentation. We work with low-yielding old vines, and have successfully combined traditional winemaking with new world knowledge. Neyers Sage Canyon Red is a remarkable wine, and we’d like you to experience it. It’s really delicious.
2016 Sage Canyon Red
A blend of 45% Carignan, 25% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre and 15% Syrah
May 9, 2018
April 25, 2018
by Bruce Neyers
Our 2016 Left Bank Red is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot. Both vineyards are planted in the gravelly soil at the south end of our Conn Valley ranch, on the left bank of Conn Creek as it flows through our property on its way from the top of Howell Mountain to the Napa River in Rutherford. The soil profile from a recent well drilling has shown the gravel deposit on this section of the vineyard is almost 40 feet deep, and with the combination of nearby sandy-loam and basalt soils serves as an ideal spot for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to mingle. Both parcels are certified organic with CCOF, and we practice modern sustainable farming, seeding them each fall after the harvest with a customized cover crop seed mix, which is mowed, then plowed under the following spring to replace those nutrients taken up by the vines during the growing season. Winemaker Tadeo Borchardt focuses on small yields, grown on vines propagated from heirloom budwood selections. Each vineyard is separately hand-harvested, and each cluster is closely examined on our sorting table before de-stemming. Fermentation is carried out using only native, wild yeast, and the separate wines are aged in a combination of new and used 60-gallon French oak barrels. We bottle the Left Bank Red after 14 months of barrel aging, without fining or filtering the finished wine. The blend is immediately appealing, with its combination of bright raspberry flavors balanced by the charm of the wild cherry component of the Merlot. The gravelly soil provides a subtle hint of minerality, making the wine both complete and complex. We bottled 2200 cases, all of them from estate grapes grown on our 45-acre Conn Valley Ranch.
2016 Left Bank Red
March 28, 2018
By Bruce Neyers
We were recently invited to dinner at the home of a friend who had arranged for a local chef to cook for a small group of guests. The chef was very talented – we knew her from the several years she had cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley – and the dinner featured a succession of great wines, along with superb food. The main course was a brilliantly executed dish of perfectly done spit roasted Wolfe Ranch Quail. It was delicious, of course, but soon after it was served, one of the guests asked me almost as an aside if I’d ever tasted better quail. I thought for a minute and reflected back to an al fresco lunch, 45 years ago, and sitting on the ground on the side of a Napa Valley hillside vineyard. That’s too long a story to recount, I thought. No, I said, I haven’t. Not ever. To be truthful though, I had.
Barbara and I moved to the Napa Valley in early January 1972. I had accepted a job at Mayacamas Winery as the assistant winemaker, and this was the start of my new life. I was eager to learn, and the job soon proved to be all that I had hoped for. Winter is the rainy season in northern California, and during my first week it rained every day. Because of the weather we were limited to indoor work — wine racking, barrel topping, cooperage repair, maintenance of the bottling line, and the near-constant cleaning that is a staple of winemaking. I loved all of it. Week two though began a second and more demanding part of my wine education – farming. This chapter of my career began when we drove to the vineyards and I was taught to prune. Before making that trip though, I had to invest in some outdoor equipment — a pair of Felco pruning shears, a folding ‘Buck’ pocket knife, the familiar red Swiss Army Knife with several tools, a Stanley Stainless Steel coffee thermos, a pocket watch, and a pair of insulated, waterproof work boots. Properly equipped, I was now ready to take the steps that were to change my life. We began pruning at Mayacamas with the Chardonnay vineyard called the Terrace. Planted in the early 1940’s, this 8-acre section of vines was the prized parcel for the famed Mayacamas Chardonnay. The combination of high elevation, southern exposure, gravely-volcanic soil, and old ‘Shot-Wente’ selection vine stock made it the principal source of grapes for what was generally thought to be one of the best examples of Chardonnay produced in California. The pruning crew grew to three people when I joined — the vineyard manager Mike Clancy who worked alongside me watching and critiquing, and an old friend of his named Tom Fogarty who would leave his full-time logging job in Oregon every winter, return to his former home in the Napa Valley, and prune grapevines at Mayacamas. He liked the outdoor work, and pruning was far more dependable as a source of income in January than cutting down trees in the Pacific Northwest. Both Tom and Mike had been pruning grapevines for years, and they were great teachers. I’ve heard people say that pruning is the best job in the wine business, and after only a few days at it, I understood why. It was cold and damp outside, but the weather was subject to wide swings, and we took frequent coffee breaks to stay warm. What started out as a day of seemingly unbearable cold could quickly develop into a beautiful one, with a limitless blue sky overhead. The work is almost Zen-like, as it involves one person working alone, carrying out a single agricultural operation, but one that changes with every vine. Moreover, the work is crucial to the wine that will be made the following autumn. The singularity with nature is invigorating, and a competent pruner looks at a freshly-shorn vine almost like a completed painting. Pruning requires constant attention to each vine. Most of the last season’s growth is removed, while the vine is shaped to carry the fruit for the upcoming year. At the same time, the clusters must be positioned to ripen properly, and be accessible to the harvesters. Most importantly, the pruner must plan for shoot positions that will support the crop in two years, as fruit clusters develop only on two-year old wood. It’s difficult work and takes time to learn, but within a week or two I was pruning most vines without a negative comment from either of my instructors. It was great work, and it was about to get better. A little before noon one day I heard several gun shots. I looked in the direction of the noise and saw Tom, walking up the hill carrying a shotgun. When he got closer to me I could make out that he had a string of quail tossed over his shoulder. I hope you’re hungry, he said when he reached me. We’re going to have quail for lunch. We had pruned enough vines by then that there was work to be done tying the new canes to the wires. This was the specialty of an elderly single woman named Edna Bryant who had retired to a small home on the ranch. She paid off her annual rent to the owners by doing vineyard work during pruning season. Edna would tie the newly pruned canes to the wires, following behind us, tying canes as we pruned them. She’d been doing it for years so she was very good at it. She also knew from her experience what was going to follow when she saw the quail, and she immediately began collecting vine cuttings to build a fire. Mike went off to the nearby woods to cut a few oak branches for spits to roast the quail, while Tom left for the creek at the bottom of the hill to clean the birds. What should I do, I asked? Take the truck down to the winery and get us a bottle of Chardonnay, were Tom’s instructions. I did just that, and returned 20 minutes later with not one but two bottles of chilled 1970 Mayacamas Chardonnay. Edna’s vine cutting fire had burned down to the coals by then, and Tom returned with a dozen freshly plucked and gutted quail. We rigged a wooden support for the two spits, and began roasting the birds over the impromptu grill. The coals were red hot and the birds were small so they were thoroughly cooked in ten minutes or less. Almost as if he had planned on a meal like this, Tom brought out a large bag with napkins and paper plates, and handed each of us a paper cup. I opened the wine using the corkscrew on my Swiss Army Knife, poured everyone a glass, and using our fingers we each removed a quail from the spit. Sitting down on the ground in the middle of the vineyards, we all tore hungrily at the delicious birds, and eagerly sipped our Chardonnay. What a delicious wine and food pairing, I thought. This may well be the best lunch I’ve ever had. When our meal was finished, the birds were all eaten and the wine bottles were empty. Tom – ever environmentally friendly – cleaned up the trash and put it on the fire with the remaining wood to burn. We went back to work, replete from our nourishing and creative break. That was really the best quail I’ve ever eaten. Fittingly enough, a glass of Chardonnay had never more enhanced the meal for me.
The next time you decide to dine al fresco, consider serving the 2015 Chardonnay ‘Carneros District’ from Neyers Vineyards. It’s perfectly balanced so it works in cold weather or warm, and it accompanies almost anything you’ll want to eat. It’s naturally fermented with native wild yeast, aged on the lees for 10 months, then bottled with a minimum of intervention. It’s fragrant, rich and satisfying, and works especially well with spit roasted quail.
2015 Chardonnay ‘Carneros District’