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.