November 17, 2016
…An Insider’s Look at the American Wildflower Foundation,
A Primer on Zinfandel, and Thoughts on the Dinosaurs – by Bruce Neyers
My son Mike was home one night recently, and I solicited his help finding some old bottles in my wine cellar. It’s not a difficult chore, but reaching the bottles in hard-to-get-to places requires someone more agile than me. He picked up a bottle hidden away in a corner rack, and remarked that it caught his interest because it was signed. Who signed it, he asked? I looked at the bottle, saw the inscription, and thought back to 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 it was common for us to allow groups to visit the winery for private events, then use the opportunity to sell them some wine. The Wine Institute had asked us to host a lunch for a group of visitors traveling to the Napa Valley on a tour scheduled by the American Wildflower Foundation. We arranged for a caterer to prepare the meal, and worked out the details with the person in charge of the group. One wrinkle – while minor – did concern me: there would be a pre-lunch presentation by a University of California Professor named Walter Alvarez. I wondered how his topic — The Theory of the Extinction of the Dinosaurs — could be tied to a wine sale, especially to a group of wildflower enthusiasts, but stranger things have happened. The morning of the event I received another surprise when the trip organizer called to tell 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 years had involved promoting the awareness of and appreciation for wildflowers. She and her longtime friend, former press secretary Liz Carpenter, would be part of the group. I was eager to meet them both.
The group arrived promptly as scheduled. Lady Bird, not surprisingly, had a private escort, but I would have never suspected that she was anything other than a wildflower enthusiast. She was more petite than I imagined, casually dressed, lively, and strikingly attractive. She held my arm as we took the stone walkway 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 their finest just as the new vine shoots were beginning to emerge, we were surrounded by a bit of wildflower nirvana. The group, about 25 of them, was seated on wooden benches, looking off the west-facing deck. I began with some introductory remarks. A sentence or two into my welcome, though, Lady Bird interrupted me. Mr. Neyers, she said in her slow but polite drawl, this view is absolutely delicious. She spoke those last two words as if each had 8 or 9 syllables. I’m sure a blush of pride covered my face. I thanked her, but I remember saying something about not having had much to do with the view. It was the wine for which I was responsible, and with that comment one of my colleagues began to serve everyone a pre-lunch glass of chilled Chardonnay. I had started to describe the wine when Lady Bird interrupted me again. Mr. Neyers, she asked, do you have Zinfandel? I paused for a moment, mulling over my reply, and deciding to take the path of least resistance: Why yes Ma’am we do. I’ll have a bottle brought right out. Oh thank you, Mr. Neyers, she said. I just love Zinfandel. A tray of red-wine glasses soon 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 lunch. I hadn’t planned to join them, but 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. She directed Walter Alvarez to the seat at the head of the table. He will want to stand up when he talks, Lady Bird said, 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 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 developed this theory 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, and how iridium was rarely found naturally in the earth’s crust but regularly found in asteroids. When he was finished, I felt like the smartest man in the world.
Alvarez took his seat amidst exuberant applause – especially given it was a wildflower conference – and 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. As I said, I just love Zinfandel. When my colleague brought some additional wine, she handed me an unopened bottle — along with a pen — and said, Maybe we could get Mrs. Johnson to autograph this bottle. I offered it to Lady Bird and asked for her autograph, to which she said, I’ll just sign it To Bruce. Will that be 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 28 years later. I’m also sort of an authority about asteroids and the extinction of the dinosaurs.
We’re now offering the 2015 Zinfandel ‘Vista Luna Vineyard’ at Neyers. It’s a wine made from fruit grown on heirloom vines farmed by Markus Bokisch. They’re planted in the quartz-laden soil of the Sierra foothills, in the AVA Borden Ranch. It’s bright, polished and flavorful, with a lovely finish of berries and mineral. I would have been proud to serve it to Lady Bird.