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