Bruce Neyers’ Journal – The Dinner Wines for the 2019 Grand Hotel Fall Wine Appreciation Weekend

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Meet Bruce Neyers: 
In 1992, Bruce and Barbara Neyers launched Neyers Vineyards in the heart of Napa Valley. For over 30 years, Bruce has split his time between Neyers Vineyards and his role at Berkeley-based importer, Kermit Lynch. This unique experience has afforded Bruce the opportunity to immerse himself in the regions of France, bringing an Old World perspective to Napa Valley and Neyers Vineyards. When a brief stint in the army brought Bruce Neyers and his wife, Barbara, from their hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, to San Francisco in 1970, Bruce discovered a passion for wine. In 1998, Bruce and Barbara purchased a 30-acre parcel in the Sage Canyon area of Napa Valley, a few miles east of Rutherford, and set about renovating the existing winery into a state-of-the-art winemaking studio. The first vintage of Neyers wine was crushed there in 2000, and it remains the hub of production today, from fermentation to barrel aging.
Named “Artisan Winery of the Year” by Wine & Spirits in 2002, Neyers crafts many of its wines from estate-grown grapes at Conn Valley Ranch, a sustainably farmed vineyard in the hills east of St. Helena, where the vines rest at elevations ranging from 400 to 1200 feet. Winemaker Tadeo Borchardt also works with well-established family grape growers in Napa and Sonoma counties to create a broad portfolio of varietal wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Carignan, as well as classic red blends inspired by the Rhone Valley and Bordeaux.

Bruce and Barbara Neyers
Bruce and Barbara Neyers

Bruce will be joining us this September for Fall Wine Appreciation Weekend.

The Dinner Wines for the 2019 Grand Hotel Fall Wine Appreciation Weekend

Fall Wine Weekend at Grand Hotel

I was flattered to be invited to the Grand Hotel to serve as speaker at this year’s Wine Appreciation Weekend, and in connection with that invitation I’ve been asked to provide some advance information on both Neyers Vineyards and the wines we will be serving to the attendees. I’ll be giving two talks during the weekend, and the wines served during these talks will be tasted and discussed. The wines to be served at the dinner also need some explaining, which should be taken care of with these notes. They originally served to introduce these wines to our trade customers, wine club and mailing list.

2016 El Novillero Chardonnay

2016 El Novillero Chardonnay – In our more than 30 years of winemaking at Neyers Vineyards, few of the wines we have made provided us with more satisfaction than our 2016 Chardonnay ‘El Novillero’. This magnificent Carneros District vineyard is owned by siblings Bruce, Nancy and Sandy Donnell, and was developed 30 years ago in partnership with the Sangiacomo Family. Despite Robert Parker observing recently that our wine from this vineyard reminded him of Louis Latour Corton-Charlemagne, I’ve always felt that it has much in common with the Perrières vineyard of Meursault. Both sit at about 250 meters in elevation. Both are planted on porous rock – limestone in Perrières, basalt in El Novillero — that has been reduced over time to a gravelly, pebble-like scree. And both sit on a slope facing southeast, open to the morning sun. I’ve grown to love the pure, attractive flavors of butterscotch and lemon zest, coupled with the wine’s bright acidity and mineral undertone. We began working with the vineyard in 1995 after I visited the property with our winemaker Helen Turley. We were joined by Angelo Sangiacomo who managed the vineyard for the Donnell family. Angelo explained that the vineyard was part of the 8000 acres purchased by Dewey Donnell when he moved to California in the early 1940’s. After Dewey’s death in 1984 his children began to develop a vineyard in the eastern hills. Dewey had developed the property as a cattle ranch, and it was through the cattlemen he hired that he learned of the sport that eventually gave the ranch its name, ‘El Novillero’. As Angelo explained it, the participants would put some money down, drink a shot of tequila, then ride a baby bull. After several rounds of wagering — each accompanied by yet another drink and another bull ride — a winner emerged, and was crowned ‘El Novillero’, or ‘King of the Bull Riders’. After hearing the story behind it, we opted to call the wine we made from the parcel ‘El Novillero’ as well. Over time, it became apparent that the best wine invariably came from the highest elevation block on the property, and we reserved the fruit from this parcel for our Neyers bottling. We’ve been pleased with the vineyard over the years, and while several bottlings have been great successes, nothing to date has impressed us more than the 2016. The colder than normal weather we enjoyed in that year, along with the smaller than normal crop after several years of low rainfall have combined to produce a wine with great old-world character.

2017 Neyers Sage Canyon Red

2017 Neyers Sage Canyon Red – For the 25 years that I worked with Kermit Lynch, he and I shared a fondness for the wines of the Southern Rhône. I’ve always hoped to be involved in producing a California equivalent of a Southern Rhône red wine, but it wasn’t until our winemaker Tadeo Borchardt embraced the idea that we happened upon the vineyards that would become the basis for the project. The story behind each grape involved in the blend is complicated, so we’ll save it for another day, and for now, we’ll just examine the grape varieties involved. The Carignan is from 135-year old vines on the Evangelho Ranch in Oakley; the Mourvèdre comes from old vines on that same parcel, and both of them are own-rooted, un-grafted vineyards. The Grenache comes from the Terra Alta vineyard in the Clements Hills area near the Sierra Foothills in Calaveras County, and the Syrah comes from Garys’ Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. As spread out as this sounds, the total area covered is actually not much larger than what we know of today as the Southern Rhône Valley. Each variety lends its own singular component to the finished wine. As is often the case with blended wines, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each of the individual parcels was hand-harvested into small bins. All grapes were fermented with 100% stem retention in open-top tanks. The grapes were crushed by foot, not by machine. The fermentation began naturally, with indigenous wild yeasts. After three weeks or so the must was liquid enough for manual punch-down, and after another week or so the tank was drained and pressed, with the new wine racked to used 60-gallon French oak barrels. After a year in the barrels, the wine was blended, and bottled unfiltered on June 30. The blend is 45% Carignan, 25% Grenache, 15% Mourvèdre and 15% Syrah.

2016 Left Bank Red

2016 Left Bank Red – Two blocks of vines on our Conn Valley Ranch – one Merlot and one Cabernet Sauvignon — sit on the left bank of Conn Creek as it flows through our ranch on its way from Howell Mountain to Lake Hennessey. The hills that form the eastern slopes of Conn Valley are volcanic in origin, and with each successive period of volcanic activity, the creek was pushed further and further west, leaving behind a new bed of Howell Mountain gravel with each relocation. This gravel-rich soil is especially well suited for these Bordeaux varieties as it serves to throttle down the vine’s natural vigor. By blending the wines from the two parcels, we retain the characteristics native to the fruit from this unique terroir, much as we see happening to the wines of St. Julien and Cussac-Ft. Médoc in Bordeaux. Our Left Bank Red reflects the vineyard site and soil conditions as much as it does the grape varieties. Here is an attractive, old world-style wine from the Napa Valley, produced entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grown on our organically-farmed vineyards in Conn Valley. The vines are 25 years-old, and are planted in soil that combines gravel, basalt and clay. Yields were barely two tons per acre and the finished wine is lush and deeply aromatic, with traces of cassis, raspberry and cedar. There’s a softness that is especially attractive right now, and the wine is complex enough to turn a lot of heads.

2016 Neyers Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Neyers Ranch’

2016 Neyers Cabernet Sauvignon ‘Neyers Ranch’ – Preparing to plant Cabernet Sauvignon on our Conn Valley Ranch in 1984, we dug more than 20 test holes on the property. The 8’ profile of soil from each of them was analyzed by a local soil chemist, who determined that the land was well suited for Cabernet Sauvignon. At 600’ elevation, the combination of clay, loam and gravel soil gave over to rocky land, rich with Basalt. Cabernet Sauvignon is a vigorous grape variety, and this rocky hillside soil retards its vigor, concentrating the flavors. Dave Abreu then installed over ½ mile of drain lines to remove any ground water during the growing season, again restricting the natural vigor of the vines. We selected two low vigor rootstocks – 420A and 3309 – and Selection Massale plant material that originated in Bordeaux. This furthered our ability to restrain the vigorous tendency of Cabernet Sauvignon. This program has kept the crop levels low and the grapes more flavorful, and the resulting wines richer and more complex. Through careful planning and meticulous attention to detail, the hillside Neyers Ranch vineyards are capable of producing great California Cabernet Sauvignon. The project that we began in 1984 with the purchase of our home ranch, has now exceeded our wildest expectations. It only took 30 years to get here.   

Grapes ready for harvesting
2017 Pinot Noir ‘Placida Vineyard’

2017 Pinot Noir ‘Placida Vineyard’ – The Placida Vineyard is owned by the legendary Chuy Ordaz, and takes its name from his daughter, a Fresno State graduate who manages the property. It’s in the Russian River valley, and the soil is largely Goldridge Clay with some gravel and basalt. The basalt behaves like limestone, as it traps moisture, attracting the plant’s feeler roots into the rock. As the roots expand, the rock is broken up into smaller pieces, as happens to the ‘Clay-Limestone’ soil of the Côte d’Or. Only one acre of the Placida vineyard is planted to a non-clonal or ‘Selection Massale’ source of budwood. The plant material was brought to Forestville, CA from Vosne-Romanée in the early 1960’s by Joe Swan. Joe was way ahead of his time, and developed his Pinot Noir vineyard when few others were as serious about fine details. His bottlings of Pinot Noir were always among the best examples of the variety made in California, and the annual release of his new vintage of Swan Vineyard Pinot Noir was an eagerly awaited event. We buy Chuy’s entire production of non-clonal ‘Swan Selection’ grapes, and make about 300 cases of wine from them annually. The grapes are picked by hand, partially de-stemmed, fermented with wild yeast, and punched down manually twice daily during fermentation. The wine is aged one year in 60-gallon Francois Frères barrels, then bottled in August, without fining or filtration. It has a lovely aroma with an irresistible combination of soft, jammy fruit, fresh-roasted coffee bean, and attractive minerality. If you’re looking for a new discovery in California Pinot Noir, this may be the wine for you.

– Bruce Neyers

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