Bruce Neyers’ Journal: Vintner Tales – Thoughts on One of My Heroes

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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. 

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

Sunset over Neyers Vineyard in St. Helena, CA

Introducing an excerpt from Bruce Neyers’ Journal:

Vintner Tales – The 2009 Pinot ‘Roberts Road’, and Thoughts on One of My Heroes

I met Joe Swan in the early 1970’s and despite our age difference we became friends immediately. I thought his were the best California wines I had ever tasted, and I told him so. I think he appreciated the flattery, despite gruffly waving it off. His 1968 Cabernet Sauvignon gave me a basis against which all other bottlings of California Cabernet Sauvignon would forever be judged. In 1970 he made a varietal Gamay, the memory of which still lingers. And then there were those ethereal bottlings of Pinot Noir. The first was from 1973. He made only one barrel, so when he showed it to anyone, he would draw a sample only to smell. Then he’d carefully pour it back into the barrel. Not a drop was to be wasted. When it was finally bottled I was able to get three bottles, and I treasured each for as long as I dared save them. Joe used to say that he always knew when I was drinking one of his wines, and I was amazed by the number of times that he called me when I actually had one of his nearly empty bottles sitting on my kitchen table. Maybe he really did know. I’ll never be sure.

Joe Swan pruning vines

I started helping Joe prune in 1978. He was much less active by then, slowed down by age, retired from his career as an airline pilot and devoting himself entirely to his small winery. He would send me a card right after Christmas, with a hand written note on the bottom saying, “The last leaf has fallen.” That was my cue to plan on spending the next several Sundays working with him in the vineyards. To Joe, pruning was the ultimate expression of his craft. What one did in the vineyards in winter dictated the quality of the raw materials available to make wine the following fall. He would sometimes spend 30 minutes on an individual vine, cursing out loud at some mistake, real or imagined, that had been made the prior year and now needed correction. By mid-summer the vines had begun to take on the shape he had looked for during their winter dormancy. Although Joe regularly bought grapes from other growers, he refused to consider making Pinot Noir from any grapes other than his own. His small Pinot Noir vineyard had been carefully planted with budwood from one of the greatest Pinot Noir vineyards in France, and he wasn’t about to have it diluted by fruit from vines of unknown origin. We lost Joe in the winter of 1989, when the vines were dormant. His widow, June, simply noted in the announcement for his memorial get-together that, “Joe has gone along ahead of us.”

Neyer Vineyard Estate

In June of 2009, Tadeo Borchardt and I were visiting with Mike Sangiacomo, our most important grape supplier, discussing among other things some interest we had in Pinot Noir. Mike mentioned that what he thought to be their best Pinot Noir vineyard was planted in the Roberts Road area, a cool Sonoma Coast region in what is known locally as the ‘Petaluma Gap’ for its direct access to the San Francisco Bay via the Petaluma River valley. The slightly elevated parcel has a gravel soil base topped with basalt or compacted volcanic ash, which to a grapevine somewhat resembles limestone. Best of all, it was planted to the “Swan Selection” of Pinot Noir. He had me.

We bought all 3 tons of the fruit – it isn’t a large parcel – and the five barrels we made were bottled in late August, unfiltered. Tadeo and I opened one a week or so after bottling, and I was stunned. The color is perfect, neither dark purple, nor pale ruby, but in between. The aroma is classic Pinot Noir — light, graceful, delicate, but eventually powerful and penetrating. The flavors are both charming and elegant, with a wonderful suggestion of raspberry jam and coffee bean. I loved it. I took the remains of that bottle home later that night, poured myself a glass, and raised it to my dear old friend. If only we could all leave such a legacy.

– Bruce Neyers

Read more from Bruce’s Journal on his blog >>

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