An Interview with Bruce Neyers (Wine Speak 2020 blog)

Here is an interview with did with Bruce Neyers of Neyers Vineyards for Wine Speak 2020.

There is a reason why Bruce Neyers has become a fixture at Wine Speak—he not only has incredible global wine experience and untold wisdom, but he also has a heart for sharing.

I first met Bruce Neyers back in the 1970’s when he was running the then promising, upstart Joseph Phelps winery in the Napa Valley.  Unlike many of their peers, Phelps continually challenged the norm.   While their Johannisberg Riesling bottlings created quite the revelation back then, it was their 1974 Syrah that was my first experience with a commercial California born Syrah.  In the same vintage they also conceptualized and launched “Insignia”, a premier, soon to be “game changing” blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordelaise type grape varieties.  That would be quite a career for most.  In 1992, however, Bruce then took over the National Sales for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants and helped them build one of the real noteworthy, quality driven, iconic wine importers of our time, featuring true artisan, game changers from France and later Italy.  He visited with each of the wine families 2 to 4 times a year, talking story, walking vineyards & tasting their wines with them.  Who better to talk story with to learn from than my wine yoda, Bruce Neyers.

Bruce has been a key contributor to Wine Speak since day one. Wine Speak co-founder and master sommelier Chuck Furuya recently caught up with Bruce to talk about his journey and what he has learned along the way.

 You and Barbara have lived in the Napa Valley for more than 40 years. What were some of the highlights for you over the years?

Buying our first house, and buying the piece of land in Conn Valley where we still live today.  Planting our first grape vines. Making our first wine released under the Neyers label, the 1992 Neyers Ranch Merlot.

You were with Mayacamas in the early 1970s and helped create their 1972 Chardonnay, which upon release was generally lukewarmly received. However, both Nunzio Alioto and I thought this was an eye-opening wine, showing the vast potential California had for this grape variety.  What were your thoughts on this wine and your stint at Mayacamas?

Mayacamas opened the world of wine to me. I learned how to cooper a barrel tight, change the gaskets in a wine pump, pump over red wine, operate a Willmes bladder press, top wine tanks and clean barrels. I learned how to do it from the bottom up, and I developed a great respect for the work ethic required to make good wine. At the time, Mayacamas wines were along with Ridge and and Heitz the best being made in California. The 1972 Chardonnay was made under the worst conditions I ever experienced making wine. It rained for almost a month and the grapes were black when they were harvested. Still, we were careful and didn’t get greedy, and we ended up making a decent wine that actually got a lot of positive press. I was astonished but learned a great lesson. It prepared me for 1992 in Burgundy.

The Napa Valley wine community was quite small back in the 70s. Who were some of the most memorable wine people you encountered back then and why?

Bob Travers (of Mayacamus) was a great teacher, Joe Phelps was a great mentor, and Joe Heitz was a great neighbor who often behaved like a second father to me, teaching me about fine wine and fine food. Carl Doumani (founder of Stags’ Leap Winery, which he later sold) was and remains my inspiration for how to live and enjoy life. I had dinner with him last Wednesday night and hope I can dine with and listen to him for ten more years. Joe Swan was my closest friend. I adored him.

While at Joseph Phelps you helped launch their 1974 Syrah.  What was that experience like?

This was a brand-new experience for me, as I had never launched anything. I worked with artists, lawyers, winemakers, historians, printers, designers, and sales people, trying to coordinate all of them for this one single effort. Then we finally bottled and labeled the wine in January/February 1996 and the glue system on the bottling line broke down and everything had to be re-done by hand. I learned more in three months with this wine than I had in four years of college or two years in the army.

 With the 1974 vintage you were also involved in the development and launching of Insignia.  What was that like?

Insignia came later, and both Joe and I were a lot smarter. Moreover, once he came up with the name the rest seemed easy. Originally it was ‘Insigne’ because Joe wanted something French, but Evelyne Deis — who was our secretary and is French — said that was a bad idea as no French word like that existed. Joe reluctantly agreed to Insignia. He used as a template for the label on the 1974 Insignia the label from an old bottle of Port that Joe Heitz had given him as a gift to celebrate the ‘Topping Out’ of the winery building. They poured it on the roof in the fall of 1974. I favored the idea because the 1974 Cabernet Phelps made was so bad I knew it would be hard to sell. The wine that eventually became 1974 Insignia was Cabernet from Dick Steltzner’s vineyard in Stag’s Leap, and it was dark, thick and lovely. I couldn’t bear to have it blended into the rather ordinary 1974 Cabernet that had been made from Yountville grapes.

In 1992, you decided to leave Joseph Phelps and became the National Sales Manager for Kermit Wine Merchants.  How big of change was that?

Actually I chose to leave JPV in January 1992 because we were going to harvest our first crop from our own vineyards. Joe insisted that I sell my grapes to the winery, and for a variety of reasons I didn’t want to. I decided to go it alone, and it was a huge decision. We had adopted three kids by then, and two were in diapers, one in training pants. I was scared beyond belief. Barbara always encouraged me though, and then she told Alice Waters about it, as she was going to be able to work more shifts at Chez Panisse. Alice told Kermit about it that night at dinner, and Kermit called me at home and proposed that we meet to discuss his plans. I was still anxious about being able to do the Kermit Lynch job, but I loved the wines — those I knew about in any event. The change was huge, but Kermit was patient and understanding.

What was it like traveling to Europe two to four times a year for 25 years, talking story, walking vineyards and tasting wines with all of these iconic vignerons like Gerard Chave, Marius Gentaz, Noel Verset, Raveneau, Jean-Francois Coche and Aubert de Villaine, just to name a few, especially after your many years in Napa Valley?

I learned about and appreciated French wines long before I moved to Napa Valley, so I was ready for the chance to meet these iconic figures. Keep in mind though that few of them were really wine industry icons in 1992. We had to aggressively sell all of those wines, even Coche and Raveneau. Kermit had a floor stack of 1989 Raveneau Chablis in the store in 1992 in order to move it, and you could always walk in and buy a bottle of Coche-Dury. Verset, Clape, Gentaz and Chave were also readily available, but things began to change dramatically in 1994 and 1995. Parker had something to do with it, but I think Kermit was tireless about promoting these producers, and eventually people began to realize who they were, and what their wines were like. Aubert deVillaine was one of the last to allocate his wines, and by all rights he should have been first, based on fame alone. But even DRC was pretty easy to buy back then, even though it was pricey. Now it’s just impossible. I saw a bottle of 1996 DRC Romanée-Conti this morning for sale for $11,000.

Who were some who truly inspired you amd made you think differently moving forward?

In no particular order, my winemaking life was most inspired by:

Joe Swan (now deceased)

Marcel Lapierre (now deceased)

Lulu Peyraud (Domaine Tempier)

Maxime Magnon (Maxime Magnon)

Daniel Brunier (Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe)

Aubert de Villaine (Domaine de Villaine)

Auguste Clape (Domaine Clape)

Jean Marc Roulot (Domaine Roulot)

Pierre Boillot (Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils)

Roland Lavantureux (Domaine Roland Lavantureux)

Claude Geoffray (Chateau Thivin)

So many others I have left out here.

With the 1992 vintage, you and Barbara launched your first Neyers wine, a 1992 Merlot you made yourself.  What was that moment like?

It was a thrill to see that we could create a product, and then sell it at a profit. We bottled 282 cases of the 1992 Merlot, and after we sold it I made more money than I had made working for Joe Phelps the previous year. I felt so joyful at this success. Moreover, I really liked the wine. Barbara and I have never looked back.

And, over the years, can you sight some examples of how your trips and exposures in France (and Italy) affected your grape growing and winemaking for Neyers?

Barbara calculated for me recently that in the course of my life with Kermit, I went to France 81 times. I think it might be even more, as she didn’t count the trips when she and I went there alone, but the impact on my ideas about wine and grape farming were extraordinary. Equally, we had almost 40 children of French and Italian winegrowers live with us and work at the winery with me over the years. That too had an impact. I grew comfortable with native yeast fermentation, natural malolactic in Chardonnay, little to no filtration and fining, natural clarification, and no additives in wine. We make wine with SO2, but we use very little of it. We irrigate our vines, but fertilize only naturally with a cover crop. We do manual lateral removal, and more mowing in rows. I still don’t know as much about it as I’d like to know, but I’ve learned a lot from my French and Italian colleagues. I still see many of them regularly as they seem to love to visit California, and they know there is always a good meal and some nice wine if they stop by our house. More than that, though, I enjoy seeing the people we knew as children who are now running their family estates, like Olivier Clape, Jack Boutin’s daughter Sylvie, and Edouard Brunier, among others.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Work harder, spend as much time learning as doing, and buy more plantable land.

What Californian wines have you tasted over the years that were truly memorable and why?

There are far too many to name here, but in 1972 I was able to taste a wide range of old Cabernet bottlings from Inglenook and Beaulieu. They wowed me. These were wines from the 50s and 60s, with a couple from the 40s, and the wine store where I worked had bought a large private cellar. The wines were extraordinary, and all of my colleagues — who knew far more than me — insisted I try them. I’ve never forgotten that. I love the old Cabernet bottlings from Mayacamas, Heitz and Souverain in the Lee Stewart days. The old Chardonnays from Stony Hill and Hanzell were remarkable too. But those old Beaulieu and Inglenook — nothing ever prepared me for that. I was drinking them with my colleagues along with Lynch Bages, Calon Segur and Haut Brion, and couldn’t select a favorite. But don’t get me started on Joe Swan. He was California’s greatest winemaker ever.

What were a few memorable wines from throughout the world and why?

The most memorable wines I’ve tried from around the world are:

1929 Ch. Latour — it taught me what aroma was all about in wine

1945 Mouton — the best Cabernet I’ve ever had

1966 Lois Latour Corton Charlemagne – I had it the first time I ever tried Scampi, and food and wine marriages have never been the same

1969 Clos du Tart – I finally understood red Burgundy

1992 Morgon, Marcel Lapierre – We had it with pig cooked 12 ways, and at last I got what Gamay was all about

1961 Bandol ‘Classique’ Magnum, Domaine Tempier – this began my appreciation for Mourvèdre

1996 Châteauneuf du Pape, Dom. Vieux Télégraphe – My benchmark of great southern Rhône red wine

1989 Cornas, Noël Verset – thinking about enjoying this wine with Noël brings tears to my eyes, it was so moving

1989 Côte-Rôtie, Marius Gentaz – we shared a veal chop for two, and a bottle of this wine at Beau Rivage in Condrieu

1959 Kaseler Kehrnagel Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, Weingut Fritz Patheiger Erben – Maybe the greatest TBA I’ve ever had

1990 Muscadet, Michel Brégeon – Served with a platter of fresh Bélons, in a little seafood place in Nantes, with Michel Brégeon

1995 Grange des Péres Rouge, Laurent Vaillé – sheer genius; I don’t know how he does this, nor does anyone else

2011 Abbatucci Vin de Corse Rosé ‘Cuvée Faustine’ – with Barbara at Park Ajaccio in Paris in June 2012, after she had recovered from brain encephalitis.

I know I’m leaving out some Italian masterpieces, but I don’t have them memorized.

Lastly, who are some of the most memorable sommeliers you have experienced over the years and why?

You are now and always were the best sommelier I’ve ever met, Chuck, but the track has clearly become increasingly crowded. I was impressed recently with Erik Johnson at the French Laundry, Zach Gossard at the Surf Club in Miami, Thomas Patuszak of the Nomad Hotel in NYC, Jill Gubesch of Frontera Grill, and Paul Botamer of Dean Fearing’s in Dallas, among many others. The emergence of the sommelier into the wine industry has given it legs that it would not have had otherwise, and it has made life far more enjoyable — and enormously more productive — for people like me. I think it might well be the most important thing that has happened to the wine business in my lifetime.

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