In some ways, if Mark Neal and his small winery, Neal Family Vineyards, didn't make fantastic wines, it would be cause for extreme concern. Neal has been working in the vineyards since the age of eight, and his family business, which was responsible for his early employment among the vines, has been managing many of Napa's finest vineyards for more than four decades. At this point, Jack Neal and Sons, which still carries the name of Mark's father, who passed away in 1994, is the single largest vineyard management company in Napa according to Neal. They manage well over 2000 acres of vineyards for about 60 growers and 72 wineries.
With so much prime Napa land under his direct control, and relationships with so many of the top producers and winemakers in Napa, if Neal Family Vineyards didn't make great wine, they would have some serious explaining to do. Instead, Neal simply has purchased or contracted several vineyards around the valley over the past 30 years, and quietly makes small quantities of fantastic wine.
Mark Neal grew up in Rutherford, in the heart of the Napa Valley. When he wasn't at school, he was on a tractor with his dad out in what were, at the time, a combination of prune and walnut orchards. Farming was the family business, to the point that when things needed to get done around the farm, every pair of able hands had to pitch in, including Mark. He fondly recalls his frequent breaks from school to work in the orchards.
"My mother was full Greek, and she was the one who would write the notes to get me out of school to work with the family," he says with a wry smile. "My teachers used to be amazed at just how many Greek holidays there were each year."
Calling the Neal family entrepreneurial might almost understate the case. Jack Neal realized early on that there was more future in growing wine grapes in the valley than in fruits and nuts. Neal moved into vineyard management before there were many people offering such services in the valley. With his wife managing the books, and his son at his side, Neal built an extremely successful vineyard management company that has grown and diversified over the years to include a vineyard development and construction company, a vineyard information systems and GIS systems company, and a bulk wine trucking company, all of which Mark Neal continues to manage on a daily basis, employing nearly 300 people.
The vineyard management company continues to be the pride of the Neal Family, and rightly so. Jack Neal and Sons currently manages the largest amount of Certified Organic vineyards of any vineyard management company in the state, some of which are widely acknowledged to be among Napa's best vineyards.
"We started growing organic in 1984 for some clients, and at the time, I had no idea how we were going to do it. There weren't very many [organic] materials available to us to use. Those few that were available were expensive, ineffective, or both." Now, a full 90% of the vineyards that Neal farms are Certified Organic, with an increasing number moving towards biodynamic cultivation.
"We were also one of the first vineyard management companies to begin picking at night, starting in about '86" says Neal, explaining his and his father's self-education through trial and error in their attempts to help their clients make some of the best wine possible in Napa.
The one thing that Jack Neal never did, though, for all his knowledge and connections, was to make a wine under the family name before he passed away in 1994. He talked about it often with his son, and planted the seeds of a dream that Mark realized in 1998, adding yet one more business under the family banner, both in tribute to his father and as something that he could leave as a legacy to his own children.
At the moment, the Howell Mountain winery seems more like a playground for his kids, who, like their father in his youth, seem to have an endless amount of fun driving tractors around to cut the cover crops or disc the vine rows. The front of the (gorgeous) winery is beautifully landscaped with several species of dogwood trees and a pond filled with ornamental Coi (all designed and laid out fastidiously by Neal), but is also likely to be populated with several small bikes, the family's two gregarious white German Shepherds, and most certainly one of Neal's five children.
"Maybe they'll want to be involved, maybe not," says Neal, "but it will be an option if they're not interested in construction or trucking."
For now, it remains an intensely personal project for Neal, but one which he approaches with the seriousness that has made the rest of his businesses so successful.
Neal never actually ever uttered the phrase "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right" in my presence, but he didn't need to. It's written all over everything at the winery, from the the building, with its inventive and beautiful wrought copper detailing, to the way the wine is made by winemaker Gove Cielo and assistant winemaker and enologist Kelly Wheat.
As one might imagine, the grapes are hand picked with extreme care, almost always at night. They are sorted rigorously and destemmed, and then given a long cold soak before a long slow fermentation with wild yeasts begins. Since the winery operates well below capacity, the wines are left to finish fermenting as long as they take in the vats, in separate lots for each vineyard block. Only the free-run juice (the juice which can be drained off the fermenting grapes without pressing) is used for the estate's wines, and the press juice is sold off in bulk. The wine is aged in 80% new French oak (100% new for single vineyard wines) along with some Hungarian oak.
As the wines age, Neal and his two winemakers taste and grade every barrel independently, giving each A, B, and C ratings. Any barrel that gets three A's becomes a single vineyard designate, and any barrel that gets even one C gets sold off as bulk wine. The reds are never fined, and are only coarsely filtered before bottling. Most spend at least 18 months in oak and then another year in the bottle, though Neal has been known to hold wines back if he doesn't feel that they are ready for release (just as he has been known to refuse release of wines at all if they are not up to his standards, as the 2000s weren't).
Neal Family Vineyards produces about 6000 cases of wine each year, the majority of which is their Napa Valley Cabernet, which is blended from fruit grown in four vineyards in Atlas Peak, Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder, and Rutherford. In addition to this wine, the estate currently produces six single vineyard wines, made in quantities of between 140 and 240 cases, as well as even smaller amounts of Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. Recently the winery also produced a Sauvignon Blanc.
Neal Family Wines are marked by a brightness and a balance that immediately made me take notice when I first tasted them at a Family Winemakers tasting several years ago. I also couldn't help noticing the prices of the wines, which Neal hasn't changed since the first vintage.
If you are able to get your hands on a bottle, these wines are deeply satisfying and deftly represent everything that is good about Napa Cabernet.
Click on wines to purchase.
2005 Neal Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine has a beautifully lean nose of espresso, tobacco, and dark chocolate aromas. In the mouth the wine is beautifully balanced between juicy, bright cherry and plum fruit and the lightly bitter cocoa powder and pungent espresso notes that emerge as the fine tannins cling to the tongue. The wine finishes beautifully -- long drawn out notes of chocolate covered cherries that sing a plaintive song: "just one more sip...." Score: around 9.5. Cost: $45.
2004 Neal Family Vineyards Petite Sirah, Napa Valley
Medium purple in color, this wine smells smoky, leathery, and just a tiny bit funky (in a good way). In the mouth it is incredibly clear and bright with cassis and blueberry notes stretched between a hint of green stems and well oiled leather. Remarkably, the wine is only medium bodied and has fine, almost soft tannins that are far from the typical bruising grip that this varietal exhibits. Moderate finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35.
2006 Neal Family Vineyards Zinfandel, Napa Valley
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a surprisingly chocolate nose, coupled with aromas of rich berries. In the mouth, chocolate continues to be the predominant theme, with some plump blueberries emerging at times amidst the silky palate. Frankly, this Zinfandel has a lot of Cabernet qualities, which are not so much unpleasant as they are unexpected. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $24.
2004 Neal Family Vineyards "Wykoff Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a gorgeously perfumed, sweet nose of cherry fruit and floral scents that have the purity of a cloudless day. In the mouth, the wine is beautifully dry and the sweetness of the nose resolves into nicely balanced and smooth textured flavors of black cherry, chocolate, espresso and a hint of earth - though the cherry dominates the lengthy finish. My notes include the word "beautiful" -- circled and underlined. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90.
2004 Neal Family Vineyards "Rutherford Dust Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa Valley
Medium ruby in color, this wine has aromas of cherry, mocha, and leather on the nose. On the palate the wine is silky and bright with flavors of cherry and plum, with light tannins that bring a smoky note to the tasting experience. The finish is gorgeously long. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90.
2004 Neal Family Vineyards "One Lane Bridge Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley
Dark ruby in color, this wine possesses rich chocolate and cherry aromas that give way to equally rich black cherry flavors in the mouth. Excellent acid balance coupled with a deep fruit character and beautiful texture make for an intense experience in the mouth, and the finish is scented with cedar. Fantastic. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90.
2004 Neal Family Vineyards "Fifteen Forty Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a pretty, spiced nose of cherry aromas mixed with a hint of allspice. In the mouth it continues in the spicy vein, as its predominantly cherry and cassis flavors are laced with notes of black pepper and tobacco. Bright acids and light tannins make this wine a pleasure to drink, right through its moderate finish. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $90
2004 Neal Family Vineyards "Second Chance Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, Napa Valley
Medium ruby in color, this wine mixes cherry aromas with the hint of green bell pepper that proudly proclaims Cabernet. In the mouth the wine is tightly coiled, but clearly expressive of leather, cherry, chocolate, and grippy, slightly aggressive tannins. The green bell pepper has come along for the ride on the palate as well, though not to the point of being truly objectionable, and certainly worthy of a second chance, perhaps in a year or two. Score: around 9. Cost: $90.
2004 Neal Family Vineyards "Howell Mountain Estate Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine from the vineyards surrounding the winery itself has a pretty, floral nose of cherry and hints of vanilla. In the mouth it is broad and expansive, with fine grained tannins that spread out, even as good acidity lifts flavors of cherry and plum over the tongue. A slight hollowness kept the wine from being as deep as it could be, but that's a fine point on an excellent bottle of juice. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90.
The single vineyard wines are typically only available for sale through the winery. Check their web site for more information.
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