I’m particularly excited to be able to introduce you to Jim Neal, a winemaker you probably have never heard of. As you know, one of my goals here at Vinography is to “discover” great new wines that we all want to drink. I use quotes around that word because I don’t pretend to be the first person that has ever heard of these winemakers, some of whom have been making wine for years, but many are extremely small and below the radar of most wine consumers. Some, like Jim are even struggling to get their wines into retail shops and distributed in the places they desire to have them sold. It is extremely gratifying, then, to write here about folks like Jim both because I am personally glad to have had the chance to taste their wines, but also perhaps because I (and you dear reader) might be able to get them some recognition for their labors of love.
Jim Neal has had a flirtation with wine ever since he was in college and worked in a wine shop to pay the bills and feed an interest that even began in High School. This interest continued for years as he graduated from college and Jim decided what he really wanted to do was open a restaurant. Jim worked his way up through many kitchens and in the mid 80’s he ended up at Spago. Like many in the cooking business, he followed connections and loyalties forged in these kitchens to other fine restaurants, and eventually ended up as Sous chef at a restaurant named Terra in Sonoma (which has since closed).
Living in Sonoma brought Jim closer to the wine business than he had ever been, and perhaps rekindled some of his initial passions that had to take a back seat to the heat of the kitchen. Like most chefs, Jim was working nights and decided to spend his days exploring the wine world. He got a job at a wine shop in St. Helena and started volunteering to work the harvest in Sonoma, absorbing all he could about winemaking. As a cook he took a particular interest in verjus, a tart, very pure juice made from wine grapes often used in French cuisine, and in 1994 he decided to start using his knowledge and connections with growers to source grapes for, and produce his own. It’s only a short step from making verjus to making wine, and encouraged by David Abreu, then consulting vineyard manager Spottswoode with whom Jim worked for some time, Jim produced a small lot of Dolcetto in 1999.
With that first vintage, Jim was hooked, and while he continues to work in restaurant kitchens and the catering business to pay the bills, Jim Neal Wines is a label in full swing. He’s been through the oenology courses at UC Davis to augment his already substantial experiences working at Spottswoode Jim now sources grapes from all over Sonoma and crushes at some of wine country’s best facilities including Caymus, Meridian, and Monticello among others.
Jim explains his wines this way: “When you’re a cook you don’t really make much money, but you’re exposed to a lot of great wine in the business. I was always looking for that really great bottle of wine for ten bucks.” Jim doesn’t think great wine should cost a lot and focuses on making wines that the average consumer, and cook, can afford, without sacrificing any of the quality he was exposed to in his experiences at various wineries in the valley.
With his current 2003 wines, Jim is in his fifth vintage and his productions levels average somewhere around 2000 cases for each of the three wines he makes. In addition to the Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, and Syrah he produces now, he has made arrangements to produce a Cabernet in the next year or so. Beyond that addition to his portfolio, he doesn’t have many grandiose plans ” he wants to keep his operation manageable and high quality.
If you are interested in getting a hold of Jim’s wines, he is carried by some retailers outside of California via a distributor he has hooked up with. If you give him a ring, he’d be happy to help you hunt them down. If you’re in California your only chance is to call him up and order some right now. As a word of warning, Jim says he doesn’t have much time for the work required to pack up and ship orders to folks in a timely fashion. If you order you’ll have to be patient.
Alternatively, you can wait a little while as I try and find him a retailer or a California distributor that will carry his stuff. If you think you can help, let me know. In any case, no matter how you might come across his stuff, I highly encourage you to give it a try. It’s great stuff, and at his current prices, a total steal.
2003 Jim Neal Pinot Grigio
The color of light straw this wine has a perfume of clover honey and bosc pears with a surprising amount of minerality in the nose. In the mouth, the dominant flavors are of honey and orange blossoms, but that sweetness is balanced by a nice acidity. 1300 cases made.
Overall Score: 9
How Much?: $10
2002 Jim Neal Sangiovese, Central Coast
This wine is a medium garnet color and leaps from the glass with aromas of cinnamon and cherries. In the mouth it has a traditional set of Sangiovese flavors ” cherries, toasted oak ” underscored by light mellow tannins. The finish is satisfying with elements of incense.
Overall Score: 8.5/9
How Much?: $12
2001 Jim Neal “Chariot” Syrah
This wine is a gorgeous ruby color in the glass and smells of ripe cherry and blackberry fruit compote. In the mouth those berry flavors remain dominant with dusty tannins to add support to the fruit, which is nicely balanced with enough acidity to keep it from being cloying. This wine is 25% Sangiovese and the fruit is sourced from the Vinzaca vineyard next door to Pisoni.
Overall Score: 9/9.5
How Much?: $15