Wine Legend: Interview with Bruce Neyers

Wine Legend: Interview with Bruce Neyers

Jan 27, 2023Sadie Williams

Bruce Neyers is generous with his time and words. He speaks carefully, like he’s writing a memoir, punctuating his anecdotes every so often with a humorous quip. That alone makes him a wonderful person to interview — it’s rare to speak with someone so thoughtful.

In addition to being a great speaker, he’s a great winemaker. He offers a unique perspective on the recent history of California winemaking, because he’s shaped it from the inside out. After leaving the army, Bruce began working in a wine shop in San Francsico that specialized in French, Italian, and German wines. From there, he became an assistant at Mayacamas in the 1970s, and in the 90s went on to develop his own winery in Napa Valley alongside his wife Barbara, a former school teacher who worked for 20 years at Chez Panisse.

During his time as a winemaker, Bruce worked with Kermit Lynch for 25 years as a national sales rep. When he retired recently, Kermit wrote a farewell newsletter in which he dubbed Bruce one of “America’s greatest wine men,” an opinion which was formed even before they worked together.

Dedalus Copywriter Sadie Williams spoke with Bruce in mid-January of 2023. We hope you enjoy his insights as much as we did.

Sadie Williams: So how did you get into the California wine business?

Bruce Neyers: I've been in California since 1970, and worked in the California wine business since later that year on a part-time basis. I came out here in the army. I went into the army right out of college and ended up going to South Korea, and while I was in South Korea as a guided missile officer, ironically I met probably the only person in South Korea that knew and cared anything at all about fine wine. This fellow who knew a fair amount about wine, not a lot, but certainly more than I did, interrupted us at a very simple steak dinner at the officer's club one night, asked if he could join us, and brought a bottle of wine with him. And it was the first bottle of fine wine I had ever tried in my life. And I thought, "Gee, this is actually a pretty good deal."

Sadie: Do you remember what the wine was?

Bruce: Yeah, it was a 1957 Chateauneuf Du Pape. Also, when I went back to the US he gave me a book on French wines. I read it and got reassigned to the Presidio of San Francisco in 1970. And that was the summer of food and wine in California. When I got reassigned to the Presidio of San Francisco, I showed up and reported for duty. And there was another officer there, another lieutenant. And when I sat down, he just out of the blue said to me, "Do you like wine?" And I said, "As a matter of fact, I do. Why do you ask?" And he said, "Well, I worked in the wine business here in San Francisco before I went in the army, and I'm planning to go back. And I just wondered if you were interested; if you'd like, I'll take you to the place where I worked." And he introduced me to the owners of the shop that he had worked for. One of them took a liking to me. And when I was discharged in January of 1971, I was really debating what to do. By law, the company that I had worked for that made plastics was required to keep my job open for me for six months, but I didn't wanna go back to Delaware and I didn't wanna make plastics. And I mentioned that to one of the owners of the wine store that specialized in French and Italian and German wines. And they were about to make a big move into the California wine business in 1970. And they said, "Why don't you come work for us? We'll teach you the wine business and you'll have a good time learning it. It won't be a lot of money, but it might be interesting.

Sadie: I imagine perceptions around California wine have shifted a lot in the last 50 years, but what were the prevailing attitudes toward California wine at that time?

Bruce: Nobody really took them seriously as fine wine. But they were taken seriously as high-quality everyday wine. In fact, I seem to recall even one of the owners saying to me that they were largely interested in getting into the California wine business because they were seeing a need for increased availability of everyday wines. And getting those from France or Germany or Italy was not really a good idea because even in those days it still cost you, no matter how cheap the wine was, it'll cost $6 or $7 to get a case of wine from France to California, maybe more, depending upon how good it was. The quality of everyday wine was kind of a given then. And then at the same time there was the dawn of the new era of California wines. Robert Mondavi Winery opened in 1966, I think, and then that means that they were really beginning to distribute their first wines in 1968. There were a number of other wineries in the Napa Valley that were starting to more aggressively sell their wines and talk about the fact that their wines were comparable to the wines from France. So I just parachuted down into the middle of this. It was a new world.

Sadie: It seems like a hinge moment.

Bruce: Yes. New wineries were opening, it seemed like every day. It was really every year. But when I moved to the Napa Valley, my first job working for a winery was a year after I took that job at the wine shop. I went to work there effectively in January of '71, and I moved to the Napa Valley to work for a winery exactly a year later in January of 1972. And there were 15 wineries in the Napa Valley. I suspect now that there are a 1000.

Sadie: What made you want to switch from retail or from sales to making wine?

Bruce: Oh, making wine was The Three Musketeers. It was D'Artagnan. It was the most romantic thing I'd ever thought of. And I think it's still to a large extent is — that's a great deal of its attraction. But through the owner of the store, I met a couple of winemakers, and they were people that I found myself really comfortable with. Moreover, having been a chemistry major in college and also having studied a little bit of biology…Back in those days, in the early '70s, there was also a dawn in the birth of scientific literature. Books like 'Lives of a Cell' were published. So science was suddenly kind of sexy. And I was a scientist, not a particularly good one, but...

Sadie: But you could say you were a scientist.

Bruce: Yes, and I knew enough about it to understand what the sugar in grapes being converted into alcohol meant, and the path that it followed to do that. And I took a night class when I was in the army. I took a night class on biology. And the instructor was really very, very good. And it was just a fascinating thing for me. So then I started to read about winemaking, and then I suddenly met a winemaker, and the winemaker invited me up to pick grapes. And I thought that sounds like a cool thing to do. So in October of 1971, Barbara and I loaded ourselves up into our little bitty Fiat 124 Spider and drove from San Francisco to Myacamas Winery and we got there at the dawn of a beautiful day. Typical of that time of year in the Napa Valley. It's cold in the morning, but then it warms up and it gets reasonably warm in the afternoon. And we were completely covered with three or four layers of clothing and wearing gloves. And they gave us a knife and we picked grapes. It was cool. And then at noon we were exhausted and covered with sweat, and we peeled off three or four layers of clothing and the wife of the owner came out with this big platter of sandwiches, and the wife of the winemaker came out with a galvanized tub full of ice cubes and chilled rosé and beer. And we sat down in the dirt and ate sandwiches and drank beverages. And often the distance was the skyline of the city of San Francisco.

Sadie: Sounds like a perfect day.

Bruce: I said to Barbara, "You know, we can go back to Delaware and I can make plastics and you can teach third grade, or maybe we could stay up here and I could get a job at a winery. Wouldn't that be cool?" Three weeks later, the owner called me and said that his assistant had quit and he was looking around for a new assistant and he thought I might be interested in the job, and I told him I was.

Sadie: Well, everything was just starting at that point. Like you said, there were only 15 wineries. You had an interest, you had a background in chemistry, and science was booming.

Bruce: It was meant to be.

Sadie: It was meant to be. I'm curious about the winemakers that you met in the shop. You said the shop that you worked at initially was selling French and Italian wines, right?

Bruce: Right. And German wines.

Sadie: Did they sell California wines too? And German.

Bruce: German wines were very important. And I think they had one, maybe two California wines.

Sadie: So these winemakers you met through the shop coming in as customers or as vendors?

Bruce: I had a number of winemakers who came in as customers. You may be familiar with the name Josh Jensen. Josh is a really important figure in the California wine business, he died tragically last year, sadly enough, far too young, it seemed like. But Josh Jensen, before he got in the wine business, was one of my customers. He used to come into the store every other week. Paul Draper of Ridge, who was working at Ridge Vineyards then as a winemaker would come in and buy a French red Bordeaux, and Barney Fetzer, the founder of Fetzer Vineyards, who was a lumber tycoon in Mendocino County, and then Barney would come in and buy German wines, and then he started his own winery.

Sadie: It sounds like you developed an interesting network there of people who all continued in the industry. What was the attitude of the owners of the shop towards California wine at that time, wines from California?

Bruce: Well, I don't think that they neither liked them nor disliked them. They were just indifferent. But it was a tough sale for them, and it was a tough sale for them justifiably because they figured it would be a tough sale to their customers, and it was. It was not an easy thing to do.

Sadie: Do you think that in the year 2023, there’s something that people still get wrong about California winemaking? Any mythologies that still exist?

Bruce: There are some things that people just get wrong about wine in general. I think people have a tendency to equate price with quality. In most instances — if it's jewelry or clothing or watches,, or even automobiles — you can talk people out of it. It's tough to do with wine though. I think that's because wine has so many mysteries. It isn't something that you can look at and say with any degree of certainty, "Oh, this wine is better than that wine." But if that wine is more expensive, then you “know” that it's better.

The other thing is scores given by wine critics — that's become a little bit less of an issue since Robert Parker retired. But I think that did an enormous amount of damage. One guy in particular in California who I've known for years — I'm envious of him certainly, everyone is — but he made wine on the side and the wine was good. And then Robert Parker tasted it and said, "Wow, this wine is magnificent." And he gave it a 100-point score. Well, that wine used to sell for $11 a bottle, but now sells for $2000 a bottle. That to me just simply doesn't make any sense. And don't get me wrong, I love Robert Parker. I can't believe the good that he did for the industry. He just did too much of it, I think.

Sadie: Chez Panisse’s Northern California Regional Dinner is cast as this kind of deciding moment in American cuisine in general, in promoting the idea of a regional California cuisine. I’d like to get your perspective on the restaurant and the dinner, as someone who was a frequent guest during that time.

Bruce: Well, I was a frequent diner at Chez Panisse during that time. One of the partners of the wine shop where I was working at the time lived in Berkeley, and he went to Chez Panisse, and they didn't have much wine. So one thing leads to another, and Alice Water starts coming over to the store on Saturdays to buy wines. She would spend two hours buying two cases of wine, and that would be the wine list at Chez Panisse for Saturday night.

I just loved waiting on her because she asked a lot of questions that I didn't know the answers to, or she'd make observations and I'd have to go someplace and say, "Hey, what is this thing here that this woman's talking about?" And one day I waited on her and helped her load her car up after she made her purchases, and she took out a business card and wrote on the back of it "Dinner for Bruce and guest" and gave it to me.

Barbara and I lived in San Francisco, and I got home that evening, and I said, "We're going out to dinner tonight." Which was a big deal. We went to Berkeley and went to Chez Panisse. And I had the most magnificent dinner I think I'd ever had in my life.

Sadie: Do you remember what it was?

Bruce: Yes, it was grilled salmon and then a roasted duck. And I'd never had either one of those things before. I didn't know the difference between grilled salmon and a wagonload of marshmallows. I had taken over a few bottles of wine with me — I owned two cases of wine and I was aging them in a wine rack in a dark and cold part of our apartment. So I grabbed three bottles and put them in a wooden basket and took them over and, God, you'd think I'd brought the Venus de Milo over there.

We finished dinner and Alice came over and sat with us, Jeremiah Tower came over and sat with us, we opened the three bottles and we all sat there and drank them. One of the waiters who was a partner came over, and there was an old stand-up upright piano there and another one of the waiters was a piano player started playing the piano, and we all danced until 3:00 in the morning, I think.

Sadie: Sounds like an incredible night.

Bruce: I remember those things about Chez Panisse. And that they used to do the menu in French and have an English translation underneath it that was italicized, and one day they made the decision to just do the italicized English translation and that's what they do now. And that was a bold step forward for a restaurant — seemingly French — to change from having the menu in French. And I think that's when they began to think of themselves as a California cuisine restaurant.

Sadie: I've read different definitions of California cuisine. Some people equate California cuisine with the farm-to-table movement. What do you think of when you hear California cuisine?

Bruce: Things just grow here. They just really grow. You go into a grocery store in California and your eyes just bug out, and then you go to a fishmonger and then you go to a butcher shop. So what's California cuisine? It's the stuff that’s raised in California.

I'd never had abalone, and the same guy that introduced me to the wine shop owners [I ended up working for] took me to a restaurant in downtown San Francisco one day called The Tadich Grill, and he said, "Get the abalone." I'd never had abalone before. And I said, "What are you gonna get?" he said, "I'm gonna get the Hangtown fry." And I said, "What's the Hangtown fry?" I think about that, I'm a relatively sophisticated 24-year-old. I didn't grow up in a family of means, but I sure traveled a lot, and I'd been in Texas, in California, and I lived in Korea for a year in the Army, and I'm sitting at this restaurant, and there are two courses that come out and I've never heard of either one. I don't know what the hell they are. “Hangtown fry.” Well, it's an omelet with thick bacon and oysters [named after] a town in the gold country. It was something that the miners could make when they got shipments of fresh oysters and thick, cured bacon. That’s California Cuisine.

Sadie: You worked with Kermit lynch for a long time. Did your work with him and the wines that you were exposed to during that time impact your own winemaking?

Bruce: Oh, absolutely, beyond question and in many, many ways. Sadie: Can you name a few? Bruce: Oh, sure. We farm our vineyards organically. Kermit doesn't require that, but it's something that he thinks is a good idea. And I think it's a good idea too in instances where you can do it. Sometimes you simply can't, or some parts of a vineyard don't lend themselves to organic farming. So that’s one part of it. We used natural yeast in all of our fermentations. We bottle our red wines without filtration, that's unheard of (here), but it's not unheard of in Burgundy or Bordeaux. It's a very commonplace. So those are the things that we do and we learned all those things from Kermit Lynch. The other wineries I worked at, we didn't do those things.

Sadie: Because he shared those values of those more traditional European wines.

Bruce: Exactly.

Sadie: In terms of — I don't like calling them trends, but philosophies, changing philosophies — how do you see winemakers' philosophies on the traditional versus the hyper-scientific wine-making methods evolving in California?

Bruce: Well, I think that you need to go back in time, go back to the early 1800s, or even the mid-1800s or late 1800s. There were great wines being made in not only parts of Europe, but in California as well. And a lot of the people who made them weren't entirely sure what they were doing, but they still made great wines. A lot of the science of wine-making really wasn't understood until this middle part of the 20th century. We didn't understand secondary fermentation, we didn't really understand the entirety of primary fermentation. That's relatively new science, and certainly, secondary fermentation is even newer.

So the winemaker of today has, I'd like to think, a combination of knowledge, has an understanding of old world practices and the wines that resulted from them and just how great in many instances they were. And the science behind new world or modern-day winemaking. And I don't know, it's a little bit like a television repairman. How many people could fix the TV in 1920? Nobody.

The same thing I think applies to winemaking these days. The winemaker in California is a lot more sophisticated. He's had an opportunity or she's had an opportunity to taste great wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux or wherever you wanna go for great wines. And while they might not be able to replicate the growing circumstances of the vineyard, they can certainly study the wine-making and try to duplicate the wine by introducing some of those steps into their own wine-making. And that's what we've tried to do at Neyers.

Sadie: You've met some really interesting people and had really incredible experiences within your journey in the wine business.

Bruce: Yeah, I have. I've been really fortunate. But there are two things in my life that stand out. One, I found a woman that I love and loved then and love now, Barbara, and I just celebrated our 55th wedding anniversary. And then I finally find out what I wanna do with my life, and I get to do it. That's not a bad deal.

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