When certain vintners speak, many others are listening. Bruce Neyers, who has owned the acclaimed Napa Valley based Neyers Vineyards (tucked into Conn Valley, in the eastern mountains surrounding the shimmering Lake Hennessey) since 1992, has recently been spreading the word to his legions of wine savvy followers, in every state from Hawai`i to New York: there is Zinfandel unlike any other being grown in Lodi’s eastern hills.
The 2011 Neyers Vista Luna Vineyard Lodi Zinfandel ($24) is, by all definitions of the varietal, a beaut. That is to say, not a beast. Its medium-full body has a very refined, silky feel, with spice nuanced raspberry/rhubarb pie flavors punctuated and woven together by lively, lip smacking acidity, without being sharp. There is some mild, sinewy tannin (think Angelina Jolie’s, not Brad Pitt’s, biceps) flowing through the center, and just smidgens of sweet oak lingering way in the backdrop. A Zinfandel for contemporary tastes for restraint, yet not without complexity – almost the opposite of what many people think about Lodi Zinfandel today.
Yet, according to Neyers, this wine is very “Lodi” if you consider the specific source: the Vista Luna Vineyard, farmed by Markus Bokisch in the Borden Ranch AVA – one of the broader Lodi American Viticultural Area’s three easterly sub-AVAs, with terrains transitioning into the rolling foothills of the Sierras. The Vista Luna plantings are located closer to the Mother Lode Country town of Ione (formerly known by other names, like Bed Bug, Hardscrabble, and Woosterville) than to the City of Lodi.
Mr. Neyers is thrilled by this provenance; saying, “Vista Luna is organically grown under what are known as Lodi Rules, a separate body of regulations that serve to put severe, almost INAO-like restrictions on grape farming in this remarkable viticultural area. The soil is gravel loam with an enormous quartz deposit that was apparently washed down from the Sierra Nevada mountain range millions of years ago.”
It’s a spectacular site – only, few people have (or ever will) seen it, since only vineyards (no wineries) are to be found in Borden Ranch. But for Neyers, it’s “the hard quartz soil that results in small clusters, normal ripening and fruit flavors reminiscent of a time my kids would affectionately refer to as my ‘olden days’” – when Zinfandels were more “quaffable,” and not picked at such high sugars that alcohol levels were going through the roof.
Those good ol’ days referred to by Neyers are the early ‘70s, when he first moved to the Bay Area, where he and his wife Barbara Neyers became close friends with people like Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters and the famous wine importer, Kermit Lynch. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Neyers served as President of Joseph Phelps Vineyards – during this Napa Valley institution’s early “glory days” – and later, after leaving Phelps to start his own winery, he became the National Sales Director of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, which he still does today.
In fact, because Neyers spends four to six weeks in France each year, he has been quoted to say that the super-cobbly, rock strewn, shallow red soils in Borden Ranch reminds him very much of the slopes of France’s Alsace region, where you find wines of tremendous perfume and strong mineral flavors. Neyers’ 2011 Vista Luna Zinfandel is more perfumed and fruit driven than minerally or stony because it comes from relatively young vines, planted on trellis wires in 2006. Still, that purity of fruit fits right in with Neyers’ longstanding penchant for strictly traditional, “natural” winemaking practices (100% native yeast fermentation, zero filtration, minimal oak influence, picking at lower pH and moderate sugar maturation, etc.).
It takes confidence and skill to do the type of winemaking that pushes terroir – or character derived directly from the vineyard – over a personal stamp, or the pursuit of an ideal “varietal character.” For Neyers, the confidence comes knowing that if great wines can be made in this fashion for centuries in places like France, it’s certainly good enough for California.
The skill comes from Neyers’ good sense to hire, as winemakers, talented individuals like Ehren Jordan (who at one point was the winemaker for Neyers, Turley, as well as his own Failla brand simultaneously) and, currently, Tadeo Borchardt. Borchardt, says Neyers, “has revitalized Neyers winery, and he has revitalized me… he’s brought further technical know-how and endless enthusiasm to the traditional European methods we espouse, and has expanded our portfolio in a not-insignificant way.”
Part of this expansion has entailed Borchardt’s whole hearted embrace of the young Vista Luna vines (initially started on Jordan’s recommendation), which represents something of a radical departure – and in part, a leap of faith in Borden Ranch’s untested soils, as well as in the viticultural skills of Markus Bokisch – for the Neyers team. In previous years, Neyers has hung its hat primarily on Zinfandels sourced from classic, head trained, +100-year old vines in Contra Costa County (which they still produce). The success of their Vista Luna Zinfandel proves that it’s not all about ancient vines from lower elevation sandy soils like Contra Costa, or even from Lodi’s historic Mokelumne River AVA.
Still another big jump for Neyers is the fact that Vista Luna is not actually planted to Zinfandel per se; but rather, to clone #3 of Primitivo, a variant of actual Zinfandel. Says Bokisch, “genetically Primitivo and Zinfandel are identical, but not the same. We picked clone #3 of Primitivo to plant because it has the least amount of rot per ton produced, and is highly prized.” Here in Lodi, Primitivo grows in markedly different ways from Zinfandel: clusters are looser, longer, yet smaller in weight; and typical of the sub-variety, berry sizes are less prone to variability (Zinfandel’s classic “hens-and-chicks” growth). For Neyers, it is an ideal selection for the Vista Luna site: “the clusters ripen evenly, and the finished wine has an alcohol level that doesn’t interfere with your ability to taste the wine, again and again.”
In that sense, the ideal style of Zinfandel for contemporary tastes!