A conversation with winemaker Mark Neal
On several Napa Valley winery tours, my wife and I were asked by the tasting room manager what plans we had for our visit. Our response usually was, “To visit the best wineries in the valley recommended by our friend, Mark Neal.” That was always greeted with a smile; Mark is well-known in the valley, an authority on vineyard farming and experienced in producing some of the best wines from his vineyards in the valley and on the slopes of Howell Mountain. I’ve known Mark for about 15 years. We met at Leary’s Fine Wines & Spirits in Newburyport, Mass., and I was one of the people who convinced him to sell his wines in New Hampshire.
Recently Mark and I had a long phone conversation about his years in the wine business with some follow-up questions by email; here (edited and condensed) are his responses to my questions.
How did you get involved in the production of fine wines?
Upon returning from the Korean War, myfather, Jack Neal, worked for other farmers, managing their ranches and orchards. … In 1968 he formed his own company, Jack Neal & Son, to manage these ranches and orchards, the same year I bought my first tractor.
When did you begin to buy land and grow your own grapes for wine?
At the age of 20 I bought my first property, 1½ miles away from my parents in Rutherford. … In 1990 I bought land on Howell Mountain to develop into a vineyard. … Our first wine from this property was produced in 1998.
The year 2020 has been a challenging year for all of us. Napa Valley was much in the news twice, with fires threatening the valley from different directions. What have been the effects of these fires?
The Aug. 17 LNU fire … was in the eastern part of Napa County and it headed east. The second fire, called the Glass Fire … started Sept. 27 and came down Calistoga to St. Helena … then crossed over the valley…. The fires spread rapidly because of a surplus of deadwood within the forests. These trees typically have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years, and the forests must be managed. This has not happened, and in its path not only did [the fire] devastate the forest but [it] destroyed many wineries, homes and vineyards. Both fires left the smoke and ash to settle on the grapes for weeks. Our grapes were damaged by smoke and ash, so we didn’t make wine this year … You cannot make ultra-premium wine with damaged fruit or with these conditions that were left from the smoke that would have resulted in a smoke-tainted wine.
However, beyond losing one vintage, a greater cost has come as a result of the continuing Covid shutdowns. This not only has sent ripples through the vineyards but through the entire distribution chain with the closing of restaurants, other businesses, and employment.
What is the biggest challenge you and/or the California wine industry faces in 2021?
I believe that [the impact of] Covid 19 … will continue into the 2021 wine business. …We [have] already seen the destruction of wine sales in the restaurants and wine retail shops in the last nine months. Some have shut the door for good. Some I believe held on for the holiday rush and that of course has been shut down.
What is the biggest opportunity of 2021?
We will continue to strengthen relationships with our distributors, retail and restaurants … to meet everyone’s needs during these times. … We will also continue to support and grow our direct-to-consumer segment.
Neal Family Vineyards has several wines available at the New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets. The 2018 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, priced at $19.99 andsourced from the Rutherford Vineyards, has tropical notes of pineapple and citric, with a clean finish. The 2017 Rutherford Dust Vineyard Zinfandel, priced at $23.99, has a bit of petite syrah added to it, enhancing the fruit. The 2015 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, priced at $49.99, is superb with great dark cherry notes and a long finish.
Featured Photo: Mark, with sales marketing director and daughter Jessica, and winemaker Jordan Stanley. Courtesy photo.