Neal Family Vineyards is located mere minutes from downtown Angwin in the north eastern hills above Napa Valley in the Howell Mountain Appellation. The winery sits on a beautiful piece of property at approximately 1,800 feet in elevation surrounded by vineyards and hillside pine & oak forests. This estate property is approximately 24 acres of which 12 are planted – entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Neal Family has been growing and managing vineyards in Napa Valley since 1968 making them one of the older continuous family-owned growers in the region. Founder, Mark Neal’s family moved to Rutherford in 1966 and it is here where Mark learned viticulture from his father Jack (died at 65 in 1994). Jack planted his first commercial vineyard in 1971 to Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Prior to his career in Napa Valley Jack, a native of Oakland, was a medic in the Korean War and worked for the Oakland Tribune, initially as a paper boy and later driving a paper truck. He spent 25 years working for the Tribune before moving to Napa Valley where he began his vineyard management company. For many years, Jack was also active in the North Coast Grape Growers Association.
After his father died, Mark took over charge of all operations of Jack Neal & Sons Vineyard Management Company at age 35 (he is a graduate of St. Helena High School and also attended Santa Rosa Junior College). Visit: www.jacknealandson.com All the vineyards they manage or own are certified CCOF and are farmed organically. In fact, they are the largest organic farming company in Napa Valley. And in late 2022 Neal Family Vineyards achieved Regenerative Organic Certified status as recognized by the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA). This focus of this certification is on regenerative soil health and practices that are healthy for the entire eco system. This certification is considered the highest level of certification; at the time they earned this status, they were one of only five vineyard estates on the planet to achieve this, and the first in Napa Valley.
In 1986 Jack Neal & Sons began transitioning their employees to harvest at night (one of the earliest to do so in Napa Valley). This is now the accepted practice for harvest allowing for employees to work in cooler more favorable conditions than during the heat of the day. It also ensures grapes arrive to the cellar already cold which means better control during fermentation and more stable sugar levels. And less energy used to cool the grapes down for a process often conducted before fermentation called cold soaking (an extraction process in winemaking).
Mark purchased their Howell Mountain property in 1990. It is 25 acres of which 12 are planted to vines. After many years of running their vineyard management company, the family decided to produce their own wine in 1997; today all their wine is made at their small cave winery on Howell Mountain. Their wine production focuses on several distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon wines and other red varieties. Neal Family produces wines bottled from Howell Mountain, their Rutherford Dust Vineyard, and a Napa Valley designated Cabernet Sauvignon.
Over the years and visits to the property, we have always been extremely impressed by the creativity and ingenuity of the Neal family.
During one of our visits to the cellar, we were shown an experimental barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2014 vintage – a year that produced a larger than normal crop. The wine making team decided to create a fully organic wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon from their Rutherford Dust Vineyard. At the time of our tasting, it had been aged in larger than normal oak barrels for two years and had received absolutely no added SO2. Any wines made organic and legally labeled as such (per the current USDA Organic Standards) must be under 10 ppm sulfites. These are wines that have no added sulfites and therefore, the only sulfites contained are naturally occurring.
We remember this wine did not smell or taste like a typical Napa Valley grown and produced Cabernet Sauvignon. While there are numerous vineyards in Napa Valley farmed and grown organically this is only the second such style of wine we have tasted (the other being one from Bunter Spring Winery in Coombsville).
Today these one-off wines are bottled under the label One & Only, a tribute to Mark’s parents who would often use these words as terms of endearment for each other. Vineyard sources for this label are typically from outside of Napa Valley.
And what is extremely unique in Napa Valley is their unusual trellising system for some of their grapevines (see our photos at the bottom of this review). In order to mitigate the effects of global warming for their white grapes, they trellis their red grapes in the same row as the white grapes but train the red grapes to grow higher than the white grapes. This effectively allows the canopy and fruit zone of the red grapes to shade the lower white grapes which are more susceptible to sunburn. This form of trellising is used at their Rutherford property but not their Howell Mountain estate. And the first white variety they introduced to this type of trellising was Sauvignon Blanc although they have since planted additional white varieties including Chenin Blanc and Albariño.
In a nod to Mark’s mothers’ Greek heritage, several Greek varieties are planted at their Rutherford property including Assyrtiko and Xinomavro among others. Perhaps a Greek Retsina (Ρετσίνα) white wine will be produced at some point?! We’ve enjoyed several bottlings from various producers of this special resinated wine during our trips to Greece over the years.
Neal Family Vineyards bottles one of Napa Valley’s very few grown and produced Vermentino wines; these vines were planted in 2018 on their Rutherford property. This variety is widely planted in Provence, France where it is known as Rolle. The 2021 Neal Family Vineyards Napa Valley Rutherford Dust Vineyards Vermentino (inaugural vintage) is medium gold in color; the aromatics are diverse and well-layered, initially showing as tropical fruit forward with notes of papaya, banana, honeysuckle, pineapple and vanilla. The bouquet also offers scents of nectarine, butter and citrus blossom. The mouth feel features a light creamy texture. This wine gives intense fruit flavors across the palate including of stone fruit, citrus and pineapple. The rich finish is complemented with bright and long-lasting acidity.
There is very little of this variety planted in Napa Valley; we wish there was more. We are aware of only three vineyard sites in Napa Valley including two on the Napa side of Carneros (Mahoney) and Steve Matthiasson’s Cressida Vineyard and in Rutherford (Neal Family). The very few Napa Valley producers that make wines from Vermentino usually source grapes from outside of the county.
The 2017 Neal Family Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal) is dark ruby and almost opaque in the glass; the bouquet is a pleasing diversity of both primary fruit aromatics combined with secondary scents. As the wine opens it offers an elegant union of blackberry, dark cherry, mocha, Graham Cracker, milk chocolate and espresso. Give it even more time and the core aromatics (its fruit) become more dominant. The acidity is medium plus. This bottling offers primarily red fruit flavors including of cherry, currant and cranberry. This wine finishes savory with well-structured and long-lasting noticeably dry tannins, notes of crushed peppercorn and a mouthwatering brightness. Despite tasting this wine in the very early morning hours, we wanted to reach for a juicy steak directly from the BBQ.
The 2019 Neal Family Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal) is dark ruby in color; the bouquet offers dark fruit and dessert spice aromatics including of plum and cherry along with dark chocolate, old cedar wood, grilled meats and hints of dark pepper. The darker characteristics on the bouquet follow through to the palate with flavors of dark plum, bramble and old leather. The finish is savory showing earthy, gravelly and dark tannins with an accompanying note of old cedar and crushed peppercorn. The liveliness due to its acidity continues to persist for some time.
The 2014 Neil Family Napa Valley Chardonnay went through full secondary fermentation and spent 20 months in barrel, 18 of which the wine was sitting on the lees (stirred once a month). This is a tasting room only wine as typically only about 50 cases are produced. It is dark golden in the glass. The bouquet shows notes of honeysuckle, caramel and citrus blossom. The mouth feel displays a pleasing creaminess without being too heavy as it is framed by good acidity. Both lingering fruit and notes of toasted hazelnut show.
Neal Family makes several 100% varietal vineyard designate Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Each of these bottles is numbered. And they often have some older vintages available for tasting as well as for sale. Neal Family also produces a very nice Napa Valley Zinfandel blended with a bit of Petite Sirah which provides additional color to the wine as well as increased aromatics. In 2007 they introduced their first ever white wine, a Sauvignon Blanc.
The 2007 Neal Family Howell Mountain Estate offers a bouquet with some noticeable bottle bouquet along with character and depth of aroma. It is somewhat gamey with mushroom and earthy damp forest floor aromas. These aromas carry onto the palate. This is a balanced wine with decent acidity and fairly well integrated and soft tannins (for Howell Mountain fruit).
The 2007 Neal Family Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon is a dramatically different wine as compared to the same vintage of their Howell Mountain estate bottling. It hasn’t aged as quickly and still shows youthful aromas of ripe black fig, blackberry and a sweet note. The bouquet is somewhat briary. The palate is plush and flavorful, with mouthwatering acidity. The tannins are seamlessly integrated. The source for this wine is the One Lane Vineyard (named after a geographical reference to the narrow road/bridge) located on the southern part of Mt. Veeder. Unlike some of the highest elevations on Mt. Veeder which are typically above the fog line, this vineyard is much lower (about 500 feet) and is closer to the cooling influences of the San Pablo Bay.
The 2005 Neal Family Napa Valley Cabernet is predominately hillside grown yet is very approachable in its youth. Part of this approachability is with the wine making; native yeast fermentation and moderate maceration times help develop a wine without huge tannins and alcohol while still retaining the primary fruit characteristics. Blocks within vineyard sites are hand selected for the highest quality grapes.
The 2004 Neal Family Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon was made from grapes harvested from vineyards surrounding the winery. Again, the tannins are very well managed for mountain grown fruit and as a result this wine is very approachable now and has a smooth rounded mouth feel. The palate shows flavors of tobacco, chocolate, spices and hints of toasted oak.
Neal Family also produces a limited production premium olive oil. Mark’s mother is from Crete and the family imported a number of Greek olive trees growing on their property in Rutherford. Later they added Italian and Spanish varieties. Some of the best olive oil we have enjoyed over the years in Napa Valley has been from either Howell Mountain or Rutherford.
The 2021 bottling includes olives from Greek and Italian varieties; it is fresh on the bouquet and the palate. It offers a creamy texture with a grassiness that persists across the palate. It finishes spicy with pepper, a hot and light burning sensation. It offers a richness of flavor, texture and spice that one just does not find in bottlings from large scale commercial olive oil producers.
Visitors to the winery in Spring or Summer will be visually impressed by the beautiful and colorful flowers that grow near the entrance. A tasting and winery tour will typically be with their Estate Director or someone from their winemaking team. Refreshingly, it has been that way for years; unlike other wineries where employee turnover can be high, it is not that way here. As with most Howell Mountain based wineries visits are very personalized and are hosted in an intimate setting. Visitors will receive a very informative look at their winery operations and will also visit the 7,500 square foot cave and possibly try a barrel sample.
Note some of the copper furnishings including one of the most impressive and unique looking chandeliers in all of Napa Valley in the form of a grapevine hanging from the ceiling next to the cave entrance. One of Mark’s hobbies is welding; he created this chandelier and a number of other items including the copper bench that greets visitors at the main entrance.
Neal Family owns a bottling line which is somewhat unusual for a winery of this size, but it gives them the flexibility to bottle when they want to, not based on a pre-determined mobile bottling schedule. Parts of this machine has even been custom made to meet their more specific needs. Check out the interesting functional metal works of art scattered around including the “grapevine” light + art installation hanging from the ceiling next to the cave entrance.
In 2018 they came up with a great idea to mount a Pellenec destemmer and sorter and other processing equipment on an extended flatbed. This mobile winemaking setup is trailered to various locations in the valley for use by several of their clients.
The Neal Family Scholarship was established in 2014 and each year raises money to support seniors from St. Helena High School with at least a 3.5 GPA who have taken four years of agriculture classes and who have been accepted to a four-year university. An annual live auction event held every May at the winery in part raises money for these scholarships as well as for St. Helena Future Farmers of America.
As this is a small operation, tastings are limited in number and are available only during certain times each day. They are closed on Sundays. Total annual production is usually around 3,500 cases each. For more details, to purchase wines, or to schedule a private tasting, see: www.nealvineyards.com
Rutherford Dust Vineyards