If timing is everything, then Bruce Neyers entered the wine industry with impeccable timing. The 1970s brought about a re-birth to California wine, and headed it in a direction that would soon be in the mix with the great wines of Europe. Bruce, with a scientific academic background, curious mind and boundless energy, entered the field by circumstance. Many of us do. He currently carries the longstanding dual role of being the National Sales Manager for the great French importing company, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, and owner -- along with his wife Barbara -- of one of the finest wineries in Napa Valley, Neyers Vineyards.
He explains his beginnings in the industry,
I went into the army out of college and finished up the last of my two years at the Presidio of San Francisco in 1970. An army colleague introduced me to the owner of a wine importing company in San Francisco, and after I was discharged this owner offered me a job learning the wine business. I went to work for them in the summer of 1970. A year or so later, I met Bob Travers of Mayacamas winery when he delivered some wine to the store. He invited me to visit and help them pick Cabernet Sauvignon the following week, and while I was there I helped him in the cellar setting up some lab equipment (I had been a Chemistry major in college). A few weeks later, he called to say that he was looking for an assistant and asked if I would be interested in the job. I was, and he hired me there as 'Cellarmaster' in January 1971. I was 25.
Bruce mentions Bob Travers as one of his early mentors, but the most important one was Joe Phelps.
I met Joe in the spring of 1974 after I had received an offer from a winery in Germany-Graf von Plettenberg in the Nahe- to move there and work as a harvest intern. Joe was just starting Joseph Phelps Vineyards, and he invited me to look him up when I returned from Germany. I came back in February 1975 and went to work at Phelps as his assistant. I was soon promoted to Sales Manager, and made a Vice President after that. I left in 1992 as President and General Manager.
Bruce continues, "And then there is Kermit," (referring to other mentors) "who remains one today."
How did these mentors influence you?
Each influenced me in their own individual way. Bob Travers gave me my first real break working for a winery, and he patiently taught me everything from tightening barrel staves, to a pump. I learned to hoe weeds and drive a tractor at Mayacamas. Joe Phelps very patiently taught me a lot about the wine business, which I think was instrumental in developing, and he allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them. Then Kermit filled in a lot of the gaps, allowing me the opportunity to pursue my two loves, making California wine and selling French wine. Few employers would have been as open minded.
How did you meet Kermit Lynch, and then, how did you end up working for him?
I met Kermit in 1971, I think, when he visited the wine importing company for which I was working. He came to apply for a job, having just come back from France. I showed him around and we became friendly. A few months later, he wrote me to say he had opened his own store--a long story there--and invited me to stop by for a visit. I did, and became a customer of his, which of course I am even now. He reminded me that I purchase almost as much wine from him as does Iowa.
From the time you started in wine, there have been some important changes. What are the most important ones you have seen?
Quality, prices and acceptance. Overall wine quality has improved to an extraordinary degree, everywhere, not just in California. I remember the 1970s how we used to joke about the quality of Loire wines. No more. There are rarely disaster harvests in France, Germany or Italy like there used to be. Then look at the improvement in wine quality in the southern Rhone, and in Italy. Prices are sometimes hard to comprehend now, and hardly a week goes by that I don't read or hear about an unknown wine and then get staggered by the price it sells for. All of that is good for everyone, kind of like the post free agency salary of a major league baseball player. Mickey Mantle used to make $50,000 a year. Then there is the matter of acceptance of wine, as it has pervasively moved into almost every area of life. The first time I called on a large wine shop in Washington DC, the owner told me that I was wasting my time trying to sell that stuff to him. He went on to build one of the most important California wine businesses in the world.
How do you juggle your time between your own winery, and representing Kermit Lynch?
I married well, I work long hours, and I thoroughly enjoy every part of what I do, so nothing ever really seems arduous. Most importantly, though, I am surrounded by some of the most talented people in the industry, and they all seem to like working with me. Much of what I get credit for really is a result of work done by my wife, Barbara, and my colleagues at Neyers and Kermit Lynch.
What changes would you like to see in California wine?
I would like to see the world of California wine embrace the concept of terroir, and begin to recognize, identify and play on the variations of soil and climate that make European wines a bit more interesting to me. I'd also like to see organic farming become a more widespread part of viticulture.
What are some of the changes you would like to see in French wine?
I'd like to see French wines become less regulated by the INAO, and see individual vignerons rewarded for thinking -- and acting -- outside of the regulatory morass that sometimes seems to engulf them. I'd love to see the Euro drop back to parity with the US dollar.
What kind of schedule do you have, and how do you juggle your personal and professional life?
When I'm home -- about half the time -- I start every day off with a quick survey of the vineyards that surround my house and make mental notes about projects, concerns, and ideas. I travel with a pen and a piece of paper at all times, a practice I learned from Joe Phelps. I then drive to my office in St. Helena and deal with e-mails and phone calls to and from France and the east coast. I try to leave at mid-day for a break and then drive out to the winery which is 15 minutes away. I go back to the office and finish my day before going home, normally around 7, for dinner with Barbara. Our three kids are all in -- or in various stages of being in -- college, so we dine late again now. We enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner, I read the paper, and do the NY Times crossword puzzle (if it's not the impossible Saturday puzzle), and relax. Years ago, right after I started working for Joe Phelps, he called me at home around 11AM on a Saturday. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was just hanging out enjoying my day off. He told me very quickly (and calmly) that there were two types of people who worked for him, and one of those types worked on Saturday. They were the ones that got ahead in his businesses. I thanked him, hung up the phone, got dressed and went to work. I don't think I've missed a Saturday in the ensuing 30 years.
What are you most proud of since you have been involved with wine?
I'm proud that I've done it so long, and can't think of a single enemy I've ever made. All three mentors I've mentioned are very honorable men. I'd like to think I have earned a place amongst them.