Linda Neal is happiest in her vineyard. The proprietor of Tierra Roja Vineyard in Oakville – one of the best Napa cabernet sauvignon producers you may have never heard of – spent her teenage years outside Modesto, where she got involved in Future Farmers of America. She came to believe, as she puts it, that agriculture is “the one essential industry.”
Neal studied ag business and held a variety of agriculture-related jobs. It was a job with the French agricultural chemical company Rhône-Poulenc that brought her to the Napa Valley in 1983. By then, she had married Michael Neal, and they started a vineyard management company. At its peak, the company had about 1,000 acres under full-time management.
The Neals bought a property on Silverado Trail in 1987, and when they divorced in 2007, Linda took the house and vineyard. When they bought the property – its name, Tierra Roja, refers to the red soil, characteristic of the east side of Oakville – a flat section of about an acre had just been planted to cabernet sauvignon. They planted the hillside soon after. Unfortunately, most of the vineyard was on AxR-1 rootstock, which proved to be vulnerable to the destructive phylloxera root louse, so it had to be replanted a few years later. The vineyard encompasses more than four acres.
She’s always tinkering with something in the vineyard. For one thing, “there’s never enough water here,” she said. The first irrigation system didn’t supply sufficient water to the ends of the rows, so she redid everything. Because afternoon sun can be intense, Neal has experimented with different trellising systems to shade the clusters on one side. She even tried shade cloth this year.
“You can’t rest on your laurels,” she said.
Tierra Roja is in a prime Oakville location, with neighbors like Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle and Rudd. For years, Neal sold all her grapes to others, notably TOR, which made a Tierra Roja vineyard-designate cab. But growing great cabernet wasn’t enough. In 2003, while she was still married, she produced a little wine, with 2004 being the first commercial vintage. (By the time the wine was released, the Neals had split.) Why get into the wine business?
“As a grower, you never meet the people who enjoy the fruits of the labor,” Neal said. Still, she described herself as “completely unprepared. … It was insanity. There’s no reasonable person that goes into the wine business.”
She’s happy she did it, but “the vineyard side is still my love, my passion.”
Her first winemaker was David DeSante, whose style Neal described as “very old world.” In 2015, Jeff Ames took over and brought a “more California” style to the wines. Since 2021, Benoit Touquette of Realm and Fait-Main has been the winemaker. “He’s looking to make the beautiful wines, the sexy wines,” Neal said of Touquette. (In addition to making the Tierra Roja wine, Touquette uses Neal’s grapes for Fait-Main.)
I have followed the Tierra Roja wines since the 2004 vintage and singled out the winery as a notable newcomer in the 2009 edition of the “Food & Wine Wine Guide.” So I was pleased to get an invitation to join a small group in tasting a complete vertical of Tierra Roja cabernet at Neal’s house.
The whole lineup was showing extremely well, including the 2003, which was an experimental batch of about 50 cases. All the wines displayed ample fruit, although it trended toward red fruit in some vintages and black fruit in others. Many had savory nuances of anise, black olive or wild herbs, and some were quite floral. All had remarkable freshness.
Among my favorite vintages were the dense, structured, lively 2018, with its anise and graphite notes; the very perfumey 2015; the incredibly fresh and youthful 2012; and the dense, youthful and spicy 2007, which has some floral notes. The 2011, from a cool vintage that was maligned by many critics, is also lovely: It displays ample red fruit and spice with a slight herbal note and excellent balance. Neal noted that it’s a favorite of sommeliers.
The most recent vintage to be released is the 2019 ($175 and sold out), which is dark and concentrated, with black fruit, baking spice and graphite. It finishes with polished tannins.
The 2020, from a year of wildfires and their smoke, was picked and fermented but not released. We had hoped to taste the 2021, but Touquette told Neal that it wasn’t ready.
Interestingly, Neal was out of the country for the 2018 and 2019 vintages because she joined the Peace Corps and went to Morocco. She spent several years preparing herself and the business, leaving it in the care of a small team. She was also able to stay in contact from Morocco and deal with any problems that arose.
But her 2 ½ year commitment to the Peace Corps was cut short when Covid-19 hit in March 2020 and everyone was evacuated back to the States. Still, she said, “it was an amazing experience.”
Although the Tierra Roja wines are in some restaurants, most of the production of about 250 cases a year is sold through a mailing list. It’s currently full, but Neal said the wait to get on it generally isn’t too long. To sign up, go to tierraroja.com.