Last Christmas, during a family celebration, longtime Napa Valley vintner and grape grower Linda Neal asked to speak with her sister, Sandy Surratt, privately. Surratt pictured the worst.
“I knew she’d been getting a lot of medical checks and so for a moment I thought, ‘Oh, no, something is wrong with her health,’” Surratt said. “But then my worry turned to ‘Wow!’ when she told me she’d joined the Peace Corps and would be heading to Morocco in the fall.”
Fast-forward to the present, when Neal discussed her adventure at her home and seven-acre vineyard at the intersection of Silverado Trail and Oakville Cross Road. She had taken time from her packing to tell me how she’d come to the decision to shed a couple of businesses, sell off many possessions and spend the last few years studying Arabic as she went through what sounded like an arduous screening process of qualifying to join the Peace Corps.
What I came to learn was that her deep love of farming and a desire to share her knowledge and skills while she broadened her world had led her to embark on what will likely be the biggest adventure of her life.
A future farmer
Neal has been living and working in the Napa Valley since the early 1980s but spent her formative years growing up in California’s Central Valley, where her love of farming took root.
“After my father died we moved from Orange County to Oakdale, and everything that’s good in my life I can trace back to my involvement with the Future Farmers of America (FFA) there,” she said.
There, she learned both the fundamentals of planting crops and raising animals and the importance of making farming activities financially sustainable.
“We learned about farming, but I was also taught how to run a farm as a business,” she said.
After graduating from college with a business degree, she worked as a sales representative for agricultural chemicals and was eventually hired by a French manufacturer, Rhone Poulenc, whose spray helped protect grapevines from the Botrytis cinerea fungus.
Although Botrytis is often referred to as “noble rot” because it can help select varieties, resulting in the beloved and expensive sweet Sauterne wines from France, most other wine grapes infected by the fungus normally rot and are unusable.
“[When I got here] the Napa Valley had just been hit by two years of pretty devastating rounds of Botrytis, but because of the way vines were being trellised our spray didn’t seem to work,” Neal said. “Back then, the vines were grown big and bushy, so the spray couldn’t get past the leaves and onto the clusters. I noticed this, and at about the same time a few key researchers and farmers were finding that lifting the vines off the ground and getting more light and air on the clusters had other positive effects.”
By changing the trellising the spray worked, and the wine quality also improved.
Phylloxera’s second wave
At about the same time, by the late 1980s, the first signs of the Napa Valley’s second Phylloxera infestation started killing off vines. The first wave had struck the region in the late 1800s but had lain dormant, partially because Prohibition resulted in the removal of thousands of acres of vines and the addition of new rootstocks that were temporarily resistant to the dreaded root louse. However, most of the newest vineyards had been planted on AXR-1 rootstock, which, although touted by UC Davis and others as being wholly resistant, was not. And so while Botrytis was wreaking havoc on grape clusters trellised in the old manner, unbeknownst to the growers was that a tiny sap-sucking insect, related to aphids, also had started feeding on the roots, slowly draining away the life of many vines.
It was the end of the line for many of the growers of the valley who couldn’t survive the economic impact of a series of setbacks, but for others, including Neal, it would provide a springboard to their futures.
“By then I’d married and we’d started a small vineyard-management company,” Neal said. “Our first client had only a quarter-acre vineyard, but we grew quickly and eventually farmed over 1,000 acres, including for owners like Cakebread, Mondavi and Opus One.”
Neal and her former husband planted five acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on their Oakville property and also purchased 25 acres in the Sierra Foothills with the dream of opening their own winery there someday. Years later, Neal would do just that, building and operating a winery while at the same time creating another wine from their Napa Valley property, Tierra Roja.
Tierra Roja Cabernet Sauvignon (250 cases made, $160 a bottle) was made initially by David DeSante (DeSante Wines) and now by Jeff Ames (Tor, Rudius). Both winemakers are exceptional and have produced expressive wines from some of Oakville’s finest properties, including this one. I tasted the 2014, and the muscularity, richness and layers of this wine scream Oakville terroir. Finding this wine is a real challenge as most of it is sold prior to release. However, for collectors looking for a truly wonderful wine that helps support a local vintner who is doing good work for both her community and the broader world, this is worth the search.
At every stage of Neal’s life, she found that good timing, hard work and a little luck all helped. She also found that she had a deep desire to mentor and to give back to the community. She’s been active in a variety of agricultural and community groups, including raising money to launch ag education and FFA programs at St. Helena High School. She is also actively involved in nearly a dozen other organizations.
“Linda has always been a natural teacher and mentor,” Surratt said. “She has built what amounts to dozens of extended families wherever she’s lived or worked, and soon I’ll bet she does the same in Morocco.”
Neal sees her newest adventure as the next chapter in her life.
“I’ve always been busy starting or running my businesses and being involved with my community,” Neal said. “But every time I’d witness a tragedy around the world — flood, famine, poverty — I felt like I wanted to help. I’d also become painfully aware that life is short — I am the same age as when my mother died, I am twice as old as when my father died, and older than when my grandparents passed — and it was time to do something to help beyond just where I lived and what I was comfortable doing.”
Starting three years ago, Neal began the process of applying for and working toward becoming a Peace Corps volunteer. She underwent evaluations, medical tests and numerous interviews. All the while, she never mentioned her plans to family or friends. She also initiated a plan to simplify her life, selling off the Foothill vineyard and winery and writing out procedures for her vineyard and winemaking teams to carry on without her daily involvement.
“I’ve written over 90 pages of instructions,” Neal said. “But in reality, what I am coming to learn — and what’s a challenge for me to learn — is that there are many different ways to do things in the world and my way isn’t always the only way.”
Neal laughs and then looks west. The valley spreads north and south, a checkerboard of verdant vineyards with just a hint of the coming fall’s colors.
“I’m not sure exactly which village in Morocco I’ll eventually end up at and what precisely that I’ll be assigned to do — they’ll tell me when I’ve gone through the onsite orientation,” she said. “I’ve been told to expect anything and that I might be sleeping on a dirt floor for the next two years. I’m not concerned about that, but I have a little apprehension about not succeeding.”
Although Neal is unsure exactly which town or village she’ll be assigned to, or even what particular job she’ll be doing, she hopes that she might work with young people to help teach them farming.
“Who knows, maybe someday there might be a Future Farmers of Morocco organization,” she said.
Turning, she looks east toward her garden full of red dahlias and then beyond to the purple-clustered and green-leafed grapevines on the red-earthen hill.
“My desire is that I might share a little of what I’ve learned from this beautiful place,” she said. “My hope is to connect with the people in Morocco and to be a good representative of our country and this place. My plan is to just go with the flow and do my best — wish me luck!”
When conditions allow, Neal intends to keep a blog on her adventures at https://tierraroja.com/blog.