Occasionally, I change things up and write about a wine personality who is doing something a little bit different. Unless you are an Armagnac fanatic, you may not know Charles Neal.
Neal spent years in France in the 1980s and ’90s. His wife’s family is from the southwest, so after many visits to that area, he became interested in its coveted brandy, Armagnac. After moving to California, Neal decided to translate his wealth of knowledge into a business importing vintage Armagnac. He has since written one of the best books on the subject, “Armagnac: The Definitive Guide to France’s Premier Brandy.”
With his Armagnac reputation already giving him a foot in the door, Neal tried selling wines from that area. The problem was that the Armagnac was highly regarded, but not everyone understood — or liked — the wines. He expanded into other areas of France and has kept the emphasis of his portfolio on wines that are affordable. But that is not all.
Bucking the current trend, Neal is not terroir-centric. This does not mean he is going for international-style wines that do not have a sense of place. Rather, he seeks out wines that have a 70-30 split favoring fruit over terroir. Granted, there is terroir and there is terroir. You can argue that fruit is indicative of terroir in many places, including Napa Valley and Australia’s Barossa Valley. While old-world wines may not be as fruity, there is a difference between earthy and funky. It is the funk that Neal wants his producers to avoid.
He is a proponent of using natural means of production and is working with winemakers to try to push them toward practicing natural methods when it makes sense.
“In an ideal world, everyone would work that way,” Neal said. But he realizes that economic realities come into play and that to save a harvest, it might require working in ways that run counter to the best intentions of the winemaker’s desire to work naturally.
Wine trends come and go. Fruit was en vogue and vintners in Europe were doing various things to try to create highly extracted, high-alcohol, fruity wines. There are still plenty of adherents in California and elsewhere, but as the natural wine movement has become more popular, there is a large counter movement that supports noninterference.
Neal, you might say, is the moderate, which in San Francisco’s current wine-industry scene actually makes him a maverick.
“I’m trying to get away from wines that people say are ‘interesting,’” he said. “When things are eclectic and people have never heard of them, it is easy to put a $12 to $15 [bottle] in someone’s hand. As far as the public goes, it is interesting to talk about terroir, but what is going to draw people in for the second bottle is the fruit.”
Variety is a good thing. Perhaps others might come around to Neal’s position. He is not the only one in the center. However, given the quality of his wines and his pricing, he is making a name for himself that goes beyond Armagnac.
Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com and a Bay Area wine consultant.