Drinking Zinfandel With Lady Bird Johnson in Napa
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Drinking Zinfandel With Lady Bird Johnson in Napa

The talk was of dinosaurs and wildflowers, but the wine took center stage

My son Mike was home one night recently, and I solicited his help pulling some bottles from my wine cellar. It’s not an onerous chore, but it occasionally requires someone more agile than me to get at the bottles stored in those hard-to-get-to places. He noticed that one of the bottles he’d selected was signed, and asked me who had signed it. I looked at the bottle and thought about that wonderful day — almost 30 years ago — when I spent an afternoon with Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of former President Lyndon Johnson.

We had been asked by the public relations arm of The Wine Institute to host a lunch for a group of Californians visiting the Napa Valley for the American Wildflower Foundation. I worked at Joseph Phelps Vineyards at the time, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to allow groups to visit the winery for a private event, and then afterwards sell them wine. We arranged for a caterer to prepare the meal, and then dealt with the organizers to work out the details.

One wrinkle did serve as a possible issue: There would be a pre-lunch presentation by a University of California professor named Walter Alvarez. His topic: the theory of the extinction of the dinosaurs. I wondered how I might possibly tie that into a wine sale, especially to a group of wildflower enthusiasts. The morning of the event I received another surprise when the group advised me that Lady Bird Johnson would be joining them. Lady Bird, it turned out, was a founder of the Texas Wildflower Center, and much of her work over the years had involved promoting the appreciation of wildflowers. She and her longtime friend and former press secretary Liz Carpenter would be part of the group.

The day began with a tremor of concern, then, but it was going to end without one.

The group, about 25 in all, arrived promptly at 10 a.m. Lady Bird, as expected, had a private escort, but I never had an inkling that she was anything other than a wildflower enthusiast. She was casually dressed but still strikingly attractive, and she held my arm as we walked on some stepping stones to the back of the winery. It was a beautiful early spring day, and it crossed my mind that with the mustard plants and lupine showing at their finest, we were in something like wildflower nirvana.

The group numbered about 25, and soon they were all seated on the wooden benches that surrounded the west-facing deck. I began to make my introductory remarks. A sentence or two into my welcome, Lady Bird interrupted me. "Mr. Neyers," she said in her slow but enthusiastic drawl, "this view is absolutely delicious!" She spoke those two words as if each had eight or nine syllables, and I’m sure a blush of pride covered my face. I thanked her, but I remember saying something about not having had a lot to do with the view — it was the wine for which I was responsible.

With that comment, one of my colleagues began to give everyone a glass of chilled chardonnay to enjoy before lunch. I started to introduce the wine when Lady Bird interrupted me again. "Mr. Neyers," she asked, "do you have zinfandel?" I paused for a moment thinking of my reply, then decided to take the path of least resistance: "Why, yes, ma’am, we do," I said. "I’ll have a bottle brought here at once." "Oh, thank you, Mr. Neyers," she said. "I just love zinfandel."

A tray of red wine glasses appeared, and Lady Bird, along with one or two of the others, took a glass of the zinfandel. I talked for a few more minutes, and we went inside to the large oval table that had been set for the group. I hadn’t planned on joining them for lunch or the talk by Dr. Alvarez until Lady Bird took me by the arm again and maneuvered me to a seat on the side of the table next to her. She then motioned to Liz Carpenter to take the seat on the other side of me, while she directed Walter Alvarez to the seat at the head of the table. "He will want to stand up when he talks," Lady Bird advised me, "and this is the best place to watch him."

As soon as everyone was seated, Alvarez stood up, introduced himself, and held up two rocks, each about the size of a baseball. The rocks, he said, were part of the proof behind his Alvarez Hypothesis. He then went on to talk for the next hour about the Cretaceous Period, the extinction of the dinosaurs (which he believed was caused by a giant asteroid striking the Earth), and how a group of scientists he headed along with his Nobel Prize-winning father had determined this through several years of geological studies that measured variations in the level of iridium in the planet’s crust. We had a chance to examine the rock samples in detail as Alvarez explained how the one rich in iridium differed from the other. When he was finished, I felt like the smartest man in the world.

Alvarez took his seat amidst exuberant applause, and lunch began. Our server poured Lady Bird some cabernet sauvignon, and this time I didn’t wait for her to comment. "Would you prefer zinfandel, ma’am?" I asked. "Why, yes, Bruce," she replied, "I would. Like I said, I just love zinfandel."

When one of my colleagues began serving zinfandel for the lunch, she handed a bottle to me, along with a pen, and said, "Maybe you could get Lady Bird to sign this bottle for you." I would have never thought of that, but I offered it to her and she said, "I’ll just sign it to Bruce, OK?" And so I ended up on a first-name basis with a former first lady, and with a signed bottle of wine for my son to discover 30 years later.

Bruce and Barbara Neyers are the founders of Neyers Vineyards. Follow Bruce's adventures in wine and food, past and present, here.

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