Mark Neal has been walking and working organic vineyards almost daily since 1966. He started as a farmer working alongside his parents on their Rutherford farm. His love of the land, working with family, and producing small batches of wines was instilled early by his father. His love of the land, working with family, and producing small batches of wines was instilled early by his father, Jack. his mom Athene and his grandmother Zmaro from Crete who’s family was in the farming business. Zmaro was the first generation in the United States. Her insights of compost piles, following the phases of the moon and starts started something very different what was being done in Napa Valley in the late 60’s.
This upbringing of growing organic grapes inspired Mark. In 1998, Mark founded and built Neal Family Vineyards, which is wholly owned, farmed, and operated by his family, a rarity in the winemaking world. Today, working beside several of his children, he handcrafts exquisite and complex Cabernet Sauvignon from his estate’s biodynamic and certified organic vineyards in Howell Mountain and Rutherford AVA’s.
A Love Story – One & Only
Mark’s parents, Jack and Athene Neal, met on a blind date right before Jack went off to serve in the Korean war as a medic. He wrote letters to Athene and signed them One & Only. When he returned from the war, he went directly to meet Athene in a hired limo, proposed, and the rest is history. Jack met a friend in Korea on the line that came from Napa Valley. Jack visited him often and worked their family farm. Eventually Jack moved to Napa , creating a home, family, and business in Rutherford. Jack and Athene were lovebirds and coworkers their entire marriage. They always put family first and aspired daily to find a quiet moment together or a “space between the notes.”
Athene, the family matriarch, was quite the spitfire and did what all the men did at the time. She farmed, fixed machinery, and didn’t have any fingerprints from shelling so many walnuts working so hard. Athene’s mother and aunt were the first in their family to immigrate to the US from Crete. She was beloved by many and loved to cook big Greek dinners to honor both her family and heritage.
Jack had a wicked sense of humor and was known to most as the hardest-working man in Napa Valley. In 1968, Mark and Jack started Jack Neal Vineyard Management after working for other nearby farmers for years. Thus began the family’s deep organic farming roots in Napa Valley and this passionate farming legacy continues today.
A quiet moment together
‘A space between the notes.’
By building the winery,
Mark was able to bring his dad’s dream to life.
The Dynamic Duo - Jack & Mark
From a young age, Mark Neal was a clever and industrious boy. He learned the value of hard work and loved helping at the family’s farm on Mee Lane in Rutherford. The family farm at the time had walnuts and wine grapes, and his mom had a truck farm vegetable garden. Jack enlisted young Mark to help with Jack Neal Vineyard Management, which inspired the spirited entrepreneurial boy to start driving a tractor at age 8, take out a loan to buy it from his dad at age 9, and pay it off fully by 14. Mark grew up farming during all his spare moments and became a passionate steward of the land.
He has been a leader in the organic farming movement and has been instrumental in leading the farming business to embrace this philosophy. Many farmers at the time were moving toward conventional farming using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. One concern was that of the farm labor working in the vines after application of these pesticides and fertilizers, even though it was a couple of days after the application. Paramount concerns were around what these synthetic elements were doing to the soil, water systems and of course the vines and grapes for the long term. In 1984, Mark certified their vineyards with California Certification of Organic Farmers (CCOF). This ethos of looking after the land for the next generation will always remain foundational to the Neal family and farming. In 1994, Mark became the owner of Jack Neal & Son Vineyard Management (JNS), one of the oldest vineyard management companies in Napa County that has grown to become one of the largest service providers in Northern California. JNS farm almost exclusively organic, with over 90% percent of the acreage certified organic.
Mark and his father started making wine together when he was 14 and thus began his journey in winemaking. The garage wine they produced was for family consumption, but this would change when Mark bought his first property in Rutherford in 1980 at 20 years old. 1988 was a very foggy year, and Mark began to seek properties in the hillsides of Napa Valley. In 1990 Mark found his spot in the Howell Mountain AVA. Most of Howell Mountain is above the fog, however the chosen spot is typically above the fog line. purchased a property in the Howell Mountain AVA. In 1998, Mark produced his first wine, a Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon from his first property in Rutherford. Mark produced 360 cases of this first Neal Family Vineyards vintage. His father and him had plans to build the winery on one of the Rutherford properties. However after Jack’s death in 1994, that plan was scrapped. In 1999 Mark built the Howell Mountain winery, which we see today, with a small team from JNS. By building the winery, Mark was able to bring their dream to life.
Mark had a childhood filled with love, wine, food, and big Sunday family dinners prepared by his mother, Athene. Mark watched his parents work tirelessly to preserve the vineyards and home they loved. They instilled in Mark strong family values, a love of the land, and a relentless work ethic. Mark felt honored to work alongside his dad and considered him his best friend.
The Next Gen
Like his parents, Mark met Laura on a blind date, and they quickly fell in love. Their combined family includes seven exceptional children: Jessica, Zachary, Demitria, Alexios, Jackson, Tatum, and Mattison. The family wouldn’t be complete without Zeus, the family dog, who is always by Mark’s side.
Family is everything to Mark and Laura. They are working hard to prepare the winery for the next generation of Neals to carry on the legacy that started with Mark’s parents decades ago in Napa Valley.
“I'm simply tending the vines for the next generation.”
— Mark Neal