Other than luck, success in life requires a balanced blend of discipline and creativity—not unlike a memorable wine imbued with a balance of total acidity and pH, creativity and luck.
Recently, I sat down with Neeta Mittal who owns and operates a different kind of wine business in Paso Robles. The goal was to learn more about the woman behind the wine. Why? Neeta Mittal is as complex as the artisanal wines crafted and poured in the boldly colored tasting room of LXV Wine—a project conceived and created by Neeta and her husband Kunal, after sipping the magic of the Paso Robles countryside.
India born to well-educated parents, Neeta dutifully followed one of the two expectations within her family’s culture. “In India, you become an engineer or a doctor,” she said. Neeta graduated with honors from the College of Engineering Pune, in Pune, Maharashtra, India, with a bachelor’s degree specializing in metallurgical engineering. A hint of Neeta’s complexity continued when she “created, choreographed, and directed the school’s first fashion show”—probably an unexpected event at a wonky engineering university.
Neeta earned her master’s of science in material science and engineering from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002. She decanted her education as a working engineer, until Kunal (a technology engineer), recognized Neeta’s inner artist, and said, “Follow your heart.”
“Kunal knew I wouldn’t be happy in a lab, which was the logical result of my graduate degree,” Neeta said. Then living in the Los Angeles area, and like any Angeleno at any given time, Neeta took to writing, directing and producing short films. However, the Mittals were seduced by the cuvee of San Luis Obispo County and bought a smaller ranch right in the heart of the coveted Willow Creek appellation in Paso Robles. “Paso reminded me of India, maybe because of the relationship people have with the earth and with each other.” Neeta explained to a food writer.
As a native Californian with a history of working within California’s agricultural roots, I have watched Paso Robles transition from a one-stoplight farming community with orchards, some vineyards and cattle, to a trendy town now linked with the sophisticated term, appellation. Fortunately, small-town friendliness remains on full exhibit when sharing time with Neeta. It’s a hug fest and “Hello, gorgeous” stroll up 13th Street with her.
“I’m a minority in Paso,” Neeta began, “and it is amazing the support I’ve received here. Not once has my heritage been an issue. We celebrate my heritage and I believe what the community wants is for people to just have a heart.”
And Neeta’s heart is on display as she actively supports the Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA), and Heaven Can Wait, an equine sanctuary in San Miguel. Her artistic heart literally sticks to the wine bottles produced for LXV, with portraits of dancers (one of Neeta’s other talents), jewelry designers, magicians, and chefs on the LXV labels. “I’m inspired and come alive with the combination of art, food and wine. Like everyone, I just want to live life filled with curiosity,” she said.
Chef is another addition to Neeta’s tagline. The sensory flavors of Indian cuisine are a definitive part of her marketing the LXV product. Her cooking skills even brought her a third runner up honor in the 2018 Paso Pinot and Paella Festival. True to her exploratory nature, Neeta’s winning paella, a vegan version, featured “spiced veggie nuggets and the umami miso broth,” she explained. (Umami refers to a “pleasant savory taste,” or the “fifth taste” beyond salt, sweet, sour and bitter.)
Spice takes a supportive role in both Neeta’s wine pairings, home cooking, and cooking demonstrations. Garam masala (garam is Hindi for hot; masala refers to a spice mix), for example, is freshly made at the Mittal residence using a recipe handed down by Neeta’s mother. “Garam masala is the most umami blend in an Indian kitchen. It can bring out a lot of flavors in vegetables, meats, stews, and broths, without the use of creams or butter. But it is very important for the masala to be fresh (no more than a week old, if possible) otherwise it would have lost its flavor and probably become acrid,” Neeta explained. “Recipes made with small amounts of garam masala (think half the amount of salt used in the recipe) pair beautifully with young, fruit-forward Rhone wines. I like to use garam masala as a finishing seasoning to get the maximum flavor.”
Starting up a business and making it grow requires immense discipline. This is probably where Neeta’s academic background has come into play. She’s disciplined. Watch her try to pair cheese to Viognier, as I recently did with her at Vivant Fine Cheese. It’s a detailed, engineered and creative process breaking down the nuances of different cheeses when sampled with the varietal white wine.
Attention to detail is part of what has brought a growing success to the Mittals. USA Today named the winery as one of the top ten best wine tasting experiences in the United States. Then there are the 90-plus scores on the wines by Wine Advocate reviewer Jeb Dunnack. The wines have earned gold medals awarded by the 2016 Sunset International Wine Competition,
the 2016 San Francisco Wine Competition, the San Diego International Competition, and a 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Best of Class award. And about that LXV name. Acknowledging her roots, culture and life inspiration, Neeta picked 65 as an extension to the 64 arts of the Kama Sutra, an ancient Indian text of a sensual, virtuous and well-lived life. I’ve heard Neeta say that you and I are the 65th art, but in the context of her business, it is the 65th art of pairing wine to food.
Neeta continues to explore her creativity and marketing to grow her business. Using the words of viniculture, she’s deep into the blend and the bouquet of life and business. And if there is one big dream ahead, Neeta quickly answered, “My dream? I want to make champagne in Champagne, France.”
With luck, discipline and creativity, Neeta Mittal will likely fulfill her sparkling dream in the future.