A legend has it that Peter and Su Hua Newton were riding horses on Spring Mountain when Su Hua fell off her mount, and Peter decided that this would be the place for his new winery.
The 40th anniversary celebration of Newton Vineyard’s first vintage was an occasion not just to taste this 1979 Newton Cabernet Sauvignon, but also to hear this and other stories about the winery on Spring Mountain.
“We heard a different version from Peter,” said winemaker Jean Hoefliger, who would become one of the early winemakers at Newton Vineyards.
Visionary, if eclectic in his interests, Newton was also an astute businessman, Hoefliger said; and all these aspects of the British expatriate were at work as he explored the mountains above St. Helena for a prospective winery site.
Newton, born in London in 1926, studied law at Oxford. He became a journalist with The Financial Times, which brought him to San Francisco in 1950 as the newspaper’s West Coast correspondent. There, he started Sterling International, a paper trading and manufacturing business in 1951.
Newton’s first winery in Napa Valley was Sterling Vineyards, founded in 1964. Bucking a trend that would lead to Cabernet Sauvignon’s domination of Napa Valley vineyards, he planted Merlot and Chardonnay. He succeeded, and in 1969, sold Sterling to Coca Cola during their short-lived aspirations to make wine as profitable for them as a soft drink. (Sterling is owned by Treasury Wine Estates today.)
After creating a powerhouse in Sterling, Hoefliger said, Newton “wanted a smaller, luxury winery.” Newton was intrigued with the challenges of making wine with mountain grapes. Spring Mountain, with its forests and deep folds of land wrinkling down from 1,600 feet at the topmost ridge), beckoned.
From a potential winemaker’s perspective, Hoefliger said the mountain had enticing attributes, among them, “an amazing diversity of soils, its elevation (and) eastern-facing, it was protected from hot afternoon sun.”
Newton bought 489 acres, but of these he developed less than one-fifth of the land, only 75-100 acres, into a winery and vineyards. The rest of the land, he left as a native forest and habitat for wildlife, who evidently thrive on a diet that includes samplings of grapes. Forty-two years later, Newton Vineyard remains a reflection of its founder’s goal — to create a blend of “place and philosophy” of “nature by design.”
Newton built the winery, for the most part, underground, preserving as much of the natural landscape as possible. The above-ground office was an elegant pagoda in honor of Su Hua’s heritage. He turned the roof of his subterranean winery into a formal garden complete with topiaries. He had engineered and installed an extensive underground system of pipes to carry water throughout the property and down to a reservoir.
For all of Newton’s whimsy — after winding along the road up Spring Mountain, a bright red British phone booth lets visitors know they’ve arrived — his determination to produce fine wines was as strong as his love of nature. The winemakers who passed through what became known as “Newton University” include a list of local luminaries: John Kongsgaard, Andy Ericson, Aaron Potts, in addition to to the Swiss-born Hoefliger, who quipped that Newton was a United Nations for wine.
With a goal of capturing the most natural expression of the land in his wines, Newton adopted the Burgundian technique of making unfiltered wines that were barrel-aged and fermented with natural local yeasts. By the time the Newton unfiltered Chardonnay was first released in 1990, the wines were winning consistent praise for their subtlety, finesse and depth of flavor.
Newton died in 2008, seven years after the French luxury brand, LVMH became the major shareholder in the winery. The Newton family, however, retains a percentage of ownership, just as the winery retains the identity its founder strove to achieve, creating quality wines in harmony with the nature that produces them.
Newton in 2019
While there were more than a few gray hairs among the guests at the Newton celebration, these were a striking contrast to the youthful team that comprises today’s caretakers of the winery’s legacy.
Jean-Baptiste Rivail, general manager; Alberto Bianchi, head of winemaking; Mayacamas Olds, head of viticulture; Mario Dussurget, brand experience manager; Anne Dempsey, director of operations — none of them is as old as the 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon they poured.
One of the advantages of LVMH ownership is its willingness to invest in the property, said Jean-Baptiste Rivail, general manager of Newton since 2017. They are embarking on a $10 million renovation that includes energy system upgrades and even a replanting of Newton’s garden.
A native of southern France, whose family ran hotels and restaurants, Rivail said his family heritage “clearly played a role in my career choice and in my approach to life.”
Rivail’s background is in international law (Sciences Po, where he was a founding member of the local Wine Club) international affairs (Academy of Vienna) and economics (École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris).
Newton advocated sustainability decades before the word become part of everyday vocabulary, Rivail observed, but by this he meant a comprehensive notion that included sustaining his business as well as his environment.
“I’m drawn to Peter’s bigger-than-life personality and to what he accomplished here. I feel a connection with him,” he said. “The view doesn’t hurt either.”
“I am very close to (Newton’s) philosophy of respecting nature, and I feel that unfiltered wine is the pinnacle of winemaking in that respect.”
“What he brought was respect for nature, with sustainability at its core,” said Alberto Bianchi.
Bianchi, who was born in Milan, said, “I grew up with wine; like many Italians, my grandparents made their own wine. But in Milan there isn’t much viticulture. I became interested in vineyards and production in Cinque Terre, where family friends owned a small winery. Viticulture there is romantic but also heroic — the vineyards are very steep and directly facing the sea.” It prepared him for the challenges he would later find on Spring Mountain.
After earning a Bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology at the University of Milan, he went on to earn a double Masters degree from the University of Turin and the University of Lisbon in 2011.
He subsequently worked in Piedmont and Campania, with Frescobaldi in Southern Italy, and in the Languedoc, as well as Australia and New Zealand. In 2012, he was selected in 2012 for the Estates & Wines Early Career Winemakers program, which sends young winemakers to work for one year to each of three countries. His first year was at Terrazas de los Andes in Argentina, and next he arrived at Newton in 2015. For his third year of the program, he worked with winemaker Tim Heath at Cloudy Bay in New Zealand. “He taught me the importance of being respectful of the wine you have in front of you,” Bianci said. “You need to be humble towards the wine because you are dealing with something that comes from nature. You need to listen to it carefully because it is often not what you think it will be.”
Alberto returned to Newton in 2016 as head of winemaking, overseeing production of wines from grapes sourced from Spring Mountain estate, as well as Yountville, Mt. Veeder and Carneros.
“Spring Mountain’s diversity maybe be challenging, but it can offer more opportunity,” he said cheerfully. His goal he said is to move forward, while honoring the pioneering spirit of Peter Newton. “We are looking to what was done at the beginning. We are going for something fresher, brighter, without losing anything.”
“Everything is more complicated on a mountain,” said Mayacamas Olds. “I’ve worked all over the valley, and this place has more diversity than any other place.”
Olds is the Napa native, born at her family’s property on Mt. Veeder, near Mayacamas Vineyards where her father was winemaker and that provided her name. “I grew up in the wine world of the 1970s and around all those wonderful old Italians,” she said. “The core of my understanding of quality in winemaking is from my dad.”
She was nine months old for her first harvest. While the work went on around her, she occupied herself eating grapes, a practice she continues today. “I eat too many grapes,” she admits.
Olds earned a Bachelor of Science degree in fermentation science at UC Davis. She worked in Australia at Pernod Ricard and Penfolds and at Sherry house in Spain, and eventually returned to Napa Valley where she worked for Phil Couturri at Enterprise Vineyards as a business manager and winemaker.
“Phil really drove home for me the principles of organic farming and thinking outside the box,” she said.
Olds earned her MBA in sustainable solutions at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, and, having decided she prefers the outdoor work of viticulture, she joined the team at Newton in September 2017. She follows the practice of regenerative farming, focusing on the health of the soil, so that the vines can produce the best quality grapes without chemical interventions, a challenge compounded by the diversity at Newton. “We can’t treat any one block like another block,” she said. “It’s a small collection overall, but highly complex.”
Olds’ emphasis on the natural world extends beyond the soil and vines, however, to other enterprises at the winery, where they keep bees and let goats groom weeds. “I was raised in a family where sustainability was a fundamental value,” she said, adding that it’s a misconception that sustainable practices are more costly.
“Napa is my home that I grew up in, and I want to care for it,” she said. “I love working with Jean-Baptiste Rivail and the team. Together, we have a strong focus on protecting Napa’s heritage.”
Chef Christopher Kostow of Meadowood and Charter Oak was at Newton for the celebration to prepare the lunch that went with the wines. “We are excited to partner with JB and his team” he said. “There is a chemistry in terms of winemaking and cooking styles, of reverence for the place.”
The wines? With a 1999 unfiltered Cab, Kostow served a dish of spot prawns and eggplant. For the winery’s flagship Puzzle, so named because it’s created like from the patchwork of vineyard blocks, he brought out grilled buttermilk chicken with komachi rice.
The star, of course, was the 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon, served with a smoked short rib, roasted oyster mushrooms and salad. Forty years later, we agreed, it had acquired the wisdom of age, but retained a certain liveliness of youth.
“The first wines were the first exciting example of the potential of this property,” Bianchi said. “This 1979 has life to go. It shows we can find a way to express the land that last through time.”
As a final touch, they poured the 2016 Spring Mountain Cab, to taste side by side with its 1979 parent. The thread of consistency connecting them was distinct in its style and elegant finesse.
“At 40 years, you have had experiences, but also have a vision for your future. we look at what we’ve done, how we want to be better,” Rail said. “We want to preserve the heritage not just for the next 40 years, but 140 years.”