- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003


Newton Vineyard is something of an enigma in the Napa Valley. Although its wines consistently receive top scores from the critics, many consumers don’t know them, and even connoisseurs get confused by them. In part, that’s because an unusually large percentage of Newton’s production is sold abroad, but it’s also because an air of secrecy has long pervaded the estate and, too often, affected people’s perceptions of the wines.

Chinese gates and a red British telephone booth guard Newton’s entrance. They reflect the birthplaces of the winery’s two founders — Peter Newton, a wealthy English businessman, and his wife, Su Hua, an emigre from Manchuria and Hong Kong. The property sits high on Spring Mountain, and those gates are not often open to tourists. As a result, Newton is removed from the glitz and glamour, but not the gossip, on the valley floor.

That gossip often concerns who does what at Newton. During the 25 years since the estate’s founding, some of California’s most renowned vintners, including Rick Forman and John Kongsgaard, have worked there. Yet, during the same period, Su Hua Newton herself has become ever more involved with the winemaking, so much so that she today directs the operation.

Few women run Napa wineries, and fewer still have anything like Mrs. Newton’s background. She has lived in China, New Zealand, France and England and worked variously as a model, scientist, journalist and teacher. She possesses a medical doctorate, but no degree in oenology or viticulture, and is an unabashed Francophile in her assessment of wine and wine styles. Perhaps not surprisingly, tongues wag about her. And because no one outside the gates knows exactly what goes on within, Newton seems almost out of place in sunny, open California.

The wines, too, seem different. At a time when many Napa vintners craft wines marked primarily by power and weight, the best Newton offerings stand out because of their grace and subtlety. They are in no sense fragile, but rather evidence the sort of finesse associated more traditionally with the finest European wines. Although they reflect their California origin in their richness and depth, they exhibit a nuanced complexity rare in wines from the state.

Is Mrs. Newton responsible for this style, one that emphasizes elegance over muscle? Or does it come from the many talented winemakers who have worked in the Newton cellars over the years? How influential is famed Bordeaux vintner Michel Rolland in his role as a consulting oenologist? In the final analysis, the answer does not much matter. Winemaking at a winery of any size (Newton produces about 30,000 cases per year.) is invariably a collaborative effort, with many people playing many parts. What is most notable about Newton is not that this or that person is responsible for this or that decision, but that the wines evidence a distinct style and are of extremely high quality.

A number of grape-growing and winemaking decisions contribute to both the style and the quality. The estate vineyards on Spring Mountain, planted primarily to red Bordeaux varietals, are steep and rocky, so almost all the farming has to done by hand. Yields there are kept very low, producing grapes and then wines with concentration and depth, and the farming is predominantly organic.

In the winery, all the wines are fermented with natural yeasts, the goal being complex and integrated aromas. They are also bottled without filtration, so as not to strip away any of the subtleties acquired during barrel aging.

The Newton style has evolved through the years, becoming ever more French-inspired. One expects that trend to continue; the French luxury goods firm LVMH Group (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), acquired a majority stake in the winery two years ago. This arrangement has allowed Peter Newton to ease into retirement and Su Hua Newton to concentrate on production rather than marketing and distribution. For consumers, it has the advantage of making the wines more readily available.

I recently sat down and tasted through the full range of Newton Vineyard wines now offered in the Washington market. I knew I would be impressed, but the experience exceeded my expectations (and led to this column). The wines are listed below, in a rough order of preference. With the holidays on the horizon, keep them in mind for any wine aficionados on your list.

Cabernet Sauvignon Unfiltered, Napa Valley, 2000 ($52). The cabernet was far and away the most impressive single wine in the series of strong wines I tasted. Deliciously deep, at the same time it is gracious and graceful, with nary a hint of heat or unwanted astringency. A classic expression of arguably the world’s most classic red varietal, it promises to evolve and improve as it becomes more nuanced with age. Still, pulling the cork now is mighty tempting.

Merlot Epic, 2000 ($57). A stunning merlot with forceful flavors but a soft, succulent texture and a seamless, very long finish. Newton’s merlots often stand out in what can be a pretty sorry California crowd. No matter the competition, though, this one is exceptional.

Le Grand Vin, Napa Valley, 1999 ($62). The name is apt. This is a big wine, in terms of both power and quality. A Bordeaux-styled red blend, it knocks the proverbial pants off a legion of overly oaked, excessively sweet American “meritage” wines. Its firm structure suggests, though, that it will benefit from five to 10 years of aging. Given its steep price tag, buy it only if you have patience and a temperature-controlled cellar.

Chardonnay Unfiltered, Napa Valley, 2000 ($52). Marked by citrus and autumn fruit flavors rather than the more typical California tropical ones, this rich but refined chardonnay impresses most because of its balance. Neither heady nor hot, it feels sumptuous on the palate but has plenty of crisp, refreshing acidity, which lingers all through an extensive, ever-evolving finish.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Le Puzzle, 2000 ($55). Styled similarly to the unfiltered cabernet, this wine shows a touch more sweet oak flavor and so a hair less elegance. Multilayered and quite rich, it seems opulent rather than graceful. If forward wines are your preference, you will love it.

Merlot Unfiltered, Napa Valley, 2000 ($52). Richer and riper than most Newton wines, this Merlot also tastes more overtly Californian, meaning fruit-forward and sunny, without all that much subtlety or nuance. It’s undoubtedly tasty, but not as exciting as some of the other reds.

Chardonnay Naturally Fermented, Napa/Sonoma, 2000 ($22). More obviously Californian than its more expensive “unfiltered” sibling, this is still a delicious and well-balanced wine that more than holds its own in its price range. Plenty of sweet vanilla from oak aging adds intrigue when married to bright, ripe tropical fruit flavors.

Pinot Noir Special Cuvee, Sonoma 90 percent, Napa 10 percent, 2000 ($27). A pretty, somewhat sweet, cola-scented and cherry-flavored California pinot, this wine is tasty but not distinguished in the way the best Newton wines are.

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