Blue doors at Per Se

Special wines come from unique places. When winemakers and vineyard professionals get together, they talk about soil, elevation, exposure, climate, temperature, and more — all summed up by the elusive term “terroir.”  The best terroir makes the most memorable wines.

It doesn’t matter so much for the wines you and I enjoy every day. But for special occasion bottles, the wines should offer more and express the character of their source with subtlety and sophistication.  Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, Sonoma, and Tuscany are all regions that can produce wines at this level. 

It was driven home to me at a recent fortieth anniversary celebration for Newton Vineyards, a pioneering Napa Valley winery.  Held behind the iconic blue doors of Thomas Keller’s world-renowned restaurant Per Se in New York, the dinner was a review of Newton’s glorious past and a look at the promising future as the winery steps up its game. 

Winemakers, consultants, managers, and the head of viticulture all spoke about the uniqueness and importance of Newton’s vineyard sites. Peter Newton founded the winery in 1979 with a steep one acre parcel on Spring Mountain above St Helena. Even then he understood the significance of mountain-grown grapes, particularly Cabernet, as the foundation for world-class wine. 

Introducing the wines

The point was driven home with a rare tasting of Newton 1979 Cabernet — wine from Peter Newton’s first vintage.  This remarkable wine was a message in a bottle from the past. It’s bright garnet color, elegant aroma, clean flavor, rich texture, and overall freshness belied its great age. It seemed at its peak, with a long way to go. I’ll bet it will still be great at Newton’s 50th.  

This Spring Mountain vineyard makes great, long-lived wines. No question.

Newton now has acreage on Mt. Veeder and on the slopes of Sonoma’s Knight’s Valley as well. Their vineyard elevations range from 500 to 1600 feet, all planted in Bordeaux varieties. They even found a slope in the otherwise flat Yountville AVA for some valley floor Cabernet.  Lower elevation vineyards in Carneros are the source for their prized unfiltered barrel-fermented chardonnay. 

“Freshness, density, precision. These are the hallmarks of our wines,” explained Jean-Baptiste Rivail, Newton’s general manager. 

The evening began with Thomas Keller’s incredibly stylish and flavorful canapés served with a rich 2017 Newton single vineyard Napa chardonnay from the Beckstoffer Carneros Lake Vineyard.  The pre-dinner gathering, set against the backdrop of the four-story atrium, blustery Columbus Circle, and traffic creeping along 59th Street outside the windows, was a perfect start. 

At dinner, four red wines marked significant chapters in Newton’s story.

Pouring the wines

Newton Napa Cabernet 1999 was remarkably fresh and bold for a twenty year old wine, so youthful that at first I thought it was only a decade since harvest. Herb-roasted monkfish with spinach, carrots, and beurre rouge got along just fine with the elegant red wine. 

“The Puzzle,” Newton’s Bordeaux-style blend, is reportedly the most popular choice at winery tastings.  Our example, from 2007, showed the sophistication and finesse of a well-made blend where the winemaker has tamed the brawny Cabernet and allowed the flavors time to marry in the cellar.  A rosey duck breast with farro, cabbage, and sauce “bigarade” was a good match. 

Lamb with honey squash purée.

Braised Elysian Fields Farm lamb with honey squash purée, glazed parsnips, and hazelnut jus was the setup for the Newton 1979 cab.  This forty-year-old rarity was the talk of the table. Everyone in the room wanted to know how to get some. Alas, there’s no more — at least not for us. 

The dinner ended with a pre-release tasting of the 2016 Spring Mountain District Cabernet, which will be available later in 2020. The dense, concentrated wine shows the characteristic fruit intensity of the Newton home vineyard site. Like the other wines of the evening, it will age and develop for years, if you can resist drinking it now. Each of the trio of accompanying cheeses highlighted a different flavor in the wine. 

Mayacamas Olds discussed her innovative vineyard management techniques

The Newton wines demonstrate the importance of vineyard location. The original Spring Mountain site alone has 71 vineyard blocks each with distinct soil types, sun exposures, and individual microclimates. On Spring Mountain they grow all five Bordeaux grape varieties, which are individually managed, harvested, and fermented. Over 400 acres are left as natural forest for indigenous wildlife habitat.  

A mixed team of French, Italian, and American professionals are overseeing the present and future of Newton. Vineyards are now earning organic certification, a multi-year process. Under Head of Viticulture and Napa native, Mayacamas Olds, restorative agriculture practices are keeping the land as natural as possible with low impact farming techniques. In a 21st century approach, she is managing the “crazy diversity” of the vineyards and natural habitat with high-tech solutions like drones and “smart” vineyard equipment. 

Pleased winemaker

Working with the highest quality fruit possible makes the job easier for winemaker, Italian Alberto Bianchi. On the job now for a few years, he’s beginning to grasp the nuance of each vineyard location and block. The future of Newton, he shared, is to bring out the freshness and aromatics of each parcel in complex and elegant wine. 

Newton wines are available in Connecticut, although in limited supply. Their entry level unfiltered Chardonnay and Cabernet ($55) can be seen at Harry’s Wines in Fairfield, Stew Leonard’s Wines in Norwalk, and New Canaan Wine Merchants.  Single vineyard wines ($100 to $200) come to our state in dribs and drabs. Ask your wine store to let you know when they’re available. A bottle of Newton would be a welcome gift for any wine lover on your holiday shopping list. (Hint, hint.)

Frank Whitman can be reached at

Chardonnay to start