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The View from Pino Solo

The view is worth the climb. 


For several minutes we have been winding up narrow, unpaved mountain roads in our sparkling white Pinzgauer troop carrier through dense forests and spring-freshened vineyards to the top of one of Spring Mountain’s tall ridges.  Now, standing beside Pino Solo – the lone pine – we can see the Newton Vineyard wine estate unfolding across the tucks and folds of the mountainsides below.  Beyond is the floor of Napa Valley and the east mountains.


Newton winemaker Chris Millard and director of winegrowing Raymond Reyes are serving as my guides, explaining changes that are being made at the 560-acre spread, only about 20 percent of which is planted in vines.  Altogether, there are 112 distinct vineyard blocks ranging in altitude from 500 to 1,600 feet.  “We are a winery that is really growing grapes in a forest,” Reyes says.
The estate was founded in 1977 by Peter and Su Hua Newton, who had earlier founded Sterling Vineyards, and sold after the turn of the century to Moët Hennessy, joining Domaine Chandon as the group’s two American wineries.  Newton’s iconic wine is “The Puzzle,” made from estate grapes, as is its “unfiltered” line.  Newton’s red-label wines are from purchased grapes.  Newton has been constantly refreshing its vineyards by replanting or budding over at a rate of five-to-eight acres yearly.  “We have been known as a Merlot estate,” Millard says, “but we are currently converting some Merlot plots to Cabernet.”  By 2022, the total property will have been replanted.


Reyes is also in charge of Newton’s “green” programs, the most intricate of which is a network, mostly underground, of culverts and pipes that guide runoff water to a series of small ponds, both to prevent erosion and conserve water.  “Sometimes we have to pump some back to the top for young vineyards,” he laughs.


Back at the winery, which is surrounded by multi-level gardens, Millard takes me on a cellar tour.  One of the fascinating things about Millard is his use of modern techniques to take some of the risks out of traditional winemaking, which he likes for complexity and flavors.  One example is Newton’s nine separate fermentation cellars, each with its own temperature controls.  Another is Millard’s work with yeasts and other biologics.  Earlier, he had jokingly told me that he knew “where every bug is in my wines,” allowing him to take fermentation risks, do little or no filtering and fining and maintain a minimum use of sulfur.


As we taste the 2011 Newton unfiltered Chardonnay, Millard explains its making.  “On paper, the numbers makes it look like a red wine,” he says.  He starts with natural fermentation, which includes what he calls “bad yeasts” which give the wine characteristics he likes.  “People have warned me against them,” Millard says, “but these bad yeasts will die out when the fermentation reaches four to five percent alcohol, then we will add nutrients” to increase activity with the remaining “good yeasts.”  He concedes, “We are flirting with spoilage.”


The tasting continues through other unfiltered wines – the 2011 Merlot and the 2011 Cab as well as a complex, golden, delicious 2001 unfiltered Chard, which shows how well Millard’s whites age.  Finally, we taste the 2010 The Puzzle, this vintage a Cab-dominated blend that is almost sweet in it its fruit, big and rich with creamy chocolate in the finish.


The 112 mountainside plots of vines may give him superior fruit, but the style of Newton’s estate wines definitely comes from Millard’s cellar.

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