2002 Newton Vineyard “Unfiltered” Chardonnay, Napa (Carneros)

Once you’re in the wine business, it’s hard to leave. So many people become winery owners or winemakers because they are following their personal passions and dreams that few of them, once successful, ever leave the business. Even those who are wildly successful never seem to just cash out and spend the rest of their lives on a sailboat. There’s something about wine that keeps tugging at you, I think, keeping you involved.

Of course, this is conjecture on my part, based on observations of folks like Peter Newton and his wife Su Hua Newton. Peter founded Sterling Vineyards in 1964. With his wife, who he met in 1972, they built it into a globally recognized brand and one of Napa’s most famous wineries. In 1977 they sold Sterling Vineyards and nearly simultaneously purchased 560 acres of land on Spring Mountain in Napa. They immediately planted 120 of its steepest acreage with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and were on to their next adventure in winemaking.

While Sterling Vineyards was Peter’s project, the Spring Mountain estate, which they named Newton Vineyard, was primarily Su’s endeavor from the start. She designed the majority of the estate, which seems to be an equal blending of her Chinese and Peter’s English heritage and aesthetic. From the cedar pagoda, to the rooftop Victorian garden over the tasting room, to the Chinese front gates, the estate bears the mark of a deliberate blending of personalities.

For the first 13 years or so, Newton’s wines were made by John Kongsgaard, who made a name for himself and for the estate’s Merlot in the process. For some time, however, Su Hua Newton has been the estate’s winemaker. Newton has multiple degrees, but none of them are in winemaking. Even before she took over winemaking, Newton was heavily involved in the operation, and no doubt found a good teacher in Kongsgaard. Matching what she learned from the early years of the estate and her own personal philosophy of minimal intervention in the winemaking process, she has become an accomplished and much lauded winemaker in her own right.

Newton’s philosophy emphasizes the use of wild yeasts in the fermentation process, the avoidance of sulfur use wherever possible, and meticulous hand picking and sorting of the grapes. Directly supervising the workers during harvest, Newton picks only ripe fruit in what sometimes are up to four or five passes through the vineyards. The winemaking is done the slow, old-fashioned way, and the majority of the wines are bottled unfiltered and unfined. Newton’s insistence on the lack of filtering is based on the belief that filtering often strips a wine of some or all of its aromatic character.

In 1990 the winery released the first vintage of this wine, it’s Unfiltered Chardonnay, which it claims was the first commercially available unfiltered wine in California. The winery now produces several unfiltered wines both red and white. The Chardonnays come from a set of vineyards which the Newtons also own in the Carneros appellation.

Around about the same time as the first release of this Chardonnay, the Newtons sold a majority of the estate to LVMH, the French holding company which owns or has investments in some of the most famous wine estates in the world including Château d’Yquem, Cloudy Bay, Krug, Dom Pérignon, and Veuve Clicquot.

Despite being corporate owned, the winery continues to operate as an estate vineyard, with Su Hua Newton at its helm. Under her guidance and with her in charge of winemaking, their wines continue to garner high scores from many critics. This wine in particular was one of, or the highest scoring Chardonnay of the vintage depending on which magazine you looked at. I mention this (a fact that never usually matters to me or surfaces in my reviews) because of an odd quality to the reviews themselves. Many of them compared this wine’s character to the great Grand Crus of Burgundy, like Montrachet. I haven’t drunk Chardonnays from all the Grand Crus of Burgundy, but I have to disagree entirely. Except for a small hint of cold cream, which is a flavor and aroma I find in some of the best white Burgundies (not enough to warrant the reference in my book), this wine has a character that is very California to my palate, and while excellent, can’t really be compared to the style of Burgundy.

I don’t have a full datasheet on this wine, but presumably it was hand sorted, destemmed, and fermented in 100% new French Oak, with some lees contact before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. I am not sure how many cases are produced but I expect quite a few.

Tasting Notes:
This wine glows a bright yellow gold in the glass with barely any cloudiness that can sometimes come with an unfiltered wine. The nose, which changes and morphs as the wine remains open, possesses a wide range of expressive aromas, from pineapple to candied lemon peel, to cold cream to papaya, white peaches and other tropical fruits. In the mouth it is thick with glycerin on the palate and slightly oily with lush fruit flavors of dried pineapple, dried mango, sweet butter cream and a touch of white peaches again as it tapers into a very long finish. Frankly, this wine is very un-chardonnay like in its character, both in its slightly lower acidity, and the power of its fruit. In a blind tasting I would have sworn up and down that it was a California Viognier (and a damn good one at that). The oak on this wine is surprisingly restrained, and comes across most in light sweet vanilla aspects if at all. This is definitely a wine with its own vision and character, one which I believe some will like, and others will not.

Food Pairing:
I picked this wine to accompany a butternut squash soup with stewed apples and cardamom and it was a lovely match. Pair it with something that has a little starch to it and a slight sweetness and you can’t go wrong. This is not a fish wine, but it might be an interesting cheese wine, with some experimentation.

Overall Score: 9.5

How Much?: $40

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.