Six thousand charred dead trees. Two years.
That’s what needs to be cleared and removed at Napa’s Newton Vineyard, and how long it’s likely to take. And then there's the winery to rebuild.
“We need to take [the dead trees] out for risk of falling and causing further damage, while balancing that removal against erosion control. The cost to do just that is several million dollars,” says estate director Jean-Baptiste Rivail.
The Newton property was heavily damaged in the 2020 wine-country wildfires. Its location on Spring Mountain—a curving, winding, altitude-changing mix of exposures and slopes—makes it among the most difficult to farm in Napa Valley. Add drought on top of all that and just getting a new vineyard established would be difficult here, let alone having to clear the burned material out before replanting.
The 500-acre property had 68 acres under vine and was still celebrating its 40th anniversary when the Glass fire ignited in September 2020. Just 5 acres survived, says Rivail, who joined LVMH, Newton’s owner, in 2012, and came on board at Newton in 2017.
“I arrived to start at Newton the day [the 2017 wine-country] fires started,” he says with a gentle ruefulness. “And then in 2020 the fire started the day after we had everything picked and in the winery.”
But from every difficult situation comes hope and the chance to improve. Rivail granted Wine Spectator exclusive access to tour the damaged property and see firsthand the rebuild effort already underway. A polished professional with a gentle demeanor, Rivail has some wind at his back for the Herculean task ahead, along with viticulturist Laura Deyermond and winemaker Alberto Bianchi, both just 34.
“They’ve both been here for a few years, so they know the property. It’s hard, of course, to see your work ruined. But they are also excited and energized to rebuild,” Rivail says. “It’s good to have a young team that is really ready to go.”
Newton was producing around 20,000 cases annually, supported by its popular Unfiltered Chardonnay bottling and a red blend called Puzzle. The portfolio is topped by a small set of single-vineyard Cabernets that have been earning outstanding marks of 90 points or more on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. The Chardonnay production will continue unabated during the rebuild, as that fruit comes primarily from Newton’s Carneros vines. There are sources in Yountville and Mount Veeder that survived the fires as well. It’s the Spring Mountain property, the basis for those single-vineyard wines, that is now the heavy lift.
Located behind David Abreu’s famed Madrona Ranch property, Newton Vineyard covers 1 square mile, but with its terrain there are only about 70 acres of plantable land. The rest is thickly forested, and much of that now needs to be cleared—those 6,000 trees.
In addition to the vineyards, the winery and hospitality areas that had been upgraded just weeks before the fires were demolished by the blaze. Everything, from irrigation and electricity to structures and the underground caves, needs to be redone. The entire 2020 harvest was lost, as were two-thirds of the 2019 vintage that was resting in barrel in the caves. The rebuild plan could take eight to 10 years in total. Wine is always a long game, but that could feel like an eon for a winery to be off the market.
“We want to come back in a way that continues what Newton stands for, so we will not rush,” says Rivail with a patient air.
Luckily there was already a replanting program planned for part of the vineyards, so the team isn’t caught flat-footed looking for vine material or other logistics to get going. This year 10 acres will be replanted, with an additional 10 acres per year until they are back to full capacity. With rainfall this past winter one-fourth normal, a measured approach is required, as water is essential to establishing a new vineyard, especially on such rugged terrain.
“But this also gives us a chance to put in new farming practices, regenerative farming, that will make us as sustainable as possible,” says Rivail. “And keeping a measured approach, we’ll get back to 20,000 cases, but do so in a way that allows us to stay as focused as possible on what we produce every step of the way.”
“We know what was working well from before in terms of clones and rootstocks. And from those successes, as well as some failures, we know exactly what we want and need to do for the replant,” says Deyermond, who joined the team in 2018. “With 20 different soil types on property, plus aspects and elevations, that’s a lot of rugged precision farming.”
As for vinifying, Rivail has just secured a new facility at Brasswood, up valley in Calistoga. As the first tenant, they’ll be the exclusive renter for a few years until their own winery is rebuilt.
“And since it is brand-new, we can have it set to our specs. Plus we get to keep the same entire team we had in the winery before,” says Bianchi, who has been making the wines at Newton since 2014.
Rivail’s to-do list is long. From removing trees and replanting vineyards to managing erosion control and irrigation, plus rebuilding the winery and hospitality facilities. And all that on top of keeping a presence in the marketplace while scaling production back up and maintaining quality.
“Yes, that’s a lot of stuff to figure out. And the shareholders hate when I say ‘stuff,’ because it’s expensive stuff,” says Rivail. “But what I know is we still have the land. We still have the same team. And with those two things, we will be OK.”
Follow James Molesworth on Instagram at @jmolesworth1, and on Twitter at @jmolesworth1.