Napa Wine Trailblazer Peter Newton Dies

The founder of Sterling Vineyards was among the first in Napa to experiment with Old World techniques, and showed the region's promise with Merlot
Feb 8, 2008

Peter Newton, founder of Sterling Vineyards and Newton Vineyard in Napa Valley, and a pioneer of Bordeaux-inspired red wines in California, died Feb. 4 in St. Helena after a long illness. He was 81.

There were fewer than 25 bonded wineries in Napa in 1964 when Newton, an Englishman who worked as an executive for the Sterling International Paper Co., cofounded Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga with his business partners. In 1969, he hired 25-year-old U.C. Davis graduate Ric Forman as winemaker for their inaugural vintage, and the estate focused on the production of Bordeaux-style reds (Cabernet-based blends, then later varietal Merlot bottlings), Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

"He had grown up around wine in England and appreciated it all his life," said Forman, who worked with Newton until 1982. "He wanted to make wines in the fashion of Bordeaux and Burgundy because he had Cabernet and Chardonnay. One of the first things he did after hiring me was send me to Europe. He trusted me, which was amazing, as young as I was."

Newton was very open to innovation. At Sterling the winemaking team experimented with various techniques, such as aging Cabernet in small barrels and fermenting Chardonnay in barrel—well before they became common practice in California. Sterling also made one of the first varietal Merlot bottlings from Napa Valley. Newton also had a sense for marketing, installing a tram for the tourists visiting the distinctive Sterling winery, which was modeled after Aegean architecture.

"He was a genuine English gentleman. He loved his garden and a great glass of wine. He was a special fellow, with very innovative ideas. Bringing innovations like the tram were way ahead of their time," said Napa vintner Janet Trefethen, whose family started their winery in 1973. "The wine business wasn't a business then, and it was a huge commitment to invest that much money then."

The partners sold Sterling Vineyard in 1977 to the Coca Cola Bottling Co., which then sold the winery to Seagram in 1983. Sterling is now owned by drinks giant Diageo, which recently announced its purchase of Rosenblum.

In 1978, Newton and his then wife, Su Hua, started Newton Vineyards at the base of Spring Mountain, focusing on the production of Chardonnay and Merlot. French luxury goods company LVMH acquired a majority stake in Newton in 2001.

Newton is survived by his three children, Gail, Nigel and Carol, and six grandchildren.

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