Wine Consultant Jeff Newton Talks Shop
by Sao Anash
Ask any winemaker in Santa Barbara County to name the most respected vineyard consultant they know, and most will answer Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care. For years, Newton has consulted for multiple esteemed vineyards. He is known for being a perfectionist, level-headed, and a master at understanding the nuances of the grapevine. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to hike through the Gaia vineyard, in Santa Rita Hills, with Newton. He was relaxed in the vineyard, yet knowledgeable, alert, and insightful.
What’s a typical day like for you, when you’re visiting a client’s property? A typical day would start with a 5 a.m. wake-up. By 6 a.m. I would be on the phone with my partner and vineyard supervisors discussing the day’s projects and any problems we might be having. By 7 a.m. and for the entire morning, I’m in the field checking vineyards on an ATV or working with my crews and their crew foreman on whatever hand projects might be going on. Afternoons are spent strategizing with my staff, meeting with clients, or working with winemakers about irrigation issues, crop-size targets, grape purchases, and planning new vineyard blocks.
When I started in the wine business, about 20 years ago, you didn’t hear a lot about vineyard consultants. Is this a more recent phenomenon, and, if so, why do you think that is? While 20 years ago there were not the number of consultants you encounter today, there was the famous André Tchelistcheff. Tchelistcheff was born in Russia, learned winemaking in France, and later made wine in the Napa Valley at Beaulieu Vineyard. During the ’70s and ’80s he worked as a consultant to many California wineries. Today, you will find many consultants in the wine industry. Some specialize in winemaking and others in grape growing. For grape growers, there is further specialization. Some consultants focus on soil evaluations, others on specific grape growing or viticultural techniques, still others on organic or biodynamic farming.
Though you work with other varietals, what is it like working with pinot noir, chardonnay, and syrah? It’s pure pleasure working with these three varietals because in S.B. County these varietals can produce such thrilling wines. Each variety has its own challenge. The temperamental pinot noir needs very cool growing conditions and particular soils. Chardonnay is very susceptible to the fungal disease powdery mildew. Syrah is difficult because of the baffling “syrah disorder” that no one quite understands but can turn leaves red and can reduce wine quality.
In laymen’s terms, can you talk about why the introduction of new and/or different clones has been important to the production of better wines? Grapevines are all propagated from cuttings, not from seeds. You’d think that vines propagated from cuttings of the same vine would all be the same, and they are for a while. However, throughout time genetic mutations can take place that will change the vine characteristic slightly. The leaf shape or the cluster size may be slightly different. Most importantly the flavor can be slightly different. If you have different clones of pinot noir, the vines are still identifiably pinot noir, but the flavors or color or tannins may differ a little bit. This is good for winemakers because they will have more flavors to choose from when blending the wine and the result mostly likely will be more complex and interesting wine.
How do you feel about biodynamic farming and organic farming practices? Do they lead to better wines, or is that even the goal? Is stewardship the goal? Ever since my first farming experience in 1980, I have been interested in alternative farming practices; practices that would reduce pesticide use and the hazard to our farmworkers, our neighbors, and the environment. It’s been slow in coming but most of our vineyards are now sustainably farmed. Others are organically or biodynamically farmed. Ultimately the real reason we farm in a sustainable, organic, or biodynamic fashion is to make the farm, and the wine from the farm, safer.
What are the most challenging times of year in the vineyard? Every time of year presents its own challenges. What’s great about agriculture is that as the seasons change, so does the work. Every year is a little different. More rain one year, less sun the next. It all impacts the work schedule and the type of work we do. Probably the most demanding time is harvest. We sell to around 80 different wineries and harvest thousands of tons of fruit. The logistics are unbelievable. Moving large numbers of people and machinery into position with 24 hours notice makes for one giant adrenaline rush.