Devising a secretive method of tasting wine in his father’s cellar at age 9 was something of a giveaway about Peter Newton’s future passion for viniculture. The fact that this early childhood subterfuge took place in his home in London, England, would explain his proclivity for gardening. Combine these traits with a marriage to Su Hua—a woman of sophistication, imagination, and mad marketing skills, who honed her sartorial style on the catwalk for Coco Chanel and meanwhile procured an M.D. after her name—and you have the essence of the personality of the gardens at Newton Vineyard in St. Helena, California. Molly Chappellet’s pronouncement in Gardens of the Wine Country (Chronicle Books, 1998), “Show me a garden and I’ll show you the person,” could be referencing this garden and its originators specifically.
The first Napa Valley vineyards and gardens date back to the 1860s when settlers from France, Italy, and Germany staked their claims and plowed the ground by hand and horse. They also, in the process, layered the land with their cultural DNA, thereby adding an immediate Old World dimension to the frontier. Building on this foundation, Newton—the Oxford-educated former newspaper writer, paper manufacturer, and lifelong amateur garden designer—purchased 560 mountaintop acres in the Mayacamas Mountains, and carved out vineyards and gardens. Newton, with his love of natural beauty and things English and continental, and wanting to add Chinese notes to the symphony, drew a landscape incorporating all of the above. His daughter, Gail Showley, once told the San Francisco Chronicle, “He loved wine and he loved gardens. I remember lying in the dirt with him, with a string, trying to figure out where to plant something or put the box hedges.”
Drive into Newton Vineyard and you’re met by a jaunty red British phone booth accompanied by a sleek, rusty-red Asian-style lamp, the first of many that pepper the property. Ascending the hillside to the winery and gardens, there’s a scenic overlook outlined in oh-so-British ancient staddle stones that look like playful mushrooms. Next, a hillside of English garden roses leads up to French parterres and exuberant English borders, surrounded by corkscrew juniper topiary trees to rival Versailles, and a phalanx of Italian cypresses. At the top of the gardens stands a shiny Chinese-red torii gate, signaling the private family residence further up the mountain. And for luncheon parties, tastings, or special events, there’s a terrace dotted with bright-red tables, chairs, and umbrellas. From there, guests enjoy a breathtaking view of the vineyards including a distant, lone pine tree poignantly perched at the highest point on the property. This tree, affectionately known by all in the area as “Pino Solo,” is the emblem on Newton Vineyard wine labels. The silhouette of this stand-alone tree articulates the mantra of the vineyard, “singular wines created from a singular passion.”
Though inviting to many plant varieties due to its change of seasons and mild winters, the Napa Valley has proven to be a somewhat unwelcoming summer residence for blooming things. The same sunny heat and light that grapes need in their growth process can prove punishing and has necessitated innovative measures on the part of vintners and gardeners throughout the valley. Coastal fog that rolls in from the west does offer intermittent reprieve, drizzling moisture onto the vineyards and gardens in the area. But irrigation and environmentally thoughtful practices are de rigueur, and have garnered Newton Vineyard and others the area’s sustainable version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, the “Napa Green” designation.
One of Peter Newton’s most ingenuous sustainable strategies was to plant the parterre garden on top of the chardonnay wine cellar, thereby keeping things naturally insulated and cool. Other eco-friendly tactics include the use of ponds on the property for irrigation, cover crops such as rye, oats, strawberry clover, and purple vetch planted in the vineyards to discourage soil erosion and improve its fertility, and, of course, recycling and composting—staples of all green gardens. The grapes are picked by hand, and the wines are bottled without filtration, encouraging the true natural flavor of the indigenous grapes.
Peter Newton died in 2008, but the vineyard and gardens continue to thrive under the care of the owner, luxury brand LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Moët Hennessy Director of Communications Korinne Munson explains, “The gardens are such an integral part of Newton’s history and what make it unique. They express a unique, luxurious sense of place that is uniquely Newton, and add another layer of sensory experience to the enjoyment of our wines.”
Naturally, spring, with the abundance of flowers in bloom, summer, with leafy green vineyards, and fall, with its coppery-colored vines and golden oaks and maple trees surrounding the area, are the most obvious seasons to visit, but winter provides a quieter, more sculptural landscape, and a more dramatic vista of Pino Solo that makes it worth a special trip.