Napa Valley wine industry pioneer founded 2 vineyards

Times Staff Writer

Peter Newton, a pioneer in the California wine industry who founded Sterling Vineyards and Newton Vineyard in Napa Valley, has died. He was 81.

He had been in failing health and died Feb. 4 at his home in St. Helena, said his daughter Carol Boone of San Francisco. The cause was complications from a heart condition.

Newton became interested in the wine business after buying a weekend home in Napa in the 1960s. He and a partner established Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga and released the first vintage in 1969. At the time, there were about 25 wineries in the area. There now are about 325, according to the Napa Valley Vintners Assn.

"Peter Newton was at the forefront of the California wine industry," wine merchant Paul Smith of Woodland Hills Wine Co. said this week. "He was very intelligent, he knew what he wanted and had a great vision."

At Sterling, Newton created a unique setting with an aerial tram, bell tower and architecture inspired by an Aegean monastery.

"It was one of the most unusual concepts for a winery," Steve Wallace of Wally's Wine and Spirits in Westwood said this week.

Newton hired winemaker Ric Forman, then 25, and sent him to France to study French winemaking techniques. "Peter trusted me," said Forman, who now owns Forman Vineyard in St. Helena. "He was one of the most powerful mentors I've ever had."

Sterling soon had a reputation for top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with Cabernet aged in small wooden barrels and Chardonnay fermented in the barrel.

"It wasn't what people here were doing at the time," Forman said. "Sterling became known for an innovative, almost flamboyant style."

Sterling also produced one of the first Merlots from the Napa Valley.

Newton sold Sterling to Coca-Cola Co. in 1977. The large property included 425 acres of vineyards. (It is now owned by Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines.)

He then established Newton Vineyard, a much smaller estate in St. Helena. It now has 120 acres of planted vineyards.

"Sterling was beginning to grow in the late '70s, and I think Newton wanted to downsize and maintain the handcrafted reputation," Smith said. "A smaller winery is easier to handle."

The result was "a more polished wine," Smith said.

The Newton label became known for quality Chardonnay and Merlot. "The unfiltered Chardonnay is world-class," Wallace said.

The grounds of the winery were distinct. Newton designed extensive gardens, including one in the Japanese manner, that attracted horticulturists from Europe and the U.S.

French luxury goods company Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy acquired a majority stake in Newton Vineyard in 2001.

Newton had enjoyed high-quality wines long before he ventured into winemaking.

Born in London on Aug. 27, 1926, he graduated from Oxford University with a law degree. By his senior year, he had developed a taste for Bordeaux wines and helped select the wine for the university's cellar.

Newton served in the British Army Rifle Corps during World War II, and later came to California as a West Coast correspondent for the London Financial Times.

The first business he founded was Sterling International, a paper manufacturing company based in San Francisco. He opened it in 1951 and later sold it.

He married his first wife, Anne, in 1951. She died in 1970. Newton and his second wife, Sua Hua, were married several years later. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Newton was a major supporter of his church, Grace Episcopal Church in St. Helena, where he helped design an addition to the structure last year.

In addition to his daughter Carol, Newton is survived by another daughter, Gail Showley of St. Helena; a son, Nigel Newton of London; a brother, Dr. Kenneth Newton of South Fawley, England; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Grace Episcopal Church.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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