A ‘majestic’ but ‘very tough’ Su Hua Newton
The Spring Mountain winery owner-winemaker is still an activist
September 6, 2005
“The wonderful old man at Pichon Lalande taught me to taste grapes,” she says, referring to the winemaker at the Pauillac chateau designated “Comtesse.” He told me, ‘Tout le monde,’ everybody knows how to taste grapes, but you taste like an imbecile.
“He taught me to shake the juice out on the ground, chew the grapes in the front of the mouth. That is the wine you are going to get. Then you know, ‘viola!’ It’s time to go (to pick). He also taught me the subtleties of what is in the skin. My dear man in Bordeaux broadened my horizons.”
Newton (her Chinese first name is pronounced Sue Wa) is anything but an imbecile, of course. The winemaker at Newton Vineyard on the western slope of Spring Mountain is a professor of education, has a PhD in clinical psychology, is now studying French, and was an activist in London where she grew up in the midst of the Vietnam War, raised by the then secretary-general of UNESCO.
These days, she insists, “I’m no longer the protest kid trying to change the world.” But as we head down the hill from her 194 acres, she explains that she’s going to try and get college kids to vote in this election.
The 64-year-old co-owner of Newton, whose middle name means ‘majestic’, which she says her parents “wish me to be,” while her first name translates to ‘serene’, which she is anything but.
When school opens, she’s planning on telling the students to “follow your heads and your heart. Our young must listen and learn and exercise their voice because we live in a democracy. Don’t let yourself become disenfranchised and erode that voice.”
Suddenly, as we descend from the vineyards, and as another measure of her activist bent, she spots fresh deer tracks in the dry, tan dust. Immediately she’s on the mobile to her vineyard manager who tells her he’s aware of the deer; and informs her over the speakerphone, that he’s attempted to shoot at it.
For that he says, a neighbor called the authorities who put him on “probation.”
She tells him, “that’s not fair kid,” after all, the deer got 5-to-10 percent of one block.
She calls all of the people who work for her “kid,” no matter what their age. But she catches herself and tells the writer, “There are no bad soldiers, just bad generals,” blaming herself for the vineyard manager getting in hot water.
Back at the winery that she owns with her husband Peter of 32 years, who is suffering with prostate cancer, she says she regrets never having had children of her own. But she says, “I’ve been blessed. I have all my students;” as well as all of her workers.
They seem to stick around for a while, even though she admits, “I’m very tough.”
She then relates an incident involving another of her employees that proves the point. The story is about her instructions of when to pick grapes, and her insistence that fruit never be harvested when it is not ready.
“If you pick grapes that are a little bit green, you’re going to catch hell. No ifs, and, or buts,” she acknowledges telling them.
One time a picker she describes as “not used to dealing with a female,” did just that -- picked grapes that were not to her satisfaction.
She insists, “He said, They’re better than Safeway.”
She made him eat the grapes and then told her foreman that the worker will most likely get ill that night.
“Give him Tagamint, but wait about 10 minutes. Teach him a lesson,” she told the supervisor. “… I never got cheek again.”
Newton insists she’s “tough, but guess what, I protect all my people like a tigress. I’m their mother. If you get sick, call me. If you have an accident, call me as the No. 1 person.”
“My people stay. It’s like love. It’s not like, give me, give me, give me. Love is give and take. To be a boss, you have to be fair, you have to look after your people and be able to say you’re sorry.”
Although she admits, “I’m a lousy boss. I did not explain things properly.”
But she says, “This is the good thing about being a professor -- being self-critical. If not, you don’t progress.”
Apparently, it’s also a good thing to be a winemaker. She explains that she learned to make wine from such people as Christian Moueix who “was extremely kind” and who taught her “what real Merlot is all about.” She also cites Michel Rolland who she says she “liked instantly.” As well as Paul Pontellier of Chateau Margaux, “who allowed me to taste wonderful wines.” Finally, there’s Vincent LaFlaive, whose Burgundy she was “blown away by.”
She said they all made her enthused and “when I’m excited, I’m like a kid asking, Why? Why? Why? -- totally naive. (But) they had infinity of patience for answering all of my stupid questions.”
Now at Newton she makes about 28,000 cases a year of her own wines that are mostly unfiltered. Soon, she hopes to release a cloudy Chardonnay.
“Filtering is cheating!,” she exclaims forcefully.
Sue Hua Newton doesn’t say anything any other way.