January 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

Grower Interview Jeff Newton

Fulfilling clients' visions in Santa Barbara

by Laurie Daniel
Jeff Newton
Jeff Newton
With his partners in Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, Jeff Newton is responsible for farming 35 properties encompassing about 2,000 acres in Santa Barbara County, mostly in the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills. His clients include such well-known properties as Jonata, Stolpman, Fiddlestix and Vogelzang. Newton founded Coastal Vineyard Care in 1984 after working first as an agricultural economist in Sacramento and then for a large grower in the Santa Maria Valley.

The company farms at several viticultural levels, with each level matching a price-point for the eventual wine. Not surprisingly, grapes destined for more expensive wines receive more labor-intensive attention.

Although Newton studied viticulture at the University of California, Davis, his degrees--a bachelor's and a master's--are in economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

W&V: You've been moving toward higher-density planting in the vineyards you farm. What sort of spacing are you using, and why do you like the higher density?

Jeff Newton: As I entered the Santa Barbara County wine industry in 1982, I encountered almost exclusively 12-foot-wide rows, the norm for plantings in the 1970s. Since that time, the trend has clearly been toward tighter spacing. By the mid-1980s, planting to 10-foot-wide row spacing became common. Later, in the mid-1990s, we moved on to 8-foot-wide row spacing.

Since 2000, Coastal Vineyard Care Associates has planted almost all new vineyards to 6-foot-wide row spacing. Spacing between vines in the row has been 2 to 4 feet, depending on location. Our experience is that coupling higher-density plantings with yields in the 2-4 pounds per vine range results in higher-quality wines. This combination allows fruit to fully mature in terms of skin and seed tannins. While some wine regions have suffered from too much vigor with closer-spaced vines, this has not been a problem at our sites in Santa Barbara County.

W&V: What procedures are you following for leaf removal and shoot positioning?

Newton: Beginning in the mid-1980s, California viticulture, including Santa Barbara County, began to abandon the California sprawl and take up the vertical shoot position trellis with pairs of shoot-position wires. In the early days, shoots were either tucked between the wires or the wires were raked out, down and back in to capture the shoots.

In the late 1990s, for a few of our top-end wine projects, we began to work with a higher degree of organization with our VSP trellis by attempting to position the shoots in as parallel a fashion as possible--that is, with all shoots vertical and no crossing of shoots. This was accomplished with an extra shoot-position pass and special clips to trap the shoots. We believe that this has--at least with some varieties, including Pinot Noir--improved wine quality. Of course, this is an expensive process and is viable only for wines fetching fairly high prices.

We began our first experiments with leafing to expose fruit in 1985. Since then, we have diversified our basic technique to include many variations. Leafing and/or lateral removal have been shown to improve wine color and flavors. We work with some winemakers who believe a high degree of sunlight to clusters enhances the style of wine they strive to make, so leaf stripping is complete on both sides of the vine from the fruit wire to slightly above the clusters. This method is mostly used in very cool Pinot Noir and Chardonnay regions, where there is less chance of sunburn.

Coastal Vineyard Care Associates
Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates works with vineyard clients primarily in the Santa Ynez Valley (above) and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, Calif.
Most of the winemakers we work with prefer a less extreme approach that exposes the clusters to only dappled, indirect light. This is more useful in warmer areas where sunburn is a concern, or with varieties that are sun sensitive, like Sangiovese and Grenache. For example, we might remove laterals only. Or, we might remove both laterals and some basal leaves. Sometimes we trim the laterals, leaving a couple of leaves to provide a bit of longer-term shade. Another variation is "tunneling," where we remove interior leaves along the wire in the fruit zone. All of these variations are used based on the wine style preferences of the winemakers and the "look" they desire. Some variations work better for certain varieties or at a particular site. One thing is sure--there are many ways to accomplish fruit exposure.

W&V: How about cluster thinning?

Newton: Fruit thinning happens in waves for us and occurs over the entire season. We start after set, when the shoots are generally around 18 inches in length. At this stage, we remove all clusters on shoots that are 9 inches or shorter. A shoot between 9 and 14 inches is reduced to one cluster. All other shoots are thinned to two clusters only. We frequently remove wings at this time as well. Since wings always ripen later than the main body of the cluster, we usually prefer to remove them.

The second thinning usually occurs several weeks before veraison. For our vineyards that are destined for expensive wines, we usually want 2-4 pounds of fruit per vine. This could be 8-16 clusters, depending on cluster size. Thinning will then target the number of clusters to achieve the desired pounds per vine. Some winemakers believe one cluster per shoot makes better wine than two clusters per shoot. With these winemakers, we try to leave a number of shoots at shoot thinning that will, when thinned to one cluster per shoot, result in the right number of clusters to produce 2-4 pounds per vine.

The final thinning is a green drop that occurs at around 85% veraison. While there may only be one green drop, up to three can occur, each a week apart. The green drop targets any primary crop clusters that are more than 50% green, plus any second crop. The goal is to eliminate any green material that is significantly less ripe than the rest of the crop. The green drop narrows the ripeness range of fruit and, in our opinion, has a huge impact on wine quality.

W&V: What are your protocols for deficit irrigation?

Newton: For our vineyards destined for top wines, irrigation management is especially critical. Our experience has shown that less water is better for wine quality. Therefore, we do whatever we can to reduce water use. When we are leaf pulling or thinning fruit-- activities that reduce the vine's need for water--we skip an irrigation that week.

Since we have weather stations in many of our vineyards, we are able to calculate evapotranspiration (ET) and so can accurately assess what level of deficit relative to ET we are achieving. While an appropriate level of irrigation for many vineyards might be 50-60% ET, we typically target 25% deficit for vineyards going to top wines. We have been able to successfully push certain vineyards to around 15% deficit, but extreme care must be taken at these levels, as heatwaves can push the vines over the edge, injuring both the crop and the vines.

We prefer plant-based monitoring--those techniques that tell us what level of water stress the vine is experiencing. Pressure bomb readings are very useful in conjunction with our weekly visual assessment of shoot tips and leaves. For red grapes, we like to see pressure bomb levels in the minus-14 to 16 bar range. Taking pressure bomb readings before bloom is difficult, as the vine's petioles are not physiologically developed enough for that analysis. We use soil moisture readings pre-bloom to assist us in making irrigation decisions early in the season.

An ideal season-long irrigation schedule for us starts with a full soil profile. If 3 feet of soil is not at field capacity at the end of the rainy season, we add enough irrigation water to achieve that level. Our goal is to get to bloom without any supplemental irrigation. At bloom, we add between 2 and 3 gallons of water per vine to make sure set is not impacted by dry conditions. After set, we try to reach veraison without adding water. However, if pressure bomb readings are indicating above minus-16 bars, we will irrigate 2 to 4 gallons per vine. Finally, as we reach veraison, we irrigate 2 to 4 gallons per vine every week until about a week before harvest.

W&V: You've been training vines so that the fruit zone is closer to the ground. Tell us more about that, and why you're taking this approach.

Newton: We believe that fruit wires closer to the ground result in better quality fruit and make better wines. This is not a new idea and has long been associated in Europe with superior winegrape quality. For our vineyards growing Cabernet Sauvignon, heat to fully ripen our grapes is frequently lacking. By lowering the fruit wire to 20-24 inches, we can significantly increase the number of degree days that the vine sees during the season. Likewise, in our cool Pinot Noir and Chardonnay locations, lowering the fruit wire to 20-24 inches not only helps to ripen our crop, but also allows us to lower the vine height so that vines are less subject to the buffeting effects of our strong breezes.

W&V: How does sustainability figure into your farming practices?

Newton: Sustainability has played a very large role in our farming practices since Coastal Vineyard Care began operation in 1984. Prior to 1984, I worked on an organic vegetable farm and, as I began my own vineyard business, was determined to find ways to reduce pesticide sprays. Today, we manage three CCOF-certified organic vineyards and have another three vineyards that are organically farmed but not certified. In addition, two of our other vineyards are Biodynamically farmed. All our other vineyards are far along the sustainable continuum, in many cases just a step or two away from being organic. One of our vineyards has just been enrolled into the Central Coast Vineyard Team's pilot program for sustainable certification. Finally, we also frequently assess our vineyard operations according to the Wine Institute's Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices.

In the beginning, reducing pesticide usage was a major goal. As time went on, addressing soil health became equally important. Our use of compost and a multitude of cover crop species has become standard practice. Our company employs a full-time, in-house pest control adviser with a strong interest and background in sustainable and organic practices. She surveys each of our vineyards weekly.

When we need to spray for powdery mildew, leaf hoppers, spider mites and other pests, it is only in economically impacted blocks and with either organic or softer materials. We rarely use Category One materials. Controlling weeds was a big issue as we began to move toward sustainability, but we have become quite proficient in eliminating weeds with tillage implements such as the French plow, Gearmore, Clemens, Kimco and Pelenc. We still use Roundup, but we haven't used pre-emergent herbicides for the most part for almost a decade.

A manager who welcomes consultants

In recent years, Jeff Newton and Coastal Vineyard Care Associates have worked with a number of consultants on their higher-end vineyards. Newton says the practice all started about five years ago at Stolpman Vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Sangiovese was one of the grape varieties used when the vineyard was planted in the early 1990s. But no one in the vineyard or the winery, Newton says, "knew how to extract the best quality" from the Sangiovese. Newton happened to attend a seminar in Napa, where Tuscan consultant Alberto Antonini was a speaker, and he suggested to Tom Stolpman that he hire Antonini.

Since then he's also worked with consultants such as Michel Rolland from Bordeaux, as well as Tom Prentice, Daniel Roberts and Paul Skinner from Napa. Working with them was "a bit awkward at first," Newton says, but, "We've come to appreciate our interaction with consultants and have been very satisfied with the results. It seems that more heads are better than one in considering a course of viticultural action involving many variables."

He elaborates, "Specifically, our consultants have brought fresh views regarding vine balance and cutting-edge ideas on everything from irrigation, vine nutrition, pruning, shoot thinning and shoot positioning to fruit exposure and fruit thinning. Many times, the important messages are minor variations on old themes. The real value of consultants is that they are constantly encountering new techniques as they travel from one client to another and one country to another. Every time they arrive back at our vineyards, they have something new to talk about."


A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.
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