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Gold Medal Wine Club
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Newlan Winery - Napa Valley

Newlan: A Tribute to Napa's Small, Family-Run Wineries

If ever there was a story of a winery personifying an individual, it would be that of Newlan Winery and it’s founder, Bruce Newlan. Two compelling forces in Bruce Newlan’s life resulted in the creation of one of the finest small wineries in the Napa Valley.

A love of farming and a relentless desire for experimentation led Bruce to entertain thoughts of buying land to start a vineyard. What better way to fulfill these two passions!? After all, growing grapes for wine making was the ultimate farming experiment—particularly in the 1960’s, during the revival years of California winemaking.

At that time, if you were going to buy land to plant a vineyard, you went to Napa—which is exactly what Bruce did. In 1967, he purchased 13½ acres in southern Napa Valley on the western slopes of the Mayacamas mountains. He bought the land for $2,500 an acre which was then a high price to pay. Today, comparable land would fetch up to $30,000 an acre—if any were available! The parcel had walnut trees planted on it which Bruce promptly replaced with 11 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. (This month’s featured Newlan 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon wine was made from these original vines.)

During this period, Bruce was still employed as a physicist and engineer for aerospace firm, Lockheed. He and his wife, Jonette lived in the San Francisco Bay area and commuted to Napa on the weekends to tend the farm. Bruce had no formal training in growing grapes. However, he actively sought expert advice from other farmers in the area, and professional farm advisors at the University of California. He also attended night classes and read virtually everything he could find on the subject.

In 1970 he harvested his first commercial crop of Cabernet Sauvignon. Two years later Bruce bought 16 more acres of bare land a half-mile down the road, where he planted Pinot Noir vines. Each successive year throughout the early 1970’s, Bruce’s crop grew in both quality and quantity. As a result, his yield commanded increasingly higher prices. One year in fact, “We got $1,000 a ton for Cabernet and four tons per acre. That’s more money than I was making at Lockheed!” he recalled. So, in 1974 Bruce quit his job and the Newlans moved to Napa permanently.

Shortly after moving to Napa, Bruce decided to start a winery of his own. For years he had been selling his crop to the likes of Silver Oak, Robert Mondavi and Inglenook, who in turn were producing outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon wine. “I found out later that my grapes were being used to make Inglenook’s great “Reserve” wines. Back then, wineries were very secretive about that sort of thing,” Bruce said.

In 1977, Newlan Winery was founded. “My initial plan was to make a very good Cabernet, but I also needed some interim wines to sell while the Cabernet was aging,” said Bruce. So, after harvesting the 1977 crop for his own Cabernet wine, he also harvested his Pinot Noir crop to make a white Pinot Noir. He made 600 cases of this white wine, which was released and sold the following year, providing much needed cash flow for his new venture.

His first Cabernet was finally released in 1980 and garnered instant acclaim. By that time, he was also producing a Chardonnay, and Johannisberg Riesling wines. Also in 1980, after much experimentation, he introduced his first Pinot Noir vintage. “I experimented for about five years on the Pinot,” Bruce said. “I planted six different Pinot clones, did small-lot fermentation on each, and reduced it to two of the best clones for blending,” he added. A full-fledged Zinfandel was brought to the line-up in 1990. For five years prior he had been producing a Zinfandel field-blend wine he called, “Century,” comprised also of smaller amounts of Petite Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet.

Today, Newlan Winery is one of the few remaining small family owned and operated wineries left in the Napa Valley. Annually they produce about 1,000-1,500 cases each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. In select years, Newlan also produces very small quantities of outstanding Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling and Reserve Pinot Noir.

In 1990, Newlan Winery introduced a secondary label of lower-priced wines under the “Napa Villages” name. This brand has quickly grown to a 5,000 case output, due largely to it’s good quality but also because it is one of the few true Napa Valley wines being sold as a popular-priced, “fighting-varietal.” Newlan also makes it’s facilities available for custom crushes and bottling. Over the years they have helped a half-dozen small wineries get started by allowing them to lease their equipment.

Within the next five years Bruce Newlan plans to have his winery at the 30,000 case level. This goal made possible by the construction of a brand new 7,200 square foot facility, replacing the original 1,400 square foot building they had used since 1977. Bruce has gradually phased himself out of the winemaking role, and now concentrates on financial and marketing strategies. Now, Bruce’s son, Glen, and winemaker/consultant Bob Foley, tend to the production tasks. Bruce’s wife, Jonette is in charge of running the office and coordinating all the public relations events held at the winery. Two other sons Dan and Jim have also contributed to the winery’s success, but are presently involved in other endeavors.

Gold Medal Wine Club has been working with Bruce Newlan for over a year now, to be able to feature his outstanding award-winning 1987 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1991 Chardonnay. Both wines have been off the market for quite some time, so it is very likely we are the only source for either of these outstanding wines. Their 1987 Cabernet has had the benefit of extended bottle aging. It is well balanced, very smooth and very drinkable right now. Their 1991 Chardonnay is “one of the best we’ve ever made,” says Bruce Newlan. One taste of this superb wine will convince members of that.

We hope you enjoy this month’s special selection of wines from Newlan Winery.

Bruce Newlan

A love of farming was instilled in Bruce Newlan at an early age. As a young boy, he enjoyed working in his uncle’s vineyards in Fresno during summer vacations. His Dad was a farm owner also, and in the back of Bruce’s mind, he too, would some day be involved in farming.

Bruce was born and raised in Long Beach, California, and attended college at Fresno State. Despite his penchant for farming he decided to study physics and electronics and graduated with an engineering degree. Ironically, Fresno State was well known for their enology program, but at the time Bruce had no idea the impact that winemaking would have on his life.

Engineer, Physicist, Ham Radio Operator, Pilot, Navy Captain, Farmer, Winemaker—Bruce has always enjoyed meticulous tasks that involve creating, and concocting. Ever since he can remember he has liked to tinker with things—taking things apart and putting them back together again. A never ending curiosity about how things worked. It is this need-to-figure-things-out mentality that has driven Bruce to excel in an variety of divergent but somehow related careers, hobbies and interests throughout his life.

Right out of college Bruce joined the Navy, where he was on active duty for five years. Out of the Navy, he was immediately recruited by aerospace company, Lockheed, as an aerospace engineer. There he was intimately involved with strategic Navy programs such as Polaris and Trident.

It was in the mid-nineteen sixties during his career at Lockheed when he began to feel a tug back to his farming roots. His friends had introduced him to fine wines a few years earlier and true to his nature, it had piqued an intense curiosity. He soon began to dabble in home-winemaking, helping to satisfy his natural urge to figure it out. This new-found, inexact science of winemaking fed his compulsion to experiment and concoct things. He soon decided that to actually grow grapes himself, would not only afford him a reasonable living but allow him to get back on the farm where he longed to be.

In the 1960’s, the only logical place to buy land to grow grapes for winemaking was in the Napa Valley. After an extensive search, in 1967 Bruce bought 13½ acres just north of the town of Napa. Lockheed was his security blanket though. He would never leave his career as an engineer unless he was sure the grape growing business would pan out.

For the next seven years Bruce and his wife Jonette, (whom he met in college), commuted to Napa Valley on the weekends to tend the farm. Then it was back to Sunnyvale during the week to work at his ‘real” job and rest up for the next weekend!

In 1974, Bruce and Jonette decided it was time to take the plunge. The season earlier they had earned more money selling off their grape crop than Bruce was making at Lockheed. ‘We bootstrapped this place,” said a proud Bruce Newlan. ‘The money came from working hard at Lockheed, and our only partner is the bank,” he added.

After almost thirty years of grape growing and close to twenty years making wine—Bruce Newlan, his wife Jonette, and their sons, Dan, Jim and Glen, have earned well deserved respect in the Napa community. Their kind of operation is a dying breed—a family-owned, family-operated vineyard and winery in the Napa Valley. In a time of frequent takeovers and bankruptcies, Newlan Vineyard and Winery remains a solid entity.

Newlan wines are consistently top medal winners and internationally acclaimed year after year. In fact in 1988, at the International Wine and Spirits Competition held in London, Newlan wines earned three out of four trophies awarded to United States wineries.

Looking back at his long and successful career in the wine industry, Bruce Newlan says ‘The only thing I regret is not making the missiles-to-wine switch earlier!”