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Wine Uncorked

Dakota Shy

Dakota Shy

20160503_173216Thanks to the kindness of friends, I had the amazing opportunity to sit down and chat with Todd Newman, founder of Napa winery Dakota Shy.

His story starts off in classic Hollywood style: a “farm kid” from North Dakota with a train ticket and $1,800 heads to Napa with dreams of becoming a burger mogul.

Yes, you heard that right. Let’s back up just a sec.

Newman’s first stop after leaving home at 19 was actually Portland, Oregon, where a friend got him a job at a brewpub. Helping make their beer got his “fascination with creativity started.” At the same time, this introduction to the hospitality business gave rise to the idea of opening a chain of gourmet burger restaurants in Chicago – just five or six of them, he recalls.

Then, his friend (and now Master Sommelier) Dennis Kelly up and moved to Napa for a job at Martini House, one of the area’s premiere, Michelin starred, see-and-be-seen restaurants.

He talked Newman into coming with him, which wasn’t a hard task. “I could learn how to open and run a restaurant from the best in the business,” Newman reasoned.

Being in Napa offered a terrific – if unexpected – introduction to wine. “I didn’t know wine was for me until [Martini House]. I saw wine at all levels and it was thrilling to explore,” he says of the opportunities to taste and learn about wine.

Further, waiting tables gave Newman the chance to meet the area’s winemakers, many of whom frequented the restaurant. After a while, he realized that they got to go out at night, enjoying the fruits of their labors while he was, well, working.

“Working from four p.m. to midnight, staying out until 3 a.m. then sleeping until noon was not a pattern conducive to my goals. I wanted to be the one having dinner and great wines,” he says.

So he begged his friend Tom Garret, who worked at Revana, to get him a job. He showed up on bottling day – a notoriously crazy time in a winery. “I swept up glass and picked up cellophane from the floor,” Newman says of his first day. “But I kept showing up and doing the non-glamorous work.” And each day, after spending hours as a cellar rat, he would head to Martini House to wait tables.

Newman led this double life for several years, working his way up the ladder at Revana, learning wine “from the floor up” and eventually being put in charge of their direct sales.

Eight years after leaving North Dakota, Newman quietly made 120 cases of wine, funding the operation with the nest egg built from tip money. But where to go from there?

6382As it turns out, Newman’s work at Martini House opened the next few doors. One customer who served as a mentor of sorts, always pushing Newman to figure out what to do next, became an investor, purchasing 1/3 of Dakota Shy.

Another customer – Jeff Smith, owner of Hourglass – made a deal with Newman: Come build the Hourglass brand for us and we’ll provide the facilities to make your wine. Further, after leading customers through a tasting of Hourglass wines, Newman could take a few minutes to introduce them to Dakota Shy.

Finally he was able to leave Revana and focus full-time on his wines. The build was slow but steady, and Newman expects to produce between 2,200 and 2,500 cases of the 2016 vintage: “Right where we want to be,” he says.

Newman describes the winemaking philosophy succinctly: “Dictate aromatics, dominate texture.” This style of velvety aromatic wine was a lesson he took from Heidi Barrett, one of Napa’s best-known winemakers, who held that position at Revana while he was there. “My take-away from Heidi…is that texture is everything. You need that soft, filling feel.”

It’s a quality he hopes will make Dakota Shy a “world class cabernet that competes with the best of the best.” But Newman refuses to rest on his laurels: “We’re not there yet – we still have more to prove.”

With that in mind, he has crafted a top-notch team to take them there: “Our general manager [Ryan Clark] lights up for what he does. Tom Garret is one of the not-yet-known superstar winemakers.”

They are preparing to break ground on a new winery in St. Helena at the base of Pritchard Hill, expected to open in September. Though they currently source grapes from sites throughout Napa, they hope to plant vines on their 1.2-acre property.

Newman also wants to make the winery an incubator, providing space to young winemakers who couldn’t otherwise afford to ply their craft in Napa. This is a lesson he took from Jeff Smith, his way of paying it forward.

20160503_172729After more than an hour of conversation, our host brings up something from his cellar: 2008 Dakota Shy – a precious bottle from that first vintage. “Oh…I’ve so improved,” Newman groans, but gamely opens the wine.

The vintage was a cool one, giving the wine a good acidity, notes Newman. Taking a sip, he describes the wine as feminine, elegant and clean.

I like the aromas of dirt and black fruit, though they were a bit shy at first. (Sorry!) It was luscious and velvety on the palate, with more dark fruit notes coming to the fore along with hints of briar.

And speaking of shy, what on earth does Dakota Shy mean?

Newman explains: “There’s a saying, ‘That kid is Dakota shy,’ meaning someone who works hard and keeps his head down. A quiet humility.”

This idea of grit and hard work is a tribute to Napa’s farming heritage, references the work ethic that got Newman from cellar intern to winery founder, and nod to his own father, who, he says, “sacrificed his whole life for his family, to be the rock for other people.”

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If you’re interested in ordering Dakota Shy, head to their web site and join the list. In keeping with Newman’s philosophy that customers are family, you just might hear from him yourself.

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