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by Fred McMillin
for April 7, 2000

 

Winery of the Week

Sure Thing Sterling


Prologue

Leon Adams, The Wines of America, 2nd Ed., 1978...
"As you approach the Napa Valley's upper end, a white monastery-like structure comes into view atop the range of hills to the east. It is the Sterling Vineyards winery, the most spectacular in America and quite possibly in the world."


The Rest of the Story

Sterling Vineyards  
It was a spectacular winery, dedicated to making spectacular wines. Here's what happened. 1967—Four executives of the Sterling International Paper Company in San Francisco buy the wooded knoll that included a tiny, 30-year-old winery. They had started buying prime vineyard land three years earlier.

1974—My wife and I have just returned from Teheran and take the ski-lift-type tram up to the spectacular winery, which has been open less than a year. The first winemaker is future star Richard Forman, who now operates his own winery. His very first efforts caught critic Robart Balzer's eye who wrote of his preliminary tasting of Sterling's "pure Merlot...already one of California's fine wines."...and this was before Merlot mania had struck the U.S.A.

1977—Coca Cola buys the winery and hires an assistant winemaker who will be a major factor in wine quality for two decades. His name is Bill Dyer. (Yes, Domaine Chandon winemaker Dawnine Dyer is his wife.)

1994—A good example of Bill's invovlment in all phases of quality is his note to me, not about a change in winemaking, but in one of their vineyards. "Dear Fred, The Diamond Mountain Ranch Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon reflect our continued progress at that vineyard— eliminating irrigation and avoiding filtration of the Cab has given us wines of greater concentration. Regards, Bill Dyer"

1996—Bill leaves and is replaced by a dynamic team. Coke sold Sterling to Seagram way back in 1983, and now Seagram brings in Greg Fowler as Vice President and Senior Winemaker. Greg brings in his former fellow winemaker at Schramsberg, Robert Hunter. They have over 700 acres of vineyards to draw from, they buy a lot more French oak barrels ("contribute more finesse and elegance"), etc.

The new team's looking good. Robert Parker, Jr. says their first Chardonnay is improved... "Burgundian style, not too acidified, excellent fresh fruit. HIGH CLASS!" He also likes their Sauvignon Blanc..."crisp, mineral-like, refreshing, attractive.

2000—The original little winery on the knoll made the equivalent of 3,000 cases a year. When I last checked, today's production is around 350,000 cases, and growing. One of the reasons for the continued expansion is that Greg and Robert are making a new line of "Central Coast" Sterling wines...after all, they can get their hands on only so many Napa Valley grapes. There's both a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon...a very nice way to appraise the team's ability for only $13 a bottle.


Breaking News...The First "Central Coast" Releases

Yup, the first Coastals are being released this month.

The Cab, 1997, $13
Alcohol—13.5%
Production—12,000 cases
Sources—Mostly Monterey + some Napa grapes
Varietals—Cab + 10% Merlot + 5% Cab Franc

The Merlot, 1997, $13
Alcohol 13.5%
Production—13,000 cases
Sources—Mostly Monterey + some Napa grapes
Varietals—Merlot + 13% Cab Franc + 11% Cab


Postscript

Birdlovers must visit Sterling's Carneros vineyard called "Winery Lake." Some years, not only wild peacocks roam the grounds, but wild geese choose to live on the lake all year instead of migrating north to Canada.

 
About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

 
 


This page created April 2000

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