A Winery that Got Its Mojo Back

Sterling Vineyards Chardonnay
Sterling Vineyards
Chardonnay, 2015
14.5 percent alcohol content
Napa Valley, California, $19.99/$9.99

After decades of corporate neglect and a slide in quality, Sterling Vineyards has returned to its roots and is making excellent wines that are garnering awards and high ratings from wine critics.

Sterling Napa Chardonnay is a crisp and balanced Burgundy-style white wine with subtle tastes and aromas, unlike some other inexpensive California Chardonnays that hit you over the head with heavy vanilla flavors.

Although its suggested sticker price is high for the scope of this column, I frequently find it on sale for under $10, which makes it a great bargain and worthy of drinking regularly as well as serving for special occasions.

I stayed away from Sterling wines during the winery’s sad period, which started in 1977 when the Coca-Cola Co., in a short-lived attempt to get into the wine business, bought Sterling. Now, I know I should have come back sooner, perhaps as soon as 2011, when award-winning winemaker Harry Hansen joined Sterling.

London native Peter Newton, a pioneer in the California wine industry, founded Sterling in Calistoga in 1964 with his business partner Michael P.W. Stone, who was born in London and went on to serve for four years as Secretary of the Army under President George H.W. Bush. The winery produced it first vintage in 1969.

Newton, with the help of winemaker Ric Forman, made some of the most highly regarded wines in California and was part of the first wave of vintners who helped turn Napa into a premier winemaking region, according to his 2008 obituary in The New York Times.

Newton was no stranger to good wine. By his senior year at Oxford, where he received a law degree, he had developed a taste for Bordeaux, and he helped select the wines for the university’s cellar, a Los Angeles Times article says.

That experience of Bordeaux wines paid off for Newton. He was known for being the first Napa vintner to plant and produce Merlot, a grape that’s the foundation of the French region’s red wines. His efforts with the grape also came at a time when most of Napa’s winemakers thought the grape was too temperamental to be worth the trouble. Sterling was the first in California to release a vintage Merlot.

The Sterling winery is an architectural gem and considered the most beautiful winery in the world. The building, which is a tourist destination, is modeled after a Greek monastery. It’s set on a hillside and can be reached only by an aerial tram. It has three towers, which house the bells from St. Dunstan-in-the-East a London church destroyed in World War II.

Newton sold Sterling Vineyards in 1977 to Coca-Cola, a company that didn’t fare well in the wine business. Five years later, Seagrams bought the winery and sold it to Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines in 2001. Treasury Wine Estates bought most of Diageo’s wines, including Sterling, in 2016, an article that year in Shanken Daily News (a wine industry newsletter) says.

Sterling has been turning things around and regaining its reputation for quality wines, starting with Seagrams under the direction of Carey Gott. Diageo made more strides in the right direction with the hiring of winemaker Harry Hansen.

The Melbourne, Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates, which has annual revenues of more than $2 billion, owns 44 wine and alcohol brands including Penfolds, Stag’s Leap, 19 Crimes and Beringer. Treasury makes other high quality wines and doesn’t seem to micro-manage its winemakers. It looks like Sterling is back.

After selling to Coke, Peter Newton started Newton Vineyard, a winery known for its high-quality Merlot and Chardonnay. He retired from the wine business in 2001 with the sale of his namesake winery. He suffered a period of failing health and died at his home in St. Helena in February 2008 from heart failure. He was 81.

The majority of the juice used to produce Sterling’s Napa Valley Chardonnay is barrel fermented in French (75 percent) and American oak. The result is a light gold wine with aromas and flavors of citrus and stone fruit. It’s well-balanced with a creamy roundness and bright acidity.

I recommend this Chardonnay, which is widely available nationally and in New England. It’s good for drinking all year in any kind of weather, and it’s worth more than its recommended price. But if you find it on sale, don’t hesitate.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at raiseyourglassofwine@gmail.com.

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