A visit to Sterling Vineyards will be well-liked by a budding wine-drinker and first-time visitor to Napa Valley. Great views, friendly staff, and no pressure to talk about wine – what’s not to like? Art lovers will rejoice at discovering Ansel Adams’s photo collection and Picasso’s lithographs.
On a sunny day, Sterling winery allows its guests to see how pretty Napa Valley is. Situated on a hill at the narrower northern part of the Valley, it offers great views of the valley floor all the way down to the town of Napa, and the surrounding Mayacamas and Vaca mountains.
The winery building, modelled after a white-stucco Greek monastery, may seem a little out of place in Napa in the absence of the blue seas, but perhaps less so than many other pseudo-European castles and chateaus scattered around the Valley. Instead of the sea, the building’s multiple open-air walkways, terraces, and balconies offer the views of the azure sky, green hills, and vineyards.
Sterling is undoubtedly a touristy place – it sees 150,000 visitors each year – but doesn’t fall into the Disneyesque trap. It offers a gondola ride up the hill but thankfully doesn’t accompany it with a recorded commentary.
At the top, no Dionysus-clad guide is awaiting to show one around. Instead, visitors are handed a glass and are left alone to walk around at their own pace on a self-guided tour. There’re well-made educational videos and explanatory signs for those who’re interested to learn about wine and the Sterling story. For those who aren’t, there’re multiple photo opps and seating areas.
Sterling is also quite honest about their winemaking. While there are a few large redwood (? – couldn’t confirm) tanks in the barrel room, which used to store Merlot and are now museum pieces, the rest of equipment is real, honestly showing the scale of production.
Those who purchase a seated tasting in one of the tasting rooms or venture to the upstairs wine shop, may be excited to see Sterling’s noteworthy art collection, which includes “The Story of a Winery” series of photographs by Ansel Adams, and lithographs by Renoir, Picasso, and Chagall.
Sterling was founded in 1964, when Peter Newton, a British international paper broker, bought a weekend house and a 63-acre vineyard in Napa Valley. That was just the beginning of his vineyard purchases – Sterling now is a 1,000-acre estate.
When multinationals and food conglomerates entered the wine market in the 1970s, Sterling was sold to Coca Cola, and then to Seagram. Since 2001, Sterling was part of the international alcohol conglomerate Diageo’s portfolio until Diageo sold its wine division to Australia’s Treasury Wine Estates in late 2015.
Known for the gondolas and views, Sterling doesn’t attract a particularly sophisticated wine crowd. So the wines poured at four stations during the self-guided tour are meant to please (or at least not to avert) the masses. The servers are smiley and friendly but aren’t trained to answer all wine questions.
We tasted 2013 Chardonnay, 2012 Merlot, and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and a sweet 2014 Malvasia Bianca and thought that Merlot in particular was a nice California-style picnic wine.
Sterling makes so many different wines, however, including higher-end reserve and single-vineyard collections, that they can surely offer something of interest to more discriminating wine connoisseurs.
Address: 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga. Opening hours Monday-Friday 10:30am – 5:00pm, Saturday-Sunday 10:00am – 5:00pm. General admission is $29, which includes the gondola ride, self-guided tour, and a tasting of four current release wines. Other tasting experiences are available. This is a kind of place which I’d advise to visit during the week or on Sunday morning to avoid crowds, especially during the season.