By Alexa Chipman November 9, 2017
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary Platinum Experience.
Sterling Vineyards offers a fascinating self-guided tour with catwalk style overlooks through stages of the winemaking process, from fermentation tanks to their state-of-the-art crush equipment. Recently remodeled with upgraded machinery, they have the ability to feed through six tons per hour during crush.
Grapes are sent through the destemmer, removing them through rubber tipped paddles, moving into the optical sorter that uses cameras and over ninety air jets to remove small or discolored grapes, eliminating the need for hand sorting. The system works so quickly, that a team has to be constantly ready with forklifts to remove the waste when the equipment is in operation. You can watch it in action during harvest; call ahead to find out if the sorting machine will be running.
Children are welcome, there are interactive education games along the tour, and an app available for download with videos and entertaining facts. A family was going through while I was visiting, and their young children eagerly had the app open on tablets, while excited about the huge tanks and machinery, clearly having a fun experience.
The founder of Sterling Vineyards was well-read from his time at Oxford University. With appreciation for the arts and architecture, Peter Newton arrived in Calistoga during the early 1960s, when it was a landscape of farmland and orchards. Sterling Vineyards was born from his love of wine, particularly merlot, and collected vineyard artifacts, paintings, and Ansel Adams photographs, while building on the idea that wineries could be destinations worth seeking out. With that in mind, the aerial tram was built, allowing visitors to appreciate the natural beauty of sweeping hillsides and clustered groves. If you are afraid of heights, it is a short ride that does not reach dizzying peaks, about the same as taking a brief ski lift.
The Aerial Tram ride is a dramatic entrance to the winery
Newton’s English heritage can be heard every fifteen minutes when chimes give a cheerful tune echoing over the patios. Salvaged from the Blitz when St. Dunstan-in-the-East was destroyed in 1941, the bells were recast and now hang proudly above Sterling Vineyards. You can visit the original church ruins that have become a haunting overgrown garden in London.
For access to the tour, terraces and a tasting, General Admission is $35 for adults, $15 for those under 21 (without the tasting!) and children under the age of three receive free admission. It includes a tram ride up the hill and you will discover why Sterling’s slogan is “wine with a view” through spectacular panoramic vistas.
Panoramic Napa Valley hills from the South View Terrace
The Silver Experience steps up with limited-release wines and a seated tasting, which is important during the Summer when benches fill up quickly at the crowded patios. The $48 price can be augmented with cheese or charcuterie plates during the tasting.
For V.I.P. treatment, choose the Platinum Experience, with mouth-watering food pairings, education with an entertaining host, and reserve “platinum” wines. The menu changes almost every month, based on the season, although perennial favorite braised short ribs remain. While I was there, the bites included fresh ricotta cheese with lemon zest and a lamb meatball in leek, fennel, and tomato sauce with Fiscallini Cheddar crisp, seen in the photo below. While the $75 price tag is formidable, it was intriguing to taste a vertical flight in this manner. Platinum requires a reservation ahead and can be booked on Thursday – Sunday.
2015 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley)
Aged in stainless steel and neutral barrels to avoid heavy oak infusion, its pleasant floral and citrus aroma seats you in a Springtime garden, ready for a lingering experience of pear with touches of apricot and lemon.
2015 Chardonnay (Napa Valley)
Mingled with a wash of ripe grapefruit are hints at green melon, apple, orange zest and petroleum. It is an excellent chardonnay, although I would use it with pairings, rather than on its own.
2013 Merlot (Napa Valley)
It is a solid, fruit-forward merlot with a sweet berry pie collection of plum, cinnamon and blackberries balanced by tart cranberry and a burnt toast finish. If you are considering a wine to bring for Christmas dinner, this is a definite candidate.
2011 Platinum Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
A difficult year due to weather conditions, the result is a sharp, tart cabernet with distinctive savory bell pepper, cloves and cedar infused, mineral taste. Sterling recommended a salty pairing while drinking this wine, to lower the acidity level in mouth feel.
2012 Platinum Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
High in acid, I enjoyed the unique asparagus, fig, dust and bark combination that lingered into sweet coffee and almond. This is a complex wine that could be savored over an evening while relaxing and watching the rain outside.
2013 Platinum Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
A “big red” year, this traditional Napa cabernet is bold and tannic, with flamboyant dark cherries. You can easily eat fatty foods with it and not worry about destroying the flavor or tannins.
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
While there is nothing technically wrong with this cabernet, it did not have a wow factor, perhaps it needed longer aging time or decanting to open up. The tight, strong flavor of currants and oak has touches of caramel, with an earthy finish.
2016 Sparkling Blanc de Blanc
Ocean foam overwhelms in this sparkling wine, and while it has elements of lemon and pear that I enjoyed, one sip was enough, it is not the sort of sparkling to pour several flutes of.
2014 Iridium Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
A brand new wine from Sterling, launched at the Emmy Governors Ball this year, I was among the first visitors to the winery receiving a pour, as part of the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa. It lives up to its formidable name with a spicy intensity of structured dark cherry and olives with touches of pepper and melted chocolate in a delicious finish. Winemaker Harry Hanson, who has been with Sterling since 2011, took special care with this wine. The ripest clusters of grapes were marked with ribbons and cordoned off with surveyor’s tape, then hand sorted and cared for during crush. Only seven barrels were made, from three vineyards, chosen for the finest quality of grapes, then aged for 19 months in new French oak barrels.