Selling Sterling: Vineyard rebuilds its reputation


Sterling Vineyards occupies one of the most beautiful sites in the Napa Valley -- a hillside perch on an outcropping that tourists can reach only by tram car.

The view reportedly lives up to the winery's name. For years the wines have not. During the 1980s, Sterling became a virtual poster winery for the play-it-safe, squeaky-clean, commercialized style of premium California wine. That the brand name grew was testament to marketing skills, not bold and exciting winemaking.

Turning that around is largely the job of Carey Gott, executive vice president of Seagram Classic Wine Co. and one of the most pleasant people in the California wine industry. Coming off a record of success at Corbett Canyon and Monterey Vineyards, he might just be the right person for the job.

But then he might not.

Mr. Gott came through Baltimore recently to make the case that Sterling is back on track. As evidence, he marshaled a formidable lineup of chardonnays, cabernet sauvignons and a pinot noir.

How'd he do? Well, he couldn't quite meet the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

But judging by "the preponderance of the evidence," he's well on his way to restoring the luster to the Sterling name.

To understand the challenge Mr. Gott faces, you need to know where Sterling has come from.

Sterling started out as a small premium winery with some excellent vineyard sites in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. In the early years, it showed a lot of promise. It never cracked the ranks of the valley's elite -- Caymus, Joseph Phelps, Robert Mondavi -- but it was clearly a winery that was striving for excellence.

Then came Coke.

The Coca-Cola Co. acquired it about 1978 during an ill-fated expedition into the wine business. The mix was about as appealing as a hypothetical blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 50 percent The Real Thing.

Coca-Cola bailed out in 1983, selling Sterling to Seagram Classic, the wine-producing tentacle of the Seagram corporate octopus. Seagram managed to expand the brand from 60,000 cases a year in 1983 to 275,000 cases now, but growth did not bring critical acclaim or artistic excellence. A few months ago, Sterling was the subject of a blistering review by James Laube.

When Mr. Gott took over control of Seagram's California wine properties in 1990, it represented a homecoming to Sterling. As a young man, he had served under winemaker Ric Forman during the glory years of 1969-1971. Now he supervises the work of Sterling winemaker Bill Dyer.

As California winemakers often do, Mr. Gott did not bring his sauvignon blanc along for tasting, letting chardonnay alone represent the winery's prowess with white wines. For me, this is shortsighted thinking that unfairly denigrates sauvignon blanc, often a far more pleasant table wine than California chardonnay.

Still, Sterling's latest releases of chardonnay were impressive in two out of three cases. The 1992 Sterling Chardonnay ($15), a blend of grapes from all over the Napa Valley, displayed more richness, length and complexity that most of its recent predecessors. It's nothing that will have you jumping up and down in the street, but it's a solid chardonnay that will be found on many a restaurant wine list. Flavors include apples, spices, yeast and toasted nuts.

More impressive, but likely more controversial, was the 1991 Sterling Chardonnay from the Diamond Mountain Vineyard (about $21). This wine is structured much like a white Burgundy, but with some very toasty flavors punctuated by nuances of sweet corn and herbs. This intensely flavored wine may not be for everybody, but there's no doubting its complexity and individuality.

In contrast, there's plenty of reason for doubt about the 1992 Steling Chardonnay from the Winery Lake Vineyard ($21). While it's much more pricey than the standard 1992 chardonnay, it has none of that wine's charms. It offends the palate with crude, overblown, hot and bitter flavors.

The Winery Lake Vineyard yielded better results with its 1992 Sterling Pinot Noir ($12), a ripe, rich wine that is clearly Californian in style. Burgundy connoisseurs could protest that this muscular melange of black cherry, herb, sweet oak and plum flavors is not how pinot noir ought to taste, but there's no denying its burly appeal.

The cabernet sauvignon-based wines were dreadfully inconsistent. The estate-bottled 1991 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) was lean, ordinary and excessively minty. The 1990 cabernet from the Diamond Mountain Ranch ($21) was dominated by bell pepper flavors that maked its ample black cherry fruit. Time might bring it around, but why chance it?

But just when you think you're dealing with the Same Old Sterling, you run into a wine such as the 1990 Sterling Reserve ($30), a Bordeaux-style blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and lesser amounts of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

This delicious wine tiptoes along the edge of being overblown, but like a gifted wide receiver it just manages to stay in bounds. It has a plumpness and exuberant black cherry fruit that calls to mind a fine Pomerol from a hot year. This is not a case of the winemaker playing it safe.

So overall the record is mixed: three hits, three misses. Still, it was clear that Sterling was nothing close to the disaster site Mr. Laube described.

Mr. Gott is certainly making some positive moves. In 1992 the winery switched to using wild rather than cultured yeasts -- a bold move for a winery that once epitomized the winemaker-knows-best philosophy of the University of California at Davis.

One of the best reasons for optimism about Sterling is the enormous progress being made at its sister Seagram property, Mumm Napa Valley, since Mr. Gott's arrival.

Not only is its standard Napa Valley Cuvee sparkling wine showing more depth and flavor than in previous years, the winery has just released 2,000 cases of a sensational luxury blend called DVX.

Skillfully balancing power and elegance, this Champagne-like wine offers great intensity and length, a light toastiness, a hint of lemon and a creamy, long finish. DVX more than justifies its $25 price tag.

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