Sterling Vineyards – a great stop for first-time visitors

Sterling Vineyards will make a nice visit for a budding wine-drinker and first-time visitor to Napa Valley. A fun ride in an aerial tram, great views, friendly staff, and no pressure to talk about wine – what’s not to like? Art lovers will appreciate Ansel Adams’s photo collection and Picasso’s lithographs. 

On a sunny day, Sterling winery shows its guests how pretty Napa Valley is. Situated on a hill at the narrower northern part of the Valley, the winery offers great views of the valley floor all the way down to the town of Napa, as well as the surrounding Mayacamas and Vaca mountains.

The winery building, modeled after a white-stucco Greek monastery, may seem a little out of place in Napa (especially in the absence of the the Mediterranean Sea) but perhaps less so than pseudo-medieval castles and reproduction French chateaus scattered around the Valley. At least, Napa Valley has a Mediterranean climateInstead of the sea, one can view the azure sky, green hills, and lush vineyards from the building’s multiple open-air walkways, terraces, and balconies.

Sterling is popular with tourists – it sees 150,000 visitors each year – but fortunately 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 guides are 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 tanks in the barrel room, which used to store Merlot and are now museum pieces, the rest of equipment is real, honestly showing the (large) scale of production.

Sterling Vineyards, Napa Valley, Ansel Adams collection
One of the tasting rooms with a collection of photographs by Ansel Adams

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, which eventually expanded to 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. From 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.

Sterling Vineyards, Napa Valley, views
Views of Napa Valley from the top of the building

Known for the aerial tram and the views, Sterling attracts lots of people with varied wine experiences. Wines poured at the four stations on the self-guided tour are meant to please the masses. The servers are smiley and friendly but aren’t necessarily trained to answer all wine questions. Those interested in tasting higher-end reserve and single-vineyard collections, should book a seated tasting.

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.

Address: 1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga. Open daily 10 am – 4:30 pm. A self-guided winery tour is best done in good weather weekdays or Sunday morning to avoid crowds. Other tasting experiences are available