Monday, March 1, 2021

Sterling Napa Valley Merlot 1985

Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 1985

Son Sean and wife Michelle came over for beef roast dinner and I pulled from the cellar this vintage aged birthyear wine for the occasion. We still hold numerous labels from Sean's vintage birthyear and several are getting beyond their optimal drinking window so they need to be consumed. This was one such wine. 

While today this label would not be considered a collectible for long term cellaring, we acquired it long ago when our cellar and tastes were less discriminating, and when it had some other intrinsic sentimental value. Sterling Vineyards was one of the estates we visited on one of our earliest visits to Napa Valley back in the early 1980's.

Sterling Vineyards was founded in 1964 by Peter Newton, an Oxford graduate with a diverse background in international business, and a former London Financial Times writer. His company, Sterling International, purchased the 50-acre parcel of established vineyards on the south edge of Calistoga in northern Napa Valley as a means of prestige and diversification. The locals dubbed it Sterling Vineyard.

Over the following years, Sterling International acquired more upper valley properties around St. Helena including Bear Flats of which the 87 acres vineyard, and Bothe Ranch, are two key vineyard sources for Sterling wines to this day. While Cabernet Sauvignon was the most popular varietal, Newton planted his new vineyards with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and the first major planting of Merlot in the Napa Valley, in addition to Cabernet Sauvignon - a move that was considered bold and innovative.

In 1968, he added the 70-acre, 300-foot knoll off Dunaweal Lane near Calistoga  on which he built a magnificent winery perched at the top of the hill. That was the year of the first Sterling Vineyards vintage-dated Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Merlot, produced with recent University of California Davis graduate Ric Forman as winemaker. 

In 1969, they set upon building a striking Mediterranean-style white stucco winery complex in Greek Ionian architectural style that included a most unusual aerial tramway that carried guests from the parking lot to the winery on the knoll. Sterling Vineyards was formally opened to the public in September of that year at a gala benefit for the San Francisco Symphony. The new winery started production in 1972. To the right is a historic vintage label from 1975 showing the winery atop the knoll as seen from St Helena highway.

In 1977, Sterling Vineyards was purchased by Coca-Cola, followed by the purchase of Rutherford vineyards and the world-famous Diamond Mountain Ranch vineyard the following year. 

In 1983, Sterling Vineyards was purchased by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, the world's largest producer and marketer of distilled spirits and wines. Shortly thereafter we visited the property which was a showcase tourist destination in then nascent Napa Valley. 

In 1986, Sterling Vineyards purchased Rene de Rosa's prestigious 250-acre Carneros property, Winery Lake, and introduced 1986 Winery Lake Chardonay and Pinot Noir in 1988. Three Palms Merlot 1986 was also released for the first time that year. In 1989, winemaker Bill Dyer was awarded the Winemaker of the Year award by the Los Angeles Times. Sterling wines were high profile, highly acclaimed labels during that era. 

During this era, Sterling were one of our favorite drinking Napa Valley Bordeaux varietals and I recall acquiring this label and ordering it at restaurants as well. In later years, our holdings of Sterling tended to be the 'Three Palms Vineyard' Merlot and other single vineyard designated bottlings and Reserve labels.

In 1991, directed by master sommelier Evan Goldstein, they opened the School of Service and Hospitality at Sterling Vineyards, to provide education about wine, food, and service to consumers and professionals.

In 1995, they set upon a multi-million dollar expansion and modernization project including cave expansion and replanting projects throughout Sterling Vineyards' Napa Valley properties. Seagram's wine division was reorganized under the name Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines Company. 

The 1985 vintage was considered a top vintage for Napa Valley Bordeaux varietal wines. For the '85 vintage, the best Napa Valley Merlots were from Duckhorn, Cuvaison, St. Francis, Sterling, Matanzas, Shafer, Clos du Val, Clos du Bois Rombauer and Rutherford Hill according to Decanter Magazine.

Fruit for this vintage release of this label was sourced from the Sterling 120 acre Diamond Mountain Ranch vineyard, west of the town of Calistoga, near the top of the Diamond Mountain range at elevation from 1,700 to 2,000 feet, on the steep northern face of the Mayacamas Mountains. 

There, nearly vertical slopes, austere soils, and dry farming stress the vines planted, and when combined with the low-vigor volcanic soils that provide minimal nutrition, the results are small, intensely concentrated fruit clusters that make deeply pigmented, assertive wines with full body and rich tannins.

This release was a blend of 97% Merlot and  3% Cabernet Franc, both from the same estate Diamond Mtn Ranch vineyard. It was aged in smalll Nevers French Oak barrels.

Despite its age, at thirty-six years old, the fill level, cork, foil and label were in ideal condition. The wine, while past its prime was still holding on to some fruit and body and was still consumable. 

Brown hues were setting in to the color, the body was a bit flat and the dark berry fruits were giving way to non-fruit tones of wood, earth, tobacco and black tea. 

It was still enjoyable for the dinner and it was fun opening and sharing with son Sean. Notably this was our last bottle of this label, consumed while still drinkable, but in its waning days. 

RM 84 points.