Sterling Vineyards is located in the northern part of Napa Valley; this is a property well setup for tourism. Sterling has Napa’s only winery aerial tram; the ride lasts just a few minutes whisking you from the parking lot to the actual winery located on top of a 300 foot wooded volcanic knoll that rises from the valley floor.
Not only does Sterling operate Napa Valley’s only tram, but in late 2008 it was converted to solar power. The tram takes a different route on the way back down. On a clear day, the views from the top of the hill are spectacular. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on perspective this winery is typically identified by the tram; they do make wine to! This tram was replaced and updated in early 2007 after many years.
The winery was designed with input, mainly from Martin Waterfield, Dick Graff (one time owner of Chalone Vineyard and founder of the American Institute of Wine & Food – who died in a small plane crash far to young) and winemaker Ric Forman. It was Martin’s idea to install a tram to whisk visitors from the valley floor up to the top of the mountain.
Billed as the only winery in the world with an aerial tram – this opened in 1973 and holds 13 tram cars each of which is built with plenty of glass windows so one can see in all directions on the ride up and down. The total distance is 300 feet which takes 3 minutes and 15 seconds to ascend and 4 minutes and 5 seconds during the descent (the tram cars move at speeds up to 400 feet per minute). The total distance traveled round trip is 2,768 feet. At its highest point tram cars are 90 feet above the ground. And note that when the temperature reaches around 100 degrees, Sterling will close the tram because of the high heat. And at that point, guests will be shuttled up and down to the hospitality center in vans. Although we have been here when the temperature was 104 degrees and the trams continued to run.
Sterling was developed by the late Peter Newton, a native of England who was an executive at a large paper company in San Francisco called Sterling International. He built the winery in a style that is influenced by Greek Mediterranean white washed architecture, specifically from the island of Mykonos. This influence is pretty obvious when you see the winery. Their first vintage was released in 1969.
Ric Forman was Sterling’s founding winemaker; he went on to have a continued a very successful career and operates Forman Vineyard. Interestingly, some of the first Sterling wines were stored at at Schramsberg Vineyards until the caves were completed at Sterling. Sterling’s hospitality center and winery on top of the hill were not yet completed at that time.
Peter loved designing elegant formal gardens and to see some of his other gardens visit another Napa winery he founded called Newton (located just west of the town of St. Helena – appointment only). Sterling’s long driveway winds through olive trees to the parking lot at the base of the tram. The tram runs continuously during their normal business hours so there is no need to purchase advance tickets, however note that on busy weekends, its best to get here early as there can be a fairly long line later in the day. Some 150,000 visitors come through their doors each year.
Once you reach the winery at the top, you begin a self guided tour following signs and educational videos on strategically placed monitors explaining various components of wine making and Sterling’s history. This was Napa’s first self conducted winery tour when the hospitality center opened in 1973.
Weather permitting you will be greeted by a small wine bar upon exiting the tram, where you will typically sample one of their white wines. You will be given a glass to take with you to the other tasting stations. After your tastings, the glass is yours to keep. Most people probably do keep the glasses but on the several times we’ve been here we’ve noticed people have had a little to much fun and have seen broken glass on the ground. At each of these ‘mini bars’ someone will be pouring and providing verbal information about the wine being served.
Continuing your tour, be sure to walk outside on the catwalk overlooking their large steel tanks – additional educational information is available here about the process of fermentation. Eventually you will reach their outside upper terrace. The most common question the poor pourer at the terrace tasting station has to answer is, “is that a castle over there?”. Yes, it most definitely is – in this case it is the impressive Italian styled “Castello di Amorosa” built by Dario Sattui who is also the founder of the wildly popular V. Sattui Winery.
During one of our visits we sampled a 2007 Pinot Gris; this wine is light bodied, crisp and full of citrus overtones. One of their more popular white wines (among those who have a sweet tooth) is the Malvasia Blanca. This is an ancient variety that is not usually grown in the Napa Valley and the grapes for this wine come from Madera (in California’s central valley). Interestingly this variety is also grown in Madeira, (islands that are a part of Portugal, located West of Morocco). The 2015 Malvasia Blanca is light bodied, sweet without to much acid, fruity with some mineralities and will pair well with spicy Asian food.
The large tank room is worth seeing with its huge tanks sometimes full of wine. During certain times of the year, the smells in here are fantastic and actually linger all throughout the main building. If the weather is bad, a wine station will be located in a corner of this room. You have to pass through this room on your way to their well-loved outdoor terrace and bell tower (the bells still ring every fifteen minutes). These bells were cast in the early 1700’s – hung in church in London for some time (which was bombed during World War II). Ultimately they found their way to hang at Sterling in 1972.
On a warm day the terrace is a fantastic place to soak up your wine, the sun, people watch behind your sunglasses, and see the stellar views of the surrounding hills. From here, there are good vistas of Napa Valley to the South and of the rugged wooded hills to the North East. This is definitely one of Napa’s romantic spots and couples can often be seen flirtatiously cozying up to each other next to the railing while other well-appointed tourists take selfies for their Instagram accounts.
Two prominent Italian Cypress trees form vertical frames for photos looking north from the terrace. These two stately symbols should be named, so we have given them some – the one on the left as you face north is Easton and the one on the right is Weston in reference to their geographic locations.
Benches and small tables are available on the terrace. Weather permitting there will be another wine station setup here. We tried the 2005 Reserve Chardonnay which has a good weight in the mouth in part because the wine was left on the lees and stirred during its aging in the barrel (lees are the sediments left after fermentation).
Sterling has 3 tasting rooms – the primary elegant sit down tasting salon was recently remodeled. One can swing by here after your self guided tour or simply walk over to the tram for the ride back to the base.
If you do walk up the stairs to the salon, be sure to visit the outside terrace. If the weather is nice this is definitely the most preferred part of the salon. Trees surround parts of the patio and when the wind blows, its hard to determine whether you are actually in Napa or maybe in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains somewhere.
Sterling is one of Napa’s larger land owners with some 1200+ acres under vine. As a result, they make a very wide selection of wines, all very reasonably priced. Some of their wines can only be purchased at the winery; you can tell these special wines (Cellar Club Wines) from their normal distributed wines because the physical wine label is split in two.
The large gift shop is the last room you visit before heading back to the tram. Check their website as sometimes they have coupons for tram ride discounts. Special reserve tours and tastings are also available. If you are in the area in the summer be sure to check out their Silver Screen Series, a series of outdoor movie screenings with all proceeds benefiting a local charity.
On busy weekends, often the last allowed entry for visitors is at 415pm. Refreshingly, Sterling Vineyards has blanketed much of their parking lot with complimentary wifi, appropriately called ‘Wine Fi”! (For more information or to join their wine club, visit: www.sterlingvineyards.com