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 gondola system; the ride lasts just a few minutes, whisking guests from the parking lot to the winery and visitor center 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 gondola system, but in late 2008 it was converted to solar power. The gondola takes a different route on the way back down. On a clear day, views from the top of the hill are spectacular. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on perspective this winery is typically identified by their gondola; they do make wine to,
The hospitality spaces at Sterling Vineyards sustained significant damage in the Glass Fire in late 2020; after three years of being closed for renovations Sterling opened for tours and tasting experiences on October 29, 2023. It is remarkable the main buildings survived this fire as much of the surrounding hillsides and vegetation on their own property was burned. While closed, the visitor center was completely remodeled.
Their iconic gondola system was also completely updated. For reference the last time it was updated was in early 2007. It now features larger gondola cars, seating 8 instead of 4 guests, each car has a mounted camera holder inside for taking selfies, a faster system and a slightly different route to the top. Depending on how fast the gondola system is operating, usually between 2.5 to 3 meters/second, the total round trip time will take anywhere from approximately 6 to 8 minutes. Each cabin is 16 feet tall and has a load weigh capacity of 1,500 pounds (so you don’t have to worry about the weight of all those cases of wine you will be taking with you down the mountain). Remarkably the same company that built their original gondola system (Doppelmayr) produced the upgraded new gondolas. The gondola cars are fully ADA compliant.
The winery was designed with input, primarily from Martin Waterfield, Dick Graff (one time owner of Chalone Vineyard and one of the founders of the American Institute of Wine & Food) along with Robert Mondavi and Julia Child and a young winemaker named Ric Forman. Tragically Dick died in a small plane crash near Salinas at age 60. 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 surrounding glass windows so one can see in all directions on the ride up and down. The total distance traveled round trip is approximately 2,800 feet. At its highest point tram cars are 105 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.
Three years after the tram opened, Sterling Vineyards made an important vineyard purchase in 1977, acquiring 320 acres on Diamond Mountain from William Hill, a long time vineyard developed based in Napa Valley. They called this property, Diamond Mountain Ranch; wines continue to be produced from this site including the Sterling Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
Also, in 1977 on October 29th then Prince Charles visited Sterling Vineyards for 45 minutes, enjoying a tour with several employees including Sir Peter Newton and winemaker Ric Forman. He and his entourage landed on the property by helicopter. While there, Charles tasted a 1973 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1975 Pinot Chardonnay.
The property that would become Sterling Vineyards was acquired in 1967 by four investors including the late Peter Newton, a native of England who was an executive at a large paper company in San Francisco called Sterling International. Another investor was London born Michael Stone was a former Navy fighter pilot who later served as Secretary of the Army under President George Bush and eventually was President of Sterling Vineyards. The previous owner of the property, Charles Rockstroh had actually bonded a winery here in 1933 (the first winery on site). He died in 1967 and his 70 acres came up for sale. Newton had actually already started acquiring other vineyard land in Napa Valley beginning in 1964.
Newton built the winery in a style that was influenced by Greek Mediterranean whitewashed architecture, specifically from the island of Mykonos. This influence is pretty obvious when one sees the winery. Their first vintage was produced in 1969.
Ric Forman was Sterling’s founding winemaker; he went on to have a continued a very successful career and currently operates Forman Vineyard with his son Tobias. Interestingly, some of the first Sterling wines were stored at Schramsberg Vineyards until the Sterling caves were completed. Sterling’s hospitality center and winery on top of the hill were not yet completed at that time.
Sterling Vineyards has sold several times over the years including in 1977 to the Coca-Cola Company, in 1982 to Seagram and in 2001 to Diageo. Interestingly during the Seagram ownership, Sterling produced sparkling wine in conjunction with GH Mumm in Reims (Champagne, France). Currently Sterling is owned by Melbourne, Australia based Treasury Wine Estates.
Peter loved designing elegant formal gardens; to see some of his other gardens visit another Napa Valley winery he founded called Newton (located just west of the town of St. Helena – appointment only). Sterling’s long driveway passes underneath moss covered trees, eventually reaching several wrap around parking lots located at the base of the gondola system. The gondola 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.
Sterling Vineyards is one of Napa Valley’s larger landowners with some 1,200 under their ownership. The winery owns 6 estate properties, all within either Diamond Mountain or Calistoga appellations. And the work with select growers up and down the valley. As a result, they make a very large selection of wines covering a wide range of pricing. Some of their most limited production wines are bottled under their Reserve Collection or their Napa Valley vineyard designates of Cabernet Sauvignon. And these are premium vineyards; as of our latest update to this review some of the vineyards they work with are Yates Family on Mt. Veeder and Sleeping Lady in Yountville. Some of their wines can only be purchased at the winery.
Several tasting options available for purchase at the ticket counter and all include a gondola ride. Don’t be fooled into looking for seat belts in the gondola if one of the attendants quickly asks you to, “please buckle your seatbelt”. The most popular offer, the Sip & Stroll is 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 Valley’s first self-conducted winery tour when the hospitality center opened in 1973. But this is not the only experienced offered; guests can choose a seated wine tasting in their Hilltop Tasting Room or a seated tasting on the Southview Terrace.
Weather permitting guests will be greeted by a small wine bar down the ramp after exiting the gondola, where guests will 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 you are not obligated to do so. At each of these ‘mini bars’ someone will be pouring and providing verbal information about each of the wines 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. A walkway leads from their tank and barrel rooms out to the Southview Terrace. One side of the hallway is hand-painted with a mural of Sterling Vineyards by artist Dusty Kramer. He has created several murals in Napa Valley including the Greetings from Napa mural on Jefferson Street in Napa and restored the Drink Coca Cola mural at the iconic Oakville Grocery.
The most common question the poor pourer at the Southview Terrace tasting station probably has to answer is, “is that a castle over there?”. Yes, it most definitely is; it is the impressive Italian styled “Castello di Amorosa” built by Dario Sattui, also the founder of the wildly popular V. Sattui Winery. The castle is easily seen to the west from the Southview Terrace.
The large tank room contains an assortment of various shapes and sized tanks. During certain times of the year, the smells in here are wonderful and linger all throughout the main building. If the weather is bad, a wine station will be located in a corner of this room. Visitors will pass through this room on their way to the well-loved Southview Terrace and bell tower. The bells ring every fifteen minutes. They were cast in the early 1700s and were hung in a 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 Southview Terrace is a fantastic place to soak up wine, the sun and people watch behind sunglasses. From here, there are panoramic vistas of Napa Valley to the south and of the rugged wooded hills to the northeast. This is definitely one of Napa Valley’s most 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 and Tik Tok accounts.
Two prominent Italian cypress trees used to grow on the south side of the appropriately named Southview Terrace but unfortunately both were removed after the Glass Fire. Instead two redwood trees now grow next to each other on the east side of the terrace. We originally gave the Italian cypress trees names (Easton & Weston) but now that they are gone, we have transferred similar names to the two redwood trees. As you face them from the terrace, the one on the left is called Northon and the one on the right is called Southton reference to their geographic locations.
The Hilltop Tasting Room is located next to the sizable gift shop and is located on the highest point of the property. Seated tastings are hosted both indoor and on the north facing outdoor terrace. Trees surround parts of the terrace and when the wind blows, it’s hard to determine whether you are actually in Napa Valley or maybe in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains somewhere.
The 2019 Sterling Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay Carneros, Napa Valley is pale gold in color; the bouquet offers fragrant aromas of pear, pineapple, honeycomb, honeysuckle, citrus blossom and a light lemon zest. The palate is crisp with its bright acidity offsetting some of the sweetness (residual sugar). This wine offers flavors of melon, pineapple, pear, passion fruit and Granny Smith apples. The mouth feel showcases a rounded and supple texture with a mouthwatering finish. Based on its palate alone, we would like to think we could identify this in a blind tasting of other Napa Valley produced Chardonnays. This is not a complex bottling of this variety, and its not meant to be.
The 2020 Sterling Vineyards Pinot Gris, Carneros Napa Valley is pale yellow in the glass; the bouquet immediately shows citrusy characteristics including citrus blossom and a citrus peel zest. But there is a bit more happening here with aromas of jasmine, green apple, white peach and some tropical notes including pineapple guava, kiwi, not fully ripe pineapple and passion fruit. Off dry on the palate, this wine offers flavors of pear, white peach, pineapple guava and a light but persistent herbal note. Shows medium acidity. This wine was harvested in early August, before the worst of the fires in the region.
The 2021 Sterling Vineyards Heritage Collection Merlot Napa Valley is a blend of 91% Merlot, 8% Petite Sirah and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is deep ruby in color; the bouquet offers aromas of plum, bramble, raspberries, blood orange and a distinctive note of mocha and vanilla. Darkly fruited and savory across the palate this wine reveals flavors of blackberry, plum, crushed black peppercorn and dried herbs. The acidity is bright and lingers on the finish with a light tartness. The tannins are lightly gripping, grainy and linger more on the front of the palate than on the back. They persist for some time with a drying character and accompanying dark spices including toasted oak. We would like to pair this wine with a home-made ravioli, perhaps something from Canevari’s Italian Delicatessen in Santa Rosa, CA. For historical reference, Sterling Vineyards was the first winery in Napa Valley to bottle a vintage-dated Merlot.
The 2018 Sterling Vineyards Reserve Malbec St. Helena, Napa Valley is deep ruby and opaque in the glass with an amaranthine rim; the nose is darkly fruited including aromas of blackberry jam, boysenberry, Pakistani mulberry at the peak of its ripeness, Santa Rosa plum, a hint of toast, dark chocolate, hazelnut, roasted coffee beans and some floral notes including of violets. Beautiful aromatics. Bright with crunchy acidity, the palate delivers flavors of plum, black currants and red cherry accompanied by a savory light woodsy spice on the finish. The tannins are grainy with a moderate grip on the juicy and mouth watering finish. This wine was aged for 16 months in a combination of French (71%), American (24%), and Hungarian (5%) oak, of which 62% pf the barrels were new.
One of their more popular white wines by those who have a sweet tooth is the Malvasia Blanca. This is an ancient variety that is not usually grown in Napa Valley. As of our latest update to this review, the grapes for this wine come from Madera located in California’s central valley. Interestingly this variety is also grown in Madeira, (islands that are a part of Portugal, located West of Morocco). We have tried several vintages over the years; it is light bodied, sweet without too much acid, and fruity; it pairs well with spicy Asian food.
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 Wi-Fi, appropriately called ‘Wine Fi”! For more information, to schedule an appointment or to join their wine club, visit: www.sterlingvineyards.com
Treasury Wine Estates
Treasury Wine Estates is currently the 4th largest wine company on the planet. Treasury was formerly the wine division of the Australian based Foster’s Group and was founded in 2011 – although its roots can be traced back to the mid 1990s when Foster’s began to build out their wine division. Treasury Wine Estates owns or manages some 22,000+ acres of vineyards in Australia and New Zealand and nearly 10,000 acres of vineyards in the USA (mostly in the Napa Valley, Sonoma County and California’s central coast).
As of our latest update to this review they are the largest controlling entity of vineyards in the Napa Valley through mostly leased land. They own several of the Napa Valley’s most iconic, historical and storied producers including the following other five wineries: Beaulieu Vineyard, Beringer, Etude, Frank Family, Stags’ Leap Winery. In addition, they own the Napa Valley brands Acacia and Hewitt. And of the other brands under their ownership, Penfolds in the Barossa Valley, Australia is arguably the most famous.
Headquartered in Melbourne, Australia the company also maintains offices in Napa, Oakland, London, Shanghai and Singapore. In 2019 the company moved its headquarters to one of the uppermost floors in one of Melbourne’s most iconic buildings, the T&G Building located on Collins Street a few minutes’ walk from the Flinders Street Railway Station.
The T&G building, named after the T&G Mutual Life Assurance Society was built in 1928 and features a gorgeous atrium like setting and high-end retail shops on the ground floor as well as 10 floors of office space. This was one of Melbourne’s first large scale office buildings. Despite being one of Melbourne’s prominent and historical buildings, Treasury Wine Estates keeps a very low profile and has no signage.
Hilltop Tasting Room