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A Sterling Performance : A Tasting at the St. James Club Gets Good Marks for Winery Lake

July 24, 1988|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

THE TABLE arrangement was typical, except for the seven wineglasses surrounding each setting. The location was the dining room of the St. James Club on the Sunset Strip, the former Sunset Tower, a sparkling Art Deco monument to the late 1920s. The host welcoming the roomful of guests was Samuel Bronfman II, president of the Seagram Classics Wine Co.

The first five color-coded glasses eventually would contain barrel samples--two of Winery Lake Chardonnay and three of Pinot Noir, from the 1987 vintage. These were to be preambles to the pouring of Sterling Vineyards' newly released editions of Winery Lake 1986 Chardonnay and 1986 Pinot Noir from the Carneros-Napa Valley, the estate acquired by Sterling from owner-planter Rene di Rosa in March, 1986.

After dinner, Bronfman introduced the Sterling president, wine master Tom Ferrell, vineyardist Tucker Catlin and wine maker Bill Dyer, along with Di Rosa--still vineyard planter--and Di Rosa's artist wife, Veronica. The tasting was on.

In 1964, I walked with owner-partner Michael Stone through this Calistoga vineyard before the first building was erected, contemplating winery names. Peter Newton, one of the other main partners, an Oxford graduate, made the choice, dubbing the 50-acre parcel Sterling Vineyards, having the British pound sterling in mind. In 1977, the winery was sold to the Wine Spectrum division of Coca-Cola. A third partner, in Seattle, had wanted out, and Coca-Cola came in with an offer to buy all or nothing at all. In 1978, the company acquired the Diamond Mountain and Rutherford vineyard properties, and the following year, Tucker Catlin came aboard as viticulturist.

In 1983, Sterling Vineyards was bought from Coca-Cola by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, the multibillion-dollar Canadian-American company that had become the world's largest producer and marketer of distilled spirits and wines. Sterling was to become Seagram's flagship property in California, and the company moved its wine-division offices there.

Sterling Vineyards and Winery Lake Vineyard, the latter acquired by the company in 1986, at first appeared destined to be basic suppliers of grapes for Domaine Mumm (Seagram is owner of the famed Cordon Rouge French Mumm's Champagne house of Reims). But promotional dinners to celebrate Sterling Vineyards' two Winery Lake 1986 wines--in New York, at Winery Lake and in Hollywood--have underscored Bronfman's apparent pride and confidence in Sterling Vineyard wines.

Back at the St. James Club, the barrel samples of 1987 Chardonnays pointed to two very different wines, from different clones planted at Winery Lake, on different soils--evidence of the presence of substantial artisanship in the medium of wine making. Barrel samples of Pinot Noir of 1987 indicated equal dedication to the art-science relationship in the fermentation of separate lots of grapes from one vineyard. Savoring the 1986 Pinot Noir, Bill Dyer said that although it is delightfully accessible right now, in 21 years it will be a wine to celebrate.

The multilayered 1986 Winery Lake Chardonnay ($20) is now available, but our tasting of the 1986 Winery Lake Pinot Noir (to cost $18) was a sneak preview of its scheduled release in September, a time well worth noting on one's buying calendar.

Props from Mission Antiques, South Pasadena

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