California sparkling wine pioneer Barry Sterling, founder and proprietor of Sonoma’s Iron Horse Vineyards, died Sunday, July 26, of natural causes at his home in Sebastopol, Calif. He was 90.
Some vintners are born in the vineyard, destined to a life in wine. Others lead fascinating careers in other walks of life before finding wine. Sterling was among the latter.
Born Oct. 25, 1929, the Los Angeles native studied law at Stanford University and graduated in the same class as future Supreme Court justices William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor. It’s also where he met his wife, Audrey, a Stanford undergrad at the time.
The two were married in 1952, and Sterling began his career with the Army. The newlyweds moved to Charlottesville, Va., and then to Washington, D.C., where Sterling served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and assisted the Department of Defense’s legal staff during the Army–McCarthy hearings. Two years later, the couple moved to Los Angeles, and Sterling opened his own law firm.
In the mid-1960s, Barry and Audrey visited Europe, and quickly took to Paris’ joie de vivre lifestyle, so much so that the Sterling family moved to France in 1967. The Sterlings enjoyed visiting wine regions while living in France, and as their cellar swelled with some of France’s best wines, the idea of making wine started to pique their interest. They considered buying a French château, but eventually the family moved back to California.
In 1976, Sterling stumbled across a 19th-century Carpenter Gothic house near Sebastopol. There were vines planted, owned by Rodney Strong, but no winery. They fell in love with the property and, after tasting wines made from the grapes, Sterling knew this was where his new dream of making wine would begin.
The winery opened in 1979, on Sterling’s 50th birthday. His goal was to make Burgundy-styled wines like the ones that filled his 10,000-bottle cellar. However, he detoured into sparkling wine when a close friend encouraged considering it. After sampling several bottles of Champagne, Sterling decided to make both.
Iron Horse, a pioneer in Russian River Valley’s remote Green Valley, was among the first sparkling wine producers in California. Iron Horse was served at the Geneva Summit meetings between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev which ended the cold war, and the wine has remained a regular at White House dinners and receptions ever since. Today, the winery produces close to 30,000 cases annually, with more than half the production dedicated to sparkling wine. Barry and Audrey's daughter Joy now serves as Iron Horse CEO and son Laurence is director of operations.
”I met Barry and his family in the 1980s,” Marimar Estate founder Marimar Torres told Wine Spectator. “They were the only winery around in this area, and very keen in promoting the Green Valley as a great winegrowing region. He and Audrey were always so nice, having me over to their home for lunch, whether by myself or when there was someone they wanted me to see—like once for a lunch with Jacques Pépin and Julia Child. They also sponsored great ideas such as Earth Day at their winery, hosted La Paulée lunches for the community, had harvest lunches I remember very fondly and many others over the years."
The soft-spoken, humble, determined Sterling always carried a big smile and jovial twinkle behind his glasses. The world traveler, collector of art and antiquities, philanthropist, master gardener, loving husband, and father is survived by his wife, Audrey, children, Joy, Laurence and Terry, grandchildren Justine, Mike, Barrie and Joseph, great-grandson Calvin, nephews and nieces Rand, Pamela, Scott, Susan and Judy Sterling, and brother- and sister-in-law Bert and Joan Shapiro.