Esterlina Vineyards: Dreams of a Sterling Father
Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson
With vineyards in Anderson Valley, on the Boonville Road and in Sonoma County, and a relatively short tenure in the wine industry, a family of four talented sons, father and mother, are producing highly acclaimed award winning wines.
The story of Esterlina Vineyards and Winery begins with Murio Sterling, who at 72 isn‘t slowing down. “I always had a love of farming that comes from my dad and granddad,” says Murio, seated on the deck of his Anderson Valley property with its panoramic view of Anderson Valley. Doris Sterling, his wife of 51 years, says hello and then heads to the parking lot to meet new visitors. “We greet everyone when they arrive,” says the handsome patriarch of the Sterling family.
In the 1930s Murio’s father moved his family to the Bay Area during the Depression when they lost their six hundred acres of farmland in Louisiana. His dad worked in the shipyards. After a stint in the military during the Korean War, an innate pull toward farming propelled Murio to the Modesto Turlock area. He and Doris purchased 30 acres and started their first cattle ranch.
While the Sterlings’ purchase of Cole Ranch, the United States’ smallest complete AVA (American Viticulture Appellation) propelled them into the premium wine industry, their connection with Mendocino County started in the 1970s.
“Dad always liked to take us on Sunday drives,” remembers oldest son Stephen, who is now the marketing manager for Sterling. On a trip to Potter Valley the family happened on a beautiful 160 acres and the next thing Stephen knew the family was moving. He and his brothers, Eric, Craig, and Chris went to Potter Valley elementary school until Stephen was in the 8th grade.
“Some of our teachers were hippies,” says Stephen. Some lived in VW buses painted with psychedelic designs. It was when young people were bailing out of the cities and going “back to the land,” getting away from the establishment and living in communes. “Although my family wasn’t like that, we were part of the community and got to know Mendocino during those years,” he says.
The Sterlings then lived in the Bay Area and the boys grew up and pursued other professional interests. Murio is philosophical about his entry and subsequent success in the wine business. In the beginning, he got to thinking, “why shouldn’t I be in the business? My grandfather made wine and so did my dad. Not many black people were in the wine business and that’s another reason why we should be in it. I feel the same way about women in the business.” Soft spoken and confident, he continues, “There is no such thing as ‘can’t’ do something. I don’t want to hear that word. More Americans should teach their kids to dream big, that’s what I taught my kids.”
In addition to purchasing the 253 acre Cole Ranch in 1998, where their highly acclaimed Rieslings as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot are grown, in 2001 the Sterlings bought the old Pepperwood Springs vineyard on Holmes Ranch Road in Anderson Valley. As new grape growers, finding buyers who would understand the quality of grapes they were growing was challenging. Accustomed to making wine at home, Murio encouraged Eric to make wine with some of the grapes from their new vineyards as a sales tool. Eric took on the task of upgrading his palate and skills to the current techniques and the Sterlings made batches of wine from each block of vines. “We’d give it to buyers to taste and they loved it,” says Steve. They would say, “I’ll buy your grapes and quit bugging you about the price,” he laughs. Recently the family added Everett Ridge Winery in Dry Creek Valley to their holdings and that has become Esterlina’s winemaking hub.
When they started making wine, says Eric, “Dad sold buyers with his charming southern style of hospitality.” At wine tastings he passed out Cheetos and chips, not your usual wine fare and “people remembered us,” says Eric. Murio adds, “We still serve them. The Cheetos are always the first to go and then people come by and say ‘where are the Cheetos?’”
Murio and Eric were the first to find the Anderson Valley property and were in escrow with it before Stephen had a chance to see it. When he did, he was as smitten as his father and brother. The setting is spectacular. Now there are two decks, one at the elder Sterlings’ residence and one at the tasting room, where the voices of a dozen visitors create a pleasant sound on a beautiful November afternoon. Twenty acres of pinot noir grapes cascade down the hillside and everyone is struck by the view in which using “breathtaking” as a descriptor is not trite.
“It’s an awesome Pinot Noir site,” says Eric, an emergency room doctor in Santa Rosa who is known for his great palate and winemaking skill. “People who come here say it is one of the most memorable tasting experiences they have,” he adds, and continues that for every 10 people who visit, seven return. The Anderson Valley tasting room is open every day from 11 until 5.
“Our success is due to all the people who work here,” says Murio. “We hire people who love people and we all have fun with wine and with our customers. We have a beautiful staff.”
A dozen years ago the Sterlings never dreamed they would be working together as a family. At the time everyone had their career and now everyone has found their place at Esterlina, which is Spanish for Sterling. Craig, an attorney with an MBA works with Stephen, who also has an MBA, in the winery’s management. Their brother Chris manages the vineyards. Uncle Larry Sterling, a retired electrician, helps with projects at all the properties, which also include vineyard acreage in Alexander Valley and a cattle ranch in the Dominican Republic. Nephew Shon Sterling is the website master. And the next generation including Alex, Andy and Christopher help with harvest and other labor intensive activities.
Esterlina’s first Cole Ranch Pinot Noir was awarded a score of 94 points by the prestigious Wine Spectator magazine. Their Anderson Valley Pinot Noir won a gold medal in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Championship the first year it was entered and won gold again in 2008; as did their Riesling.
The dreams of Murio Sterling also continue as he looks to new venues in which to expand the family’s business, perhaps even to South Africa. “It’s an up and coming wine district and more accessible than Europe,” he says. Murio points out some of the benefits in South Africa and how it might feel to “go back to the African homeland and have a winery.” In the meantime, at Esterlina, a family of handsome men and their attractive matriarch build upon their agricultural roots to bring exceptional Mendocino County wine to the market and an esteemed winemaking and grapegrowing venture to the industry.
TASTING NOTES: Wild and cultivated mushroom sauce made with lots of onions and last of the year’s tomatoes on pappardelle (wide egg noodles) went beautifully with the bright black cherry aromas and earthy fruit-rich flavors of Esterlina 2006 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.
Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.
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