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Barry H. Sterling
Barry Sterling knew as a child he wanted to be a lawyer. Accelerating his studies in the lower grades, he entered Stanford at the age of 16 and passed the bar examination before graduation at the age of 22. The summer of 1952 was an eventful one for Barry. He graduated, married Audrey, a Stanford classmate, and moved to Washington, D.C., to join the Judge Advocate General's Corps. In the top of his military class, Barry was selected to work at the Pentagon and spent two years representing the United States Army in contract negotiations. He also assisted the Defense Department's legal staff during the McCarthy senate hearings.
Upon completion of his two-year military tour, he returned to his native Los Angeles to practice corporate law, founding his own firm by 1960. He became active in Democratic politics working for presidential campaigns, as Treasurer of the State Democratic Party, as Finance Chairman for the Democratic Governor's campaign and as Finance Committee Vice-Chairman for other state and national campaigns.
His home life was equally busy. A daughter, Joy, and son, Laurence, completed the family. He and Audrey acquired homes, improved and extended them and entertained constantly. Both were active participants in a civic renaissance as original founders of the Los Angeles Music Center and Los Angeles Art Museum. His first trip to Europe, a 30th birthday gift from Audrey, began years of travel abroad for both business and pleasure. He fell in love with France and vowed to live there.
His law firm had grown and prospered, but in 1966 an irresistible opportunity presented itself. By joining the well-known firm, Wyman, Bautzer, Rothman, Kuchel & Silbert, Barry could practice in Paris, representing both American and European clients in international corporate securities and general international law. Without hesitation the family moved to a "belle epoque" apartment in Paris. They purchased a home in the South of France and later a 300-year-old Queen Anne home in London when Barry also opened an office in that city.
Wine and food became a major part of life as the Sterlings immersed themselves in the French culture. Home entertainment-still almost a 19th century way of life at that time-increased his knowledge of French cooking and wines. The Paris apartment included an empty wine cave below street level with a space for 10,000 bottles. Barry launched a tasting program, collecting more than 4,000 bottles of the finest wines in Europe.
As the family traveled to their home in the South of France, they would zigzag across the country, trying new restaurants and wines. On other occasions they would visit homes of artists, sculptors and authors as well as museums and art galleries, always tasting wines of the area. With friends, they arranged bus trips to wine regions, participating in tastings. Barry became celebrated as one of the few Americans to win a major Paris blind wine tasting as a result of his knowledge of lesser-known Loire Valley wines.
Although raised in the city, Barry's family had strong ties to the land. His Canadian grandfather was a grain farmer, his father owned a farm at a young age and his family owned a table grape, date and grapefruit operation in the Coachella Valley. On his mother's side, the family had grown walnuts in Southern California. One of his great grandfathers had, in fact, been a vintner in Moldova.
It was natural therefore that the Sterlings decided to hunt for a wine property of their own. For several years they hunted in France. It was not easy to find a perfect combination of a country home and a perfect vineyard to their taste. In one case the “chateau” was ideal… not too large… but the vineyard produced overly sweet whites and then reds. In another case the Chateau was huge and had been mostly abandoned since the revolution, but the vineyard had good potential. One bid for just the cost of fixing the roof ended their consideration of that property. When they did find a potentially perfect “cru bourgeois” it was found to be deeply involved with seemingly never ending legal problems with the local government. The Sterlings decided to return to their Native California to seek a vineyard property there.
They, of course, started looking north of San Francisco in what even in the 70s was becoming know as “wine country”. They had decided they wanted a family wine estate that would be appropriate for developing Burgundian wine grape varieties… Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Audrey had grown up spending her summers in Sonoma County where she had family. They searched in the cooler western regions of the county.
Iron Horse Vineyards is located in Sonoma’s cool, foggy Green Valley. The Sterlings first saw it in a pouring rain in February 1976. Driving down Ross Station Road, after crossing the railroad tracks that gave Iron Horse its name, they were sure they were lost until they crested the knoll and the view opened up to over 200 acres of gentle rolling hills and a wall of magnificent trees rising up the back of the property forming a perfect backdrop to a ruined Victorian house, Incurable romantics, or as Audrey says” fools rush in where angels fear to tread”, they bought the property in just two weeks.
In those days, Iron Horse was the most westerly vineyard in Sonoma County. Well-meaning friends of friends told them to get out of the deal and go to warmer Napa Valley. Even the agricultural extension agents from UC Davis recommended they at least look further east as this vineyard was prone to frost as late as June 1st, well after bud-break, thus jeopardizing the crop. But having lived in France, the Sterlings stuck to their belief that the cool, foggy climate was exactly what they were looking for to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
There were 110 acres in vine at the time, originally planted for the legendary Rodney Strong, an acquaintance of Audrey’s family. He recommended the property to them, pointing out that he predicted, as quoted in Sam Aaron’s book, “The Joys of Wine”, that the Iron Horse vineyards would produce Pinot Noirs to rival the great Burgundies. At that point however, there was no frost protection, some of the vineyards had been abandoned and very few grapes and even less wine had been produced from the property. So with a great leap of faith, with the help of Strong’s former vineyard manager, who along with Strong, also believed in the property, the Sterlings began to restore and upgrade the vineyards. An elaborate frost protection system was engineered and they produced their first very small vintage of Estate Chardonnay in 1978. The winery was completed and officially opened in 1979 on Barry Sterling’s 50th birthday. That year also saw the first Iron Horse Estate Pinot Noir. The first vintage for the Sparkling Wines followed in 1980. The logo, the rampant horse on a weathervane, came from the actual weathervane that was unearthed from burned ruins of a stable when farm workers were leveling the ground to build the winery.
Although started as a side venture in 1979 and 1980, Iron Horse has pioneered the production of sparkling Methode Champenoise wines in Sonoma County. For more than 30 years, their fame has grown. They have been served at the White House for the past five consecutive presidential administrations, beginning with the historic Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings, which led to the end of the Cold War. Needless to say the Sterlings claim credit for that.
The Sterlings also became active in county, state and national vine affairs. Barry has served on the California Wine Institute Board. He was chairman of a National Winery Association. He was already, since 1968 during his Parisian years, a member of the Chevalier des Tastevin at Clos Veugot in Burgundy, and has now been elevated to a Commander of that organization. He was also active in that organization’s wine tasting affiliate. In recognition of his service Barry has continued to receive honors and awards from the Chaine. Barry and Audrey are proud that they participated in the beginning of the American Institute of Wine and Food… Barry has also ventured out of the wine world and is a Life Member of the Board of Trustees of the San Francisco Symphony and Life member of the board of the Louis Leakey Foundation. He also served on the Advisory Council of the Green Music Center of Sonoma State University. That major facility is scheduled to open in the autumn of next year…a historic and life changing event for Sonoma.
Iron Horse remains a truly family affair. Audrey and Barry’s daughter Joy Sterling heads marketing and is now the CEO of the Winery. She lives in a remodeled farm house at the foot of the vineyard. The Sterlings’ son, Laurence, his wife Terry and their children moved to Iron Horse in 1990 and built their home on the far southwest corner of the property, on the site of an old barn. Laurence, also originally an attorney, is Director of Operations. Audrey and Barry are retired, but still reside at the heart of the estate in the now restored original Victorian. They continue to participate in tasting and helping to set the style of each new vintage.