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Spivak on Consumer Wine: Sterling Shaky

February 20th, 2009 · No Comments

Only a few gleams on Sterling’s shelf

By Mark Spivak, consumer wines columnist

Mark Spivak On Consumer Wine

Mark Spivak on Consumer Wines

First, a little background: Englishman Peter Newton, who ran the Sterling International paper company in San Francisco, founded Sterling Vineyards in 1964 with 50 acres of grapevines. The first wines appeared in 1969, positioning Sterling in the second wave of new California wineries to appear after Prohibition.

From the beginning, the wines garnered critical acclaim; the winery building, completed in 1972, became the focal point for many first-time visitors to Napa Valley.
The operation was sold to Coca-Cola in 1977. Five years later, when the soft drink guys realized they were on the wrong train, they sold it to Seagram’s, which morphed into Diageo in 2001.

Peter Newton went on to smaller and better things, founding Newton Vineyards on Spring Mountain. Sterling Vineyards currently owns 1200 acres of vines, and still enjoys a good reputation among consumers.

Looking at the wines today, it’s hard to figure out why. The Napa releases are quite pricey, considering the quality in the bottle. The situation is further complicated by the Vintners Collection, a second tier of wines in the $15 range, which has a more dubious price/quality ratio. They span a range from pleasant to terrible, and none of them bear much resemblance to the grape varieties they are supposed to contain. They can do better.

Spivak’s Consumer Wine Ratings of the Week:

VINTNERS COLLECTION RIESLING ($12): Medium to full-bodied, bone-dry, with a lush texture and prominent flavors of apricot and lemon zest. A nice wine to sip, and a good match for grilled fish or chicken. B-

VINTNERS COLLECTION PINOT GRIGIO ($13): Light and soft, with a lush texture and vague flavors of citrus and peach. Nice cocktail wine, but there’s no reason not to buy Italian Pinot Grigio at the same price. B-

VINTNERS COLLECTION SAUVIGNON BLANC ($13): Light, weak and dilute, with low acidity, watery citrus flavors, and an unpleasant finish. C+

VINTNERS COLLECTION CHARDONNAY ($15): Dominated by cloying flavors of vanilla, honey, butterscotch and caramel. Despite the wine’s richness, there is very little real intensity or depth. C

VINTNERS COLLECTION MERLOT ($15): This medium-bodied wine reveals layers of complex and interesting flavors: earth and bramble, plums and cherries, minerals and mint. A very satisfying match with a variety of game and meat dishes, particularly those in dark, rich or earthy sauces. B

VINTNERS COLLECTION CABERNET SAUVIGNON ($15): Medium to full-bodied, rich and voluptuous, with mineral notes and ripe blackberry flavors. Easily the best of the bunch, this is a good accompaniment to grilled meats, ribs and slow-cooked dishes. B

VINTNERS COLLECTION ZINFANDEL ($14): Light to medium-bodied, the wine offers a pure texture, good acidity and vivid pepper notes, all of which enhance ripe flavors of blackberry and plum. A good match with the usual range of bistro dishes (pate’, grilled steak, poultry, etc.). B

  • PRICING: $12-15
  • BEST OF GROUP: Cabernet Sauvignon
  • WORST OF GROUP: Chardonnay

NAPA SAUVIGNON BLANC ($15): Medium-bodied and lush, with a rich texture, hints of oak and residual sugar, and flavors of overripe melon and citrus. The finish is long and unpleasant, with a sweet and cloying character. C+

NAPA CHARDONNAY ($17): Nicely balanced, with decent acidity and creamy flavors of citrus and apple. Well-made, but a poor value. B-

NAPA MERLOT ($25): Bright and lively, with candied flavors of cherries and plums, good acidity and concentration, and a brash, fruit-punch quality. This has enough sweetness (whether natural or induced) to pair well with a range of spicy cuisines such as Thai, Mexican or Szechwan. B-

NAPA CABERNET SAUVIGNON ($25): Light and lilting, displaying a silky texture and flavors of cinnamon, stewed cherries and black currant jam. Not a “blockbuster Cab,” but full of nuance and charm. B

  • PRICING: $15-25
  • BEST OF GROUP: Cabernet Sauvignon
  • WORST OF GROUP: Sauvignon Blanc


The Spivak Scale
A = An excellent to outstanding wine of spectacular depth and character; worth a splurge; cellar material.
B = Good to very good; worth the money for current drinking or laying down.
C = Fair to average; suitable for current drinking; pricey compared to other wines of its type.
D = Poor to below average; a weak example of its type; seriously overpriced.
Plusses and minuses are awarded. The value-for-money ratio always comes into play; a wine which deserves a B at $15 may rate a B+ at $10, or a B- at $20. If most wines within a category normally cost $15, those selling for $25 bear a special burden. If a wine sells for $75-$100, it bears a burden regardless of its peers – this is a steep tariff for a bottle of fermented grape juice, and we all expect it to perform accordingly.
For those addicted to the 100-point scale, here are the rough equivalents:
A = 96-100
A- = 92-96
B+ = 88-91
B = 86-89
B- = 82-85
C+ = 78-81
C = 75-79
C- = 70-75 

     Mark Spivak hosts the wine show Uncorked! Radio on WXEL-90.7 FM Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. He also writes his own blog, Spivak on Wine, and is the wine and spirits editor for the Palm Beach Media Group. Here, he writes on the wines most often purchased on a daily basis by consumers, typically bought at grocery stores, warehouse stores, and other outlets that are not wine-specific.

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