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Iron Horse Vineyards co-founder Barry Sterling dies at 90

Barry Sterling, enamored of the culture and wine of France in the 1960s, yearned to settle into a chateau with a vineyard in Bordeaux.

He never found the ideal location and returned to California, where Sterling, a former corporate lawyer, became a viticultural trendsetter at Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol, defying experts who said it was too chilly for the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes he intended to nurture.

Sterling, whose wines were served at formal dinners by six presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, died Sunday at home in Sebastopol after a lengthy illness. He was 90.

A patron of the arts, political activist, art collector, philanthropist, world traveler and master gardener, Sterling opened Iron Horse on his 50th birthday in 1979 and lived “a momentous and exciting life,” said his daughter, Joy Sterling, CEO and partner in the company her parents founded.

“We have no regrets,” Barry Sterling said in a 2014 interview, sitting on the back patio of their Queen Anne Victorian farmhouse, with his wife, Audrey. “Our life is great. We’ve had a very good run. Everyone who knows us, knows we’ve had a hell of a good time.”

Three wines from Iron Horse — a chardonnay, pinot noir and brut sparkler — were served by President Trump and the first lady for Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at the U.S. ambassador’s home in London.

Sterling’s wines made their debut with a blanc de blancs poured at a White House state dinner during a summit meeting between former President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.

The backstory of Iron Horse began in 1976, when the Sterlings first saw the property in a driving rainstorm, with no winery and a house in need of repair. But a taste of wine made from the grapes planted in the early 1970s by the late Rodney Strong convinced them it was the start of their dream.

A UC Davis viticultural expert said the area was too cold and prone to frost, advising them to “go east and grow cabernet,” Joy Sterling said.

But her parents persevered, knowing the value of cool environs for their chosen varietals in France. Audrey Sterling, a San Francisco native, knew the Russian River valley’s climate would match their ambitions.

To compensate, Sterling built a reservoir to provide water for frost protection by sprinkling the vines.

Iron Horse winemaker emeritus David Munksgard said the Sterlings’ familiarity with France “gave them the courage of conviction to plant and grow grapes where others feared to.”

In addition to pourings in high places, Iron Horse also bottles a special cuvee with National Geographic called Ocean Reserve, which supports ocean conservation, and a vintage brut called Gratitude that benefits the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

Sterling served on the board of the San Francisco Symphony and was a lifetime trustee of the Leakey Foundation.

A Los Angeles native born on Oct. 25, 1929, Sterling attended Stanford University, graduating from law school in 1952 in the same class as future Supreme Court justices William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, who finished first and third in the class, respectively. Sterling was No. 11 out of 114 law grads.

The Sterlings met in 1951 while Audrey was majoring in biology, and they studied together in the law library while also befriending Rehnquist and O’Connor. Sterling opened a corporate law firm in Los Angeles, and the couple, married in 1952, became active in Democratic politics and were both founding members of the Los Angeles Music Center and Los Angeles Art Museum.

Moving to France in 1967, the Sterlings split their time between an apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris and a villa in the hills above Cannes. Their travels through French wine regions planted the idea of living on a vineyard and making wine.

A decisive moment, their daughter said, came when her father was the only one who identified a mystery wine in a blind tasting held by the Chevaliers du Tastevin, an exclusive fraternity of wine enthusiasts. It was an obscure vintage that Sterling remembered from sampling it with Alexander Calder in the artist’s studio in the Loire region.

Joy Sterling said her parents, who would have celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary on Aug. 30, were a spectacular couple.

“One way their joie de vivre comes through is that their home is always full of flowers,” she said in a 2014 interview. “They dine by candlelight, just the two of them, listening to classical music.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Joy, all of Sebastopol, Sterling is survived by a son, Laurence, three grandchildren, a great-grandson and two nephews.

No funeral services will be held. In lieu of flowers, Sterling’s family asks for a donation to a favorite charity or Hospice of Petaluma.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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