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Esterlina--Catnip for humans

A young winery struts its stuff

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Steve Sterling has the healthy glow of a native Californian, reared in the valleys of Merced County among the almonds, walnuts and his family's herd of prime cattle. He spent his formative years there, alongside numerous friends who were the children of Gallo winery employees. Steve's father, Murio, is a fourth generation rancher from a family whose roots were originally planted in Baton Rouge, La.

Unlike his progenitors, Murio and his wife, Doris, created a precedent by making a novel and shrewd business decision--they uprooted the family north to Turlock in the 1980s and, while their four sons attended Stanislaus State University, they began investing beef earnings into vineyard land. The locations included Mendocino's rugged Anderson Valley with other parcels in Sonoma's Russian River and Alexander valleys. By the '90s, all their eggs were in one vinous basket.

The Sterlings began cautiously, acting primarily as grape growers over their first 10 years of operation. Customers at their door included the likes of Franciscan, Benziger, V. Sattui, B.R. Cohn and Jordan Vineyards. Clearly, some very sweet acreage was in their possession. Steve's brother, Eric, is a doctor by profession, but the wine-making bug hit him hard as the seasons progressed. As Esterlina's winemaker, he is still honing his craft by taking extension courses at the University of California at Davis. Upon tasting his wines, I wonder whether he should be the one doing the teaching! In 1998, the first commercial vintage of Esterlina (Spanish for "Sterling") was released, and it's been an intense, growing enterprise ever since. The two other brothers make Esterlina a true family affair. Chris oversees the vital operations,while Craig, the lawyer, deals with administrative issues.

Steve, the marketing and public relations man, was in our area recently, and we sat down to taste his family's wines--new arrivals in our market. Oh, by the way, Steve is African American.

I was ashamedly surprised, as I assume many people are, to see an African-American man heading up a major winery. It was Steve who brought up the topic quite conversationally between dinner courses. He told me there are about a dozen black-owned wineries in the United States, with Esterlina being the largest. Their holdings add up to 400 acres, yet each varietal they bottle only ranges from 600-1,200 cases each. Not a very large production at all, and the wines represent those special, handmade, artisanal gems you should go out of your way to try.

There was a wonderful sense of pride and wonder as Steve spoke of his chosen metier. Wide-eyed and unaffectedly optimistic, he voiced no jaded "spinning," repeating grape and vintage information by rote. He sought rather to engage people's imagination and showed refreshing, resilient interest in other people's opinions. Things are still rather new at Esterlina, and the wines are winning their share of gold medals in contests, including the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. There are no baby step feelings about these wines. They are polished and finished and bursting with love.

Steve told us one particularly fascinating vineyard tale. One of the Sterling's neighbors is the Baciagalupi family, grape growers in Mendocino for generations. One night, Mrs. Baciagalupi, an emergency room nurse, fell ill at the hospital. Well, who was working with her that evening but Eric Sterling, performing one of his ever-decreasing shifts at the hospital. This fortuitous occasion helped to cement good relations with the Baciagalupis, and the ensuing offer to provide grapes for future Esterlina bottlings.

2002 Dry Riesling, Cole Ranch $16
It is dry, and one of the finest American rieslings I've tasted. Airy, brisk fruit aromas with a sword-like cut of acidity on the nose and palate. Steely, flinty, slightly chalky flavors are focused, clean and vibrant. 90 points

The Cole Ranch is the smallest privately owned American Viticultural Area. Its reputation will surely continue to grow under the Sterling's ownership.

2000 Chardonnay, Russian River $20
A warm, "balmy," creamily styled chardonnay. Long, lingering, well-balanced flavors with floating oak nuances all around. An excellent example of American styling with nothing blatantly over-extracted or slapping your face silly. 90

This wine is, unfortunately, sold out, but the 2002 vintage will be arriving in March. I would bet on a similar success.

2000 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley $41
Gloriously ripe and dark with true Burgundian flair (and without stretching that overused metaphor). Abundant spice, roses and loamy earth. Exotic and sensual. It grows and grows in the glass. It smells and tastes like some sort of "universal fruit"--a composite of all natural essences. Pinot noir does this to a taster--it's like catnip for humans. 92

2001 Merlot, Cole Ranch $20
A fabulous wine and buy. A saturated color produces a nose of extravagance with touches of cedar and mint in a powerful, perfectly balanced wine. The gravelly soil of Cole Ranch produces a dense, chocolaty beverage with real star power. It reminds me of a great Duckhorn, Three Palms Merlot, at a quarter the price. Will improve for three years and hold for eight. 93

This is a winery to catch now before the sound and the fury set in. Steve promises to keep his pricing affordable so that his friends (and the family) can keep drinking it. But a few well chosen monster scores from big, splashy magazines might affect all that. Get in while the value is palpable.

P.S. The Asian-influenced, delicate cuisine at Fins restaurant in Raleigh was a perfect foil to the Esterlina wine lineup. Kudos to chef William D'Auvrey and staff.

Beverage of Champions
So you think it's all fun being a wine writer? You bet it is, especially when tasting cabernet sauvignon from dedicated winemakers and estates. California law dictates that any wine labeled as cabernet sauvignon must contain at least 75 percent of that grape. Many examples are 100 percent and proud of it. But the art of blending other varieties into the bulk of cabernet, in order to produce more nuanced and ultimately more complex wines, is often a wise policy. So many wines in my blind tasting of 50 California estates used the blending art to marvelous advantage. The first that shoots from my Mac is the 2000 Ridge, Montebello, $122 (95). This wine is exactly 75 percent cabernet, with 23 percent merlot and 2 percent cabernet franc. A California benchmark, Montebello is a profoundly dark, brooding, monumentally rich wine. There's so much going on in a framework that could easily be a mythical Cote Rotie cab, or an Australian Grange cabernet!

A new wine from Spring Mountain Vineyard is the 2001 Elivette, $90 (93). With emerging layers of marvelous refined fruit, you just can't wait to take a sip! A pure middleweight with a long, silky mouth feel, exquisite balance and room for short-term improvement. This is the site of television's late Falcon Crest series.

Also impressive was the 2000 Grgich Hills, Napa Valley, $75 (92). A well-rounded fruit-oak complement that projected a halo, an aura of togetherness. Solid, chunky, stylish big frame flavors that will improve further.

Dark yet lithe cherry fruit engulfs you like a velvet gloved tulip in the 2000 Beringer Private Reserve, Napa Valley, $100 (92). A caressing, spicy texture with no harshness and a long finish completes this great success.

An automatic where superior cabernet blending is concerned is 2001 Chateau St. Jean, "Les Cinq Cepages," $75 (91). Dramatic, exquisite bouquet of black cherry, licorice and plum. Lush flavors, exuberant spice with leathery underpinning.

Nearly as good is the 2000 Chateau Souverain, Winemaker's Reserve, Alexander Valley, $35 (91). A ripe, luxurious, heady and impressive cabernet profile. Textbook cab. A pretty bombshell from Ed Killian; it's this tasting's BEST BUY.

There were three bargains--all delicious wines that belie their modest cost. Gallo's 2002 Reserve, Sonoma County, $13 (86) is strong and unsubtle, yet wild berries, spice and dark chocolate perfume make it most attractive. Direct, stay-with-you flavors. Not complex, but very good. The perennial overachiever is the 2002 Francis Coppola, Black Label Claret, $17 (87). Minty and concentrated, with a pinpoint bouquet like a silk thread. Dark, ripe fruit with delicate spice overtones, even flavors that are dry and persuasive, with a surprisingly brisk finish. Finally, the 2001 Mirassou, California, $11 (86) continues to express the improvement this winery is making while exhibiting terrific prices. A fresh, heady style with oak far in the distance. Buoyant, "happy" and slightly herbaceous, with bright, energetic berry flavors that refresh and satisfy. It's my BEST VALUE.

B.R. Cohn's 2000, Olive Hill, $42 (91) has subtlety, elegance and a floating sense of cassis fruit. Rose petals in a tapestry of deeply fruited, stylish flavors make this a charmer.

The 2001 Sterling, Napa Valley Reserve, $86 (90) is a gentle, refined drink that purrs and entices with succulent ripe fruit, new sawn oak background and the sexiness of a perfect string of pearls.

The 1998 Sequoia Grove, Napa Valley Reserve, $45 (90) delivers a very different interpretation at half the price. A Bordeaux-like unfruity red with rugged, mountainside passion and flavors. Inky, dense, stick to your gums style. It's earthy and grabs on tightly.

2001 Dominari, Napa Valley, $83 (89) is a new wine and winery with a great future. Endless depth on the penetrating, dark, blossoming nose. Smells like a French Margaux. Expressive flavors with excellent weight and a sleek texture. Boasts the heaviest bottle for a still wine in the industry (900 grams!).

Delicious and charming is 2000 Etude, Napa Valley, $83 (89) . A gentle, lingering, ephemeral bouquet. Polite yet generous palate that drinks cleanly, refreshingly and seductively. Marvelous.

Two old friends and excellent values also scored big. 2001 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve, $26 (89) with grapes from three different counties is nicely focused, very ripe, luscious and intriguing with a blackberry, nutmeg and vivid spicy profile. Vibrant, persistent flavors with "action" and the spaciousness to breathe freely. 2001 St. Francis, Sonoma County, $19 (89) is a style that I can (usually) pick out of the crowd. Dark cherry, plum and varying shades of exotic scents. Vanilla oak surrounds the bouquet and flavors, and one just smiles and enjoys. Rich with staying power, it's just plain delicious with a perfectly molded finish. A great restaurant wine selection. Superb Value

Others successes included the creamy, brown sugar, sweet earth and chocolate kissed 2001 Sebastiani Secolo, Sonoma Red Wine, $30 (88). The earthy, "truffled" and loamy 2001 St. Clement, Napa Valley, $35 (87) is highly extracted and rugged. A walk on the dusky side of life.

Arturo Ciompi's column appears the second Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net.

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