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Beautiful Memories

by Joy Sterling | Published July 27, 2020

Beautiful Memories

Barry Sterling

1929- 2019

It is with profound sadness that the Iron Horse family announces the passing of our Co-Founder Barry Sterling. He died after a long illness. He was 90 years old.

We feel very lucky that we were all able to be home with him.  

Born on Black Tuesday October 25, 1929, Barry had a momentous and exciting life. He was a prominent attorney, though he was a vintner longer than he had practiced law, world traveler, politically active, collector of art and antiquities, philanthropist, handsome and charming raconteur, master gardener, loving husband, and great father. He cut a dashing figure living in Paris in the 1960s with his young family and was always very debonair.

A  Los Angeles native and Stanford alumnus ’50, JD’52, he graduated law school in the same class with William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, passed the bar, was inducted into the army and married Audrey Shapiro Sterling all in one weekend. Chief Justice Rehnquist was first in the class, Justice O’Connor third and Barry, eleventh out of 114.

August 30 would have been Audrey and Barry’s 68th wedding anniversary.

He served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in Washington, D.C., and assisted the Department of Defense‘s legal staff during the McCarthy Senate hearings. Their daughter Joy was born in Washington.

The Sterlings returned to Los Angeles, where Barry opened a corporate law firm and soon their son Laurence was born. The couple became engaged in Democratic politics. Both were founding members of the Los Angeles Music Center and the Los Angeles Art Museum. In 1963, Audrey was appointed by Gov. “Pat” Brown to serve on  the  California  Fair Employment Practice Commission. She spent almost four years fighting discrimination in employment and housing.

For Barry’s 30th birthday, Audrey gave him his first trip to Europe. He fell in love with France and vowed to live there. It took him eight years.

The family moved to France in 1967, where they led a glamorous life, splitting time between a belle epoch apartment on Avenue Foch in Paris and a villa in the hills above Cannes. Their years in France, traveling to the various wine regions, sparked the idea of living on a vineyard, growing grapes, and making wine. The vision was always a “chateau model”, dedicated to producing estate bottled wine.

A decisive moment came when Barry was written up in the International Paris Tribune for besting his fellow Chevaliers du Tastevin in a blind tasting at the restaurant Taillevent. He was the only one to identify the mystery wine – an obscure Cahors that he distinctly remembered from tasting it with Alexander Calder in the artist’s studio in the Loire at 9 o’clock in the morning. He said the burning feeling of that wine as it went down the throat was unforgettable.  But winning the tasting, as an American, no less, made him feel, “Hey, we can do this.”

After years of hunting for the perfect site in France, the Sterlings returned home to California, where the quest continued.

Farming was in Barry’s DNA, going back to his grandparents, who were walnut growers in Capistrano. His parents had a grapefruit and date farm in the Coachella Valley.

The Sterlings first saw Iron Horse in a driving rainstorm in 1976 with the vineyard development only partially completed. There was no winery and the 19th century carpenter gothic house was dramatically listing to one side. Nevertheless, after a taste of wines made from Iron Horse grapes, they knew their search had ended and a dream begun.

The winery opened in 1979, on Barry’s 50th birthday; the first vintage of Sparkling Wines arrived the next year. Iron Horse vintage Blanc de Blancs was served at the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings, ending the cold war, a White House tradition that has continued for 35 years. The winery produces a special cuvée with National Geographic called Ocean Reserve, that supports ocean conservation as well as a limited production, vintage Brut called Gratitude that benefits the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

It is hard to remember how pioneering it was to put down roots in western Sonoma County in the mid-70s. Even the UC Davis Agricultural Extension Agents advised against investing in the area as too prone to frost. But the Sterlings knew the value of a cool climate for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from their years in France and Audrey was familiar with the area from childhood summers on the Russian River.

They were the creators of the Green Valley appellation. In 1983, the name of the applicant for federal recognition of Green Valley as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) was Audrey M Sterling with her attorney of record, Barry H. Sterling, simultaneously with the Russian River gaining AVA status.

Barry served on the board of the San Francisco Symphony and was a Lifetime Trustee of the Leakey Foundation.

Profiled in the local Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Barry said: “We have no regrets,” he said. “Our life is great. We’ve had a very good run. Frankly, on our passing, no one is going to say, ‘Oh, they never got to enjoy life.’ Everyone who knows us knows we’ve had a hell of a good time.”

He is survived by his wife Audrey, children Joy, Laurence and Terry; grandchildren Justine, Mike, Barrie and Joseph; great grandson Calvin, born on June 4; nephews and nieces Rand, Pamela, Scott, Susan and Judy Sterling; brother- and sister-in-law Bert and Joan Shapiro.

There will be no funeral services. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you contribute to the charity of your choice, or Hospice of Santa Rosa.