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A California Family's Wine Business Grows Finer with Time


When strolling down the aisles of a wine store, you might find the name Esterlina Vineyards & Winery missing from the shelves. Looking over the selections at a fine-dining restaurant, you might not see a bottle from the Everett Ridge Winery. That could change once more people who appreciate quality find out about the wines made by the Sterling family in California.

“People don’t take the quality of our wines seriously until they taste them,” explains Stephen Sterling, Vice President of Marketing and Sales.

Esterlina and its sister winery, Everett Ridge, make up the largest viticulture business owned and operated by African Americans in the U.S. Three generations of the Sterling family are investing their talents in producing fine wines including the 2004 Cole Ranch Riesling and 2007 Cole Ranch Dry Riesling, both of which appeared on White House menus.

“We started as growers for a lot of Napa Valley wineries 15 years ago. We now have two wineries and four vineyards,” says Sterling. “People of all walks of life enjoy culinary experiences and wine is a part of that.”

The wineries’ founder, Murio Sterling, farmed the land in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties for more than three decades. In 2001, the family opened its own winery to bottle Sterling-grown grapes. Now, Stephen, a marketing MBA; Eric Sterling, a physician; Craig Sterling, an attorney and MBA; and Christopher Sterling, a vineyard manager, are investing most of their time in building on the success of Esterlina and Everett Ridge. The beliefs of the Sterling patriarch are cultivated along with the grapes grown on more than 300 acres of prime California land:

Our family believes wine growing is all about the land. Based on that belief, we sought out sites in the finest appellations and planted superior clones. Through experimentation, patience and a little luck, we feel we have created exceptional wines. We are confident that paper help after you sample our wines, you will agree.

While nearly 7,000 vintners make wine in the U.S., the number of minorities with wine-making operations is fewer than two dozen. Esterlina’s marketing vice president sees the surprise on wine lovers faces when they notice African Americans seated at vineyard display tables during festivals and other events.

“It becomes somewhat of an anomaly. People want to taste our wines. Anytime you can get people to pay attention to your product, that’s a good thing,” Sterling adds. “Then they are pleasantly surprised at how good they are. We tell them about awards we’ve won and where our wines are featured and they pay more attention.”

Connoisseurs are particularly interested in how master sommeliers and top reviewers rate wines.  Some vintages the Sterlings produced have won awards and been uncorked at tables in celebrity restaurants. The challenge for them and other African American vintners is getting the word out about their products

The Sterling family will produce about 15,000 cases of wine this year. Their wines have won numerous gold and silver medal awards at the California State Fair and the San Francisco Chronicle wine competitions, the two largest judging events for American wines. Wine Enthusiast Magazine 92 points to Everett Ridge’s 2010 Dry Creek Old Vine Zinfandel. In 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle put Esterlina Vineyards 2006 Cole Ranch Riesling on its of top 100 wines in its “Best of the West” article.

The co-author of the book, “Black is the New Green,” recently stated on NPR radio smart marketers would pay more attention to the $87.3 billion purchasing power of affluent black Americans.

“The African American consumer spends 4.4 million annually on in-store wine purchases. So can you imagine, if you actually targeted that audience, what the sales would be?,” said Andrea Hoffman, CEO of Diversity Affluence.

Not so simple for small wineries competing with nationally-recognized brands. The Sterlings and most of the other African Americans vintners sell their wines by mail order or online. Those sales are further limited by the restrictions several states place on delivering wines directly to consumers. Some small distributors in Illinois, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Nevada currently sell Esterlina and Everett Ridge wines.

““The biggest barrier to getting into the industry [and thriving] is money. It is tough to raise capital and increase sales,” says Sterling. “Budgets for marketing and advertising are smaller than for larger, more well-known wineries.”

Add in the impact of the recent economic recession and you can appreciate how amazing it is that the Sterling family wineries will celebrate a 10th anniversary this year. A look at a few reviews on confirms there is truth to the family’s motto, “Quietly making wines that are too good to ignore.”

“The Esterlina wines are amazing – they have a huge variety from Riesling to Syrah to Pinot to Cabernet. They are also priced really well…,” wrote Audrey B. of San Francisco, CA on August 23, 2010.

“Yes, the wine is delicious, focused, award winning and accessible but Everett Ridge is the total package. In addition to amazing wines they are a family business that cares about their customers and community…,” wrote R.G. of San Francisco, CA

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