Photo by: Purwo Kuncoro

Life Trustee Barry Sterling Dies at Age 90

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Barry Sterling, Life Trustee of The Leakey Foundation and co-founder of Iron Horse Vineyards, in his garden in Sebastopol, California. Photo courtesy of the Sterling family.

by Sharal Camisa

It is with profound sadness that I share the news of Barry Sterling’s death on July 26th at his home in Sebastopol, California. He was 90 years old.  

Barry was elected to The Leakey Foundation Board of Trustees in 1991 and received the honorary title of Life Trustee in 2007. His daughter Joy Sterling joined the Board of Trustees when Barry resigned and carried on her father’s legacy at the Foundation. Fellow Life Trustee Bill Richards said, “Barry was such a treasure in life, he will be missed deeply.”

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, raconteur, master gardener, loving husband, and great father.

Barry Sterling was Los Angeles native and Stanford alumnus (’50, JD’52) who was in the same law school class with Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor. Barry passed the bar, was inducted into the army, and married Audrey Shapiro Sterling all in one weekend. August 30 would have been their 68th wedding anniversary. Chief Justice Rehnquist was first in the class, Justice O’Connor third and Barry, eleventh out of 114. 

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. Barry and Audrey’s 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 Governor “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.

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 began.

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. In 2016 Iron Horse made a limited production of “Monkey Cuvee” (featuring a snub-nosed monkey on the label) for the Foundation to celebrate Chinese New Year for the Year of the Monkey; proceeds from the sale benefited The Leakey Foundation.

During his tenure on the board of The Leakey Foundation, Barry served on many Foundation committees including Governance and Finance. He was an astute advisor on many topics, including fundraising, and also held a deep passion for the educational outreach that the Foundation offered.

Audrey and Barry Sterling at the celebration of Gordon Getty’s 40th anniversary as chairman of the board of The Leakey Foundation. Photo by Jessamyn Harris.

Barry and Audrey graciously opened their home and winery on many occasions to help bring awareness and raise funds for the Foundation’s mission. They also offered unique wine gifts at Foundation events including a magnum of wine in honor of their friend, Gordon Getty’s 40th anniversary with The Leakey Foundation. We celebrated this milestone in their garden with a sumptuous lunch surrounded by the most beautiful roses.

Leakey Foundation President Camilla Smith said, “George and I so loved Barry.  He was such a warm presence at The Leakey Foundation and a wise counselor.  My daughter Sarah and I traveled with Barry and Audrey in Africa and experienced with them the lions stalking our guide and ranger while we sat terrified in the truck. Barry continued with Audrey and Joy to support The Leakey Foundation in so many ways after he left active involvement. I saw him as a role model, supporting human origins research, music, and art.”

Profiled in the local Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Barry said, “We have no regrets. 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.”

Barry 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 Petaluma.

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