Iron Horse Blog
I am very proud of this interview on the California Grown website for their "Meet a Farmer" series, posted last week. I hope you will read and enjoy it. It is all about who we are.
MARCH 10, 2017
Meet a Farmer: Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards
Meet Joy Sterling, CEO of Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol, CA. As a second-generation farmer, she's proud of the wine her family's vineyard produces. Learn more about her, why she says agriculture is in her DNA and how wine has become her passport in life!
CA GROWN: Tell me about the history of the company and what your role is.
Joy: My parents bought Iron Horse Vineyards 41 years ago in 1976 and we are a completely estate-bottled winery, so we use our own grapes exclusively. We make Sparkling Wine, which is what we're best known for, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
CA GROWN: What does a typical day look like for you?
Joy: No two days are alike. Right now from a farming standpoint, we are just getting bud break in the vineyards, so that's a very exciting time even though it's a little early for us. So we're rushing to get the pruning done as quickly as we possibly can and then we'll be on alert because we're subject to frost as late as June 1.
We have some new releases that I'm excited about for spring. On March 20, we're going to release a new limited production Sparkling Wine called Spring Rose.
I'm also working on a major event called Celebrate Earth Day in Green Valley, which will take place on Sunday, April 23. The keynote speaker is California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross. The theme of the day is the Future of Food. There will be eight wineries from Green Valley, which is our special growing area, pouring delicious Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. We've enlisted a Silicon Valley start up called Copia, a phone app that restaurants and events can use to get volunteers to come and pick up any excess and leftover food and get that to people in need instantly.
CA GROWN: What are you most proud of that your winery has done or participated in?
Joy: There are so many things, but what started it was the historic Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings in 1985 that ended the Cold War. As you can imagine, to this day, my family takes complete credit for ending the Cold War. It's the pillar of our prestige and incredible point of pride for us.
Another was New Year's Eve 1999. The White House ushered in the new millennium with Iron Horse wines. They've been served at Supreme Court dinners, to the Queen of England and the President of China. And we make a special cuvee in partnership with National Geographic, which the State Department has served on a number of occasions called Ocean Reserve. We give $4 a bottle to National Geographic's ocean initiative to help established marine protected areas and support sustainable fishing around the globe.
CA GROWN: What are some ways your company gives back to the community?
Joy: In addition to the National Geographic partnership and the Earth Day event, we contribute to charitable organizations and I serve on the State Food and Agricultural Board, appointed by Jerry Brown.
CA GROWN: What drew you into the farming profession?
Joy: I am very lucky that it's a family business. Before I joined the winery, I was a journalist for 10 years. When I had my annual review with my immediate superior at the time, he told me I was right on track to be just like him and I went home and cried. The last thing on earth I wanted to be was like him and so there I was with a decision to make. I came home and started off doing sales and marketing in 1985 and I became CEO in 2006.
I pinch myself every single day and I don't take any of this for granted. Our winery is so incredibly beautiful and I am absolutely 100% certain that the deliciousness of our wine is a result of the grapes knowing they're growing in such a beautiful place.
I also believe that as Californians, it's part of our DNA to have a love of the land and an inclination to agriculture.
CA GROWN: What are your hobbies or pastimes when you're not farming?
Joy: I'm a writer. I've written four books. I love to be outdoors. I love to hike and walk. And I'm a big traveler and adventurer. In June, I'm going to Uganda to see the mountain gorillas and I'm beyond excited about that. First I'm going to London where Decanter Magazine, which is a very prestigious British wine publication, is hosting an international Sparkling Wines of the world event. Once I'm in London, I'm halfway to Africa and I really wanted to see the gorillas, so I'm going. It's going to be a fantastic trip and I'm really looking forward to it.
CA GROWN: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a farmer?
Joy: First of all, I encourage people to become farmers. It may not be the most fashionable thing people think about, but it is so incredibly gratifying. In the wine world, there are so many different ways to get involved, but the most important thing you can do is to just get an entry level position and learn from it. There are some wonderful learning institutions you can go to and learn about the industry and the science. Or you can gain hands-on experience too because nothing beats getting your hands dirty. That's agriculture. And the most important element in fine wine grape growing is walking the vineyards so you can be in touch with what's going on.
The thing about fine wine grape growing is that there is so much opportunity. You've got geology, you've got chemistry, you have soil science, plant science ... so many different facets.
I read a quote the other day that I really loved and it said "Someone who works with his hands is a laborer. Someone who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman. Someone who works with his hands, his mind and his heart is an artist." There's no doubt in mind that the entire Iron Horse family is made up of artists because they put their hearts into grape growing and wine making every day.
CA GROWN: What is something that's unique about your business or makes it stand out?
Joy: I think the fact that we make sparkling wine makes us special because there are very few sparkling wine producers in California. The barriers for entry are very high because when you're making sparkling wine, you age them so long and as anybody in business will tell you, holding onto inventory is the most expensive thing you can do.
Another thing that makes us stand out is being estate-bottled and strictly using our own grapes. It's the foundation of our belief system that our vineyard is capable of producing unique, distinctive, top-quality flavors and the only thing that's proprietary to us are the grapes. That really leads our marketing concept - we make those distinctive, delicious wines so that when you wake up at 3 a.m. with an undeniable thirst for Iron Horse wines, absolutely nothing else will do.
Iron Horse is not only my family's business, but it's our home. We have three generations living on the property ranging in ages from 22 to 87. So we have a kind of "Waltons" type of thing going on, which is fantastic. We are a model of an agricultural layout in the sense that the property is crisscrossed by the natural, riparian corridors. The property is beautifully broken up and it's not wall to wall vineyard.
CA GROWN: What has contributed to your past success and what are you doing to ensure continued success going forward?
Joy: To ensure our continued success, we aren't interested in consistency at all. We're interested in doing better and better and better. At every meeting, we're talking about what we can do to take the wines to the next level. Being estate-bottled means that our growth is not in quantity, but in quality. So we have a very specific vision of making wines that speak to our home place.
CA GROWN: What's the most rewarding part of your job?
Joy: The people I meet. First of all, people who like wine are the most gracious, generous, hospitable, fun-loving, sharing type of people. I think of wine as my passport, I can go anywhere and talk to anybody and when I say I'm in the wine world, they just can't wait to talk about wine.
Everybody loves to talk about wine and part of the beauty of that is that everybody is right when it comes to wine, there is no right or wrong. We all taste differently and it's like lying on your back in the grass and looking at the clouds. You might see a horse and I might see a ship and we're both right. So it has an amazing ability to bring people together, which is why wine has historically been a diplomatic drink. It's common ground.
CA GROWN: As a California farmer, we know that you have a long list of activities you undertake on your farm to care for the land and its resources. What are one or two ways that you're most proud of or you feel are innovative ways you care for your land?
Joy: When my parents bought Iron Horse in 1976, the first thing they did was build a reservoir. As Californians, they understood that they had to have water storage. Then in 1990, my brother brilliantly entered into an agreement with the neighboring town of Forestville to recharge our reservoir with tertiary-treated water. So we're using recycled water for all of our frost protection, for the vegetable gardens, etc. Irrigation isn't a giant thing for us, but frost protection uses a huge amount of water, so we're ahead of the curve on water use.
Also, our property is bisected by Green Valley Creek which is a tributary to the Russian River and we are working with local engineers and Fish and Wildlife to restore the creek and make it better for the salmon.
I am very excited to say hello to the sun after a February that swiftly washed away in the storms. According to my brother’s stats, Iron Horse has received 41 inches of rain since January 1 – up 250% from “normal”. (Normal being the ten year average.)
What that means for the grapes is anyone’s guess. There are so many variables ahead. But I think it is safe to assume this will be an expensive vintage. We are going to need to catch up on the pruning.
And we can expect a lot of leaf growth, which we will pull off by hand, directing the vine’s energy to the grapes instead of “wasting” it on an excess of leaves.
On the plus side,
- The camellias have never been more gorgeous. The ones at my parents’ house are massive and covered in flowers so perfect they don’t even look real.
- We do not have any vines standing in water thanks to the gentle, rolling, interlocking knolls on the estate, which naturally shed water.
- Our highly coveted sandy soil type, called Gold Ridge soil, provides excellent drainage.
- And the cover crop which my brother brilliantly seeded between the vine rows back in November, is now lush and bright, spring green, doing its job, preventing erosion.
Looking ahead, we hope to be very lucky and have cold temps staving off bud break for three weeks, no big rain storms thereafter and a later snow melt in the Sierras than the past few years, ideally starting in April and slowly running through the summer as critical for our levees and reservoirs.
We have two new releases – the 2003 vintage of Joy Blanc de Blancs on March 17 and a new limited production 2013 Spring Rose, perfect for toasting the vernal equinox, which we are including in the March Wine Club shipment. Only 400 cases produced.
I am very excited about how our Earth Day event is evolving and proud to announce our first sponsors to come forward: The Turner Foundation, Breakthru Beverage, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, Riedel Crystal and California Caviar Company.
The theme this year is the Future of Food. Food connects us, nourishes us, and defines us. As part of the day, National Geographic is mounting a truncated version of an exhibit which looks at how we will grow and eat in the future to meet the needs of an expanding population. Food does more than just keep us alive. It plays a central role in connecting us to the land, to our heritage, and to each other.
Please click here to order tickets.
Wishing you all blue skies ahead.
Greetings from thoroughly drenched Green Valley. We have received 22 inches of rain since January 1. Green Valley Creek which bisects the vineyard is a tributary of the Russian River and that whole swath of the estate is in a 100 year floodplain.
Photo: LG Sterling
For several days you couldn't see the tops of the posts on the bridge. We call that doing our part to replenish the aquifers.
Of course we need the rain. A year ago, 43 percent of the state was gripped by "exceptional drought". Now that figure is two percent. (Source: US Drought Monitor) And after 40 years here at Iron Horse we are seasoned at riding out a wet winter.
We are very lucky that our vineyards are hillside and our sandy soils drain easily. The rainbows have been inspiring. But we are going to have to hustle to get the pruning done before bud break.
Photo: LG Sterling
January is the traditional time to report on the state of the winery and I am proud to convey that the state of the winery is strong - a soggy mess after what has seemed like boundless rain from the start, but gamely moving forward.
There are some things about 2016 I would be very happy to repeat. Number #1, our many successes as a vineyard, winery, business and family. I am privileged to get to work with an exceptional team. And, last year, in some areas, we surprised ourselves.
I smile when I think about how smoothly we transitioned to tastings by appointment on the weekends. The response surpassed all expectations. We had the pleasure of welcoming 33,000 guests here last year and the San Francisco Chronicle named us one of the top 50 Tastings Rooms in Napa & Sonoma.
Now we ask that you please make reservations on weekdays too. It truly elevates the experience. Please look at the reservation program to see how easy it is.
Some of my fondest memories of 2016 involve toasting with "Cuvee 50" for Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco, which now feels so far back in time, and "Spirit of 76" celebrating the 40th Anniversary of when my parents acquired Iron Horse in 1976.
Both were one time only, limited production bubblies, never to be replicated.
2016 was in no way an easy vintage. The crop was low and there was so much uneven ripening that in many blocks we picked just half the crop - strictly the mature fruit, and then went back two three days later to pick the rest once it too had fully ripened. The resulting wines have set a new bar for us and the year will always stand out as our 40th harvest at Iron Horse.
From the beginning the goal has been to strive for the highest quality, so it is especially gratifying to see Iron Horse in the current issue of Wine Enthusiast at the same table with the very best in the world.
Looking forward, the next release of Joy! is Friday March 17, St. Patrick's Day. It's bound to be a lucky day. This will be our third time hosting a Joy! Release Tasting. So far they have been very successful. There is no doubt that the first one, last March got the most excitement because we had been out of Joy! (Joy!less) for three years. Still, the November release did extremely well and received a near perfect 98 point rating. The November Joy! was 50% Pinot and 50% Chardonnay. I say "was" because as of last night we had 18 magnums left. The upcoming Joy! is the same vintage - 2003, but Blanc de Blancs and aged six months longer. Please make reservations here.
I am also very excited about how our Earth Day event is evolving.
The theme is the future of food.
The participating wineries are DeLoach Vineyards, Dutton-Goldfield Winery, Freeman Vineyard and Winery, Hartford Family Winery, Iron Horse Vineyards, Lynmar Estate, Marimar Estate, Rubin Family of Wines.
The keynote speaker is California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross.
Acclaimed San Francisco Chef Traci Des Jardins is on board to showcase the "Impossible Burger", made entirely from plants, served it at the Paris Climate Change Conference as tartare.
Ronstadt Generations will perform live, honoring the family's musical traditions with the Southwestern and Mexican songs of their heritage blended with original material. Special guest: Linda Ronstadt.
Imperfect Produce is providing a beautiful display of "ugly" produce as crudités.
We have enlisted Copia, a mobile app that helps businesses and events connect excess edible food to feed communities in need, instantly.
I hope you will be able to join in. Net proceeds will benefit Sustainable Conservation, a non-profit organization uniting people to solve California's toughest environmental challenges, chosen by Secretary Ross to be the beneficiary.
Finally, Gung Hay Fat Choy. Saturday is Chinese New Year. And naturally we are pouring our Year of the Rooster Cuvee in the Tasting Room.
Please come join us in a toast.
Thanksgiving dinner is traditionally fraught and seems especially so this year coming on the heels of an historically bitter election. A story in The New York Times last Wednesday suggests the all out war between the presidential candidates may also lead to war at the family table. I pray this doesn’t happen to you. But hosts and guests alike can stave off holiday strife by heeding some very easy to follow advice: make sure there’s plenty of really delicious wine on the table, especially wines you yourself will love to drink. Thanksgiving is all about indulgence and sharing. So, why not?
Wine can be the great equalizer at the Thanksgiving table, bringing us together at a pivotal moment in American history. I encourage you to leverage this unique, conciliatory quality of wine to navigate potential landmines at your holiday celebrations.
Wine has a long and storied history of providing common ground. It’s a convener. It draws everyone in. To shore up this thesis, I solicited supporting evidence from our vineyard based team and here’s what they shared:
Wine is a perfectly safe topic.
It’s fun! It does contain alcohol.
It’s empirically proven that you always make friends when you bring the wine.
And, if you enjoy wine, you probably will probably enjoy talking about it … especially as a respite from talking politics.
A delicious wine can bridge all divides.
We traditionally start our holiday meal with a toast, which automatically brings in everyone at the table with the clinking of glasses. After a couple of sips, the social lubricant does its magic. Everyone starts to relax and communicate. The din in the room starts to rise. Laughter follows.
Each of us experiences wine in a different way. It is one of the few things where everyone is right. You taste raspberries in a Pinot … and I taste smoke and spice. It’s like sitting on the bench at the winery and looking out at the clouds. I see a bear and you see a ship in full sail. We’re both right. What’s exciting is the sharing. It’s a way to get to know someone.
Wine has intersected with politics dating back to the time of pharaohs and continues today as part of a strategy of “soft power” being deployed at the White House and State Department where the menu, the wines, the table setting are all carefully considered (see NY Times article here).
I believe one reason Iron Horse was chosen for the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings in 1985 is because of our proximity to the Russian River and that we pertain to the town of Sebastopol. Our geographic roots supplied an instant connection and something mutually agreeable to talk about. At the time, we were told that every member of cabinet signed off on the selection.
As we prepare for a memorable Thanksgiving, I want to leave you with some unifying words that you might be able to carry into a potentially challenging holiday season. Rudyard Kipling said, “Words, of course, are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Use them wisely, and kindly. With a glass of wine ever in hand.
“Good company, good wine, good welcome, can make good people.” – William Shakespeare
“Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody." - Samuel Pepys,17th Century England
“An iconic American Thanksgiving meal prepared by an iconic American chef (Mom, Dad, Grandma) calls for iconic American wines … “ Dave McIntyre, Washington Post
Historic Thanksgiving Day Facts:
1621: The year of the first Thanksgiving, a three-day feast in Plymouth.
The holiday was originally dedicated to giving thanks for a bountiful autumn harvest.
The Pilgrims probably drank beer or even more likely hard cider.
Thanksgiving became an annual affair only in the late 1660s.
The first truly national Thanksgiving holiday was observed in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln established the annual Thanksgiving date in a bid to promote unity between the Northern and Southern states.
Every president since Harry Truman has pardoned a turkey for Thanksgiving.
Finally, for the giving in Thanksgiving, please consider our 2012 Ocean Reserve. $4 per bottle goes to National Geographic’s ocean initiative, helping establish marine protected areas and support sustainable fishing around the globe.
Sending my very best wishes to you and yours for a wonderful, peaceable Thanksgiving filled with love, laughter and delicious wine.
October, besides being just a gorgeous month at home, also happens to be a prime selling month. This takes me out into the market to present Iron Horse wines ahead of the holidays. It’s an annual ritual I cherish as I get to personally call on some of the country’s leading sommeliers and wine buyers and hear first hand what they’re thinking. This year, the word on everyone’s lips seems to be “dosage.” As in, “What is your dosage”?
So that got me to thinking, what’s driving the interest in dosage and, as VinePair posited, “Is Dosage a Dirty Word?”
2015 Cuvee's Line-Up
The answer is obviously yes. Globally speaking, the trend in sparkling wines is skewing drier and drier. But at Iron Horse, we are taking this highly rarified aspect of sparkling wine making to a whole new level having actually very little to do with sugar.
Dosage (aka liqueur d’expedition or lex) is the finishing touch to a bottle of bubbles – a simple syrup of wine and sugar, the final step in méthode champenoise, the last addition before inserting the cork.
Dosage represents about 1% of the contents of a 750ml bottle and at its most basic, determines the degree of dryness to sweetness of the wine.
The spectrum runs from:
no dosage, which goes by various names: brut zero, brut nature, non dosé, bone dry
extra brut (defined as under .5% residual sugar)
brut level dry (.5% to 1.5% rs) the most classic and pervasive
sec, which ironically means dry in French, but denotes medium sweet, sometimes confusingly called extra dry, but is to my taste downright saccharine. The discontinued Moet White Star was a particularly popular Extra Dry style, at one time the most popular in the United States.
doux, 5% sugar.
Over the last two centuries, there has been a tendency to drink champagne with less and less added sugar. In the 19th century, champagne was drunk very heavily sweetened, with residual sugar levels varying between 5 and 10% or even more.
Today, there very few “doux” and “demi-sec” champagnes. And as a general trend in my observation even the bruts are becoming drier in recent years. Why?
For insight we contacted Rajat Parr, Partner/Proprietor Domaine de la Cote. I first met Raj as the wine director for Michael Mina’s Wine Program and we first had the pleasure of working with him on crafting the inaugural Michael Mina Cuvee 20 years ago and counting.
Raj told us, “Champagnes in the 20s, 30s, 40s up until the 80s were slightly off dry. Now in the last 10 years, Champagne has gone drier and drier, it’s a trend of the world. Sweeter drinks are now seen as simple or not as complex. Non-dosage sparkling wines are a la mode. “
“My pallet is all about fresh and higher acid wines. For Michael Mina, I wanted dry because I knew Michael Mina’s cuisine. I was looking to make wine that was more accessible with the food. I was thinking about the guests at the restaurant and trying to profile their preferences.”
To achieve this, we brought Raj in-house to participate in the process we use in creating dosage. It starts with David assembling a series of dosage trials.
Signature David Munksgard Dosage Trial -- the scientist assessing Wedding Cuvee
The dosage trials involve sitting in front of eight or so flutes. Each is filled with the same base wine, same vintage, everything being equal, except for the dosage. You may think we are talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but the stylistic differences are jaw dropping.
Says Raj, “Being involved in the blind tasting with David to taste so many different combinations and permutations of dosage, was an amazing experience … and then we celebrated at lunch with the family.“
So, by our “disruptive” thinking, more important than the amount of sugar (or lack there of) is the composition of the dosage.
As David puts it “A lot of what we do has nothing to do with the addition of sugar. I’m actually adding in aromatics and flavor. Sugar has no flavor; it simply tastes sweet. What Iron Horse is doing at the very end - what dosage is about for us is a final “spicing” of the wine. This sets the style of the wine.” This approach is something that not many other houses are doing -- and it’s why we have come to call it Disruptive Dosage (Dosage 3.0).
Here’s how David explains it:
“An easy visual to explain our process is to think about a cold glass of ice tea. To perfect it with our flavor goals in mind, we crush more raspberries or Parisien lime juice into it. In essence, we’re building on the flavors that are already there to bend the wine in one direction or another.
For example, we sometimes like to add an older still wine to the dosage …. instead of sugar. Older wines have a high level of aldehydes , which are like sherry. Most of the time, when you taste sherry you would swear the wine was sweet, but actually there’s no residual sugar; you are tasting aldehydes. So, instead of adding sugar, I sometimes I reach into the Iron Horse library for older wines, in bottle, aging on the cork.
Experience and enthusiasm yielding disruptive dosage excellence
If I want to make it even more fun, I can add a bit of a red wine - not enough to make it pink but maybe copper, which could add ‘patina’ to the wine, if that’s what we’re looking for.
An all-chardonnay dosage can bring brightness and a perception of youth. The most important ingredient is creative thinking.
We are adding other things at the end that have nothing to do with sugar. In that regard, we’re doing something, to my knowlege, that really no one else is doing."
Here is a mini-version of a dosage tasting that you can try at home:
Compare our 2012 Brut X, 2012 Classic Vintage Brut and 2012 Russian Cuvee – three variations on the same base wine, each with a different dosage. We feel all three are of equal quality, making this a purely hedonistic experience. The point is to spotlight the influence of dosage.
NB For a straight up comparison, go with the same vintage across the board.
Brut X is the driest, so start there... The first two vintages were called Ultra Brut, a name I loved, until we received a very polite letter from the attorneys for the Laurent Perrier Champagne House asking us to cease and desist.
Some vintages like X is absolutely bone dry i.e. no residual sugar, which was a learning for me. I thought ultra or extra brut meant by definition no dosage, but we found that adding a few milliliters of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave the bubbly added refinement and polish.
Our Classic Vintage Brut is as the name implies our standard bearer in the sense that it sits at the same table with the finest bubblies made anywhere in the world, but showcasing the gorgeous fruit flavors that are unmistakably California, Sonoma County, Russian River, Green Valley and most specifically Iron Horse.
Russian Cuvée is the richest of our bubblies, but still technically a brut at 1.5% residual sugar. This has been (since 1985) and hopefully will continue to be (for all time) the cuvée favored by the White House. The tradition has been to serve it as the toasting wine at State Dinners, at the end of the meal, with dessert and prior to the evening’s entertainment.
This tasting of the three bubblies - X, Classic and Russian, should be purely hedonistic. We feel they are of equal quality. It’s fine to pick a favorite or love all three. The game, I mean "educational exercise," is intended to give you mental space to understand your own perspective on the dosage discourse dominating the industry.
As David will tell you, “Don’t just think about the dryness. 'That’s so yesterday'. We’ve considered the standard post-disgorgment practice and we’ve taken it to a whole new, exciting level.”
The Iron Horse “marketing ” team is lean, to say the least, but we think big and are quick to move on a great idea. A new product launch becomes part of an illustrious and dynamic legacy. Standards are high, and family expectations are higher. So when Joy informed me that Iron Horse would be releasing a new gift item, I was intrigued. That curiosity grew to excitement when I discovered that item would be a saber. Shiny and beautiful but also useful and extremely efficient towards the end goal of unleashing delicious bubbles. An engraved saber that comes in a branded wood box is the perfect accompaniment to Iron Horse Sparkling Wines.
I jumped at the chance to understand why Joy selected this particular item to add to the family’s special cache of Iron Horse offerings. Maybe because my wedding party sabered bottles to fuel a champagne tower at our reception or maybe because sabering is enjoying a pop culture renaissance .... either way, I dove in. Which required research. My mini investigation transformed me briefly into my AP World History student-self, this time with the joys of the internet and none of the dust of the library. The discoveries were as enchanting as the sunrise in Green Valley and as rooted in French history as the winemaking methods at Iron Horse.
The lore of sabering takes different turns depending on your source. Most agree it all starts with Napoleon. After the French Revolution of 1789, The Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe. Napoleon’s soldiers mounted fast horses and dressed in lavish uniforms. Oil paintings depict young men in long cloaks with furs draped over broad shoulders. Most importantly, they were armed with rifles … and brass handled sabers. Early victories came easily for this force, who charged home through villages where revellers tossed them bottles of Champagne.
But it seems riding a horse while fumbling with a bottle secured with cork, wire cage and foil-wrapping didn’t fit the dashing portrait of Napoleon’s men. So they improvised, discovering that a quick stroke of a saber blade to the neck of the bottle both released the “drink of the stars” and did so in a decidedly heroic fashion. The upturned bottle with a dangerously sharp tip added to the overall vision of youthful brashness and celebration.
The “Widow” Clicquot makes an appearance in accounts of saber lore. This famous female Champagne house owner symbolises quite a bit for the women of Iron Horse (a story for another blog). But in this context, the story goes that the savvy business woman opened her mansion to Napoleon’s officers and then armed them with her bottles on their way back into battle. Wishing to display gratitude, or perhaps hoping to capture the fancy of the wealthy lady, the young men would perform the saber ritual for her before racing back to the front lines. Swoon.
It is comforting to me that the best things through history seem to endure. And that is truly the case with sabering. I caught up with several Iron Horse friends who were happy to chat saber etiquette and procedure. Meet Master Sabreuse Catherine Fallis aka the Grape Goddess, Master Sommelier David Glancy founder of San Francisco Wine School, Brad Kinder of Kind Wines, who represents Iron Horse through Florida, and Petra Polakovicova, Wine Director at Epic Steak in San Francisco. All have a slightly different take on the art of the performance. But all share their concern for safety above all else.
David Glancy explained, “Sabering really started out as a quick and dirty tactic. You used a sword or knife or a blunt object to knock off the neck of a champagne bottle. It started with Napoleon’s troops who employed this method very sloppily I’m sure. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.” He told us that the key to the whole show is to get the champagne REALLY cold. Especially the neck. We’re talking ice bath cold, completely submerged for at least an hour.
David emphasized this point saying, “Bottles DO explode. I’ve gotten very tiny shards of glass in my wrist and in my neck even from what seemed to be perfect sabering.” Catherine Fallis is also a fanatic about the well-chilled, near-frozen temperature in her sabering performances. Our favorite Grape Goddess added that she prefers magnums, which are easier to take contact with along the seam to the lip. And she reminds us the sabering is an unright motion, not a downward “decapitation” (an appropo reference when speaking of the French Revolution).
Michael Rosati Photography
But if all goes well you can be assured that party goers will clamor for more. It seems to put a punctuation mark on the event. As Brad Kinder told us, “Bubbles are the beverage of celebration and nothing really kicks it off in a better way than sabering the bottle. It draws attention and is super cool especially for people who have never seen it before.” He went on to say, “It’s showmanship and that’s what bubbles are all about. It’s a perfect pairing.” Do not try this at home, but Brad has been know to “saber” a bottle using the bottom of a wine glass. “The danger and the uncertainty of success adds to the fun. I’ve sabered many bottle but I always get an adrenalin rush.”
Taking a risk on an innovative approach can be the most powerful strategy. If this YouTube video involving a golf ball doesn’t make you jump out of your chair, I don’t know what will.
However you decide to go about it, here are some performance and safety MUSTs which I gathered from our experts:
Pre-planning is key.
The bottle needs to be as cold as it can be before the wine turns to slush. That “tames” the bubbles. With a warm bottle, the cork is likely to fly out.
Wear protective eyewear, sunglasses are a dramatic, easy option.
Some experts recommend gloves. Our friend Catherine Fallis favors opera gloves for protection disguised as glamour.
Crowd control is a must. Select a safe space with a clear opening, set up something to aim for, and make sure people aren’t in your path.
Aim at something soft which might absorb the impact … or the great outdoors.
Common sense should also lead you to remove the wire cage from the neck, to avoid a boomerang effect.
Taking off the cage is the most dangerous part - remember it has the power to take your finger off with it!
The maneuver is not about force … or even a sharp edge.
In fact, a butter knife will work.
They key is to run the saber along the seam of the bottle, hitting the neck at just the right angle.
A smooth, clean stroke works best.
Form is everything.
Petra Polakovicova presides in a well-known dining room and can attest to the celebratory vibe created by even a traditional pop of the cork. But she too is moved by the elevated experience of the sabering ritual. “Sabering adds drama. When you open bubbles with a sword, there’s an anticipation. The anticipation of something really cool.”
In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it. -Napoleon
Welcome to the family, Iron Horse saber, Sebastopol Edition.
Another early harvest. Has it become the “new normal”? Our intrepid winemaker says he’s not complaining. Well, maybe just a little. We asked David to provide a mid-September update on Vintage 2016. His reply came one end of summer morning; full of excitement, fearless curiosity, and a thrill for the fruits of the season that seems to grow richer each year. Before diving into his beautiful composition his quick aside summed it the season perfectly : “The Iron Horse harvest yields such a special feeling; it just gets to me. I wish I could bottle it to truly convey it”. We would argue he does exactly that with each beautiful bottle.
2016 Harvest Update by David Munksgard
There are a few major questions every year during harvest:
My first concern about an early harvest is that the weather might be too warm if we are picking in the heat of full-on summer. A later start affords cooler fall conditions. Second, I fear finding overly-ripe or "sugared-up" grapes. Third, I focus on the readiness of my crew, our equipment, and the cellar. Are the tanks and barrels empty? Do we have all the yeast and bacteria we need? My last question is a more personal one. Am I ready for harvest; am I ready for the most important time of the year? And just like that, thoughts turn to action.
Almost as soon as we started harvesting on August 4th in “Sparkling Pinot Noir Block G,” the fog returned and daytime temperatures became quite pleasant. Tasting the juice fresh off the press gave me my first real taste of the vintage. The muscles in my neck started to relax. The smells, the tastes, the sights of harvest all came rushing at me. Not everyone finds in life what they are meant to do. I have. This is it. Every year at the beginning of harvest I hope to have that confirming moment. If this one block, if this first day was representative of what was to come; then all is good with me. That day I recall glancing at Rigo, my cellarmaster. A confident smile came to his face signaling that he was ready along with the winery.
The pace of harvest for the first week and half was slow, finding blocks ready here and there with occasional days of no harvesting at all. This schedule troubles me. Once the game begins, I want myself and everyone on my team to stay focused. I remind myself that the vineyard crew has worked all year to get us to this moment and it’s imperative that we stay in the harvest mindset. But before I could lament further, this year’s harvest started to fall into a good, steady pace. The weather continued to be on our side as the weeks rolled by. Today, we have one block remaining; no hurry here, waiting for deeper, richer flavors that I expect from our Thomas Road Pinot Noir.
After the harvest of 2015, I asked Laurence and the vineyard crew to open up the canopy more in 2016 in the Hyde Old Wente blocks for our still wine Chardonnay. I wanted the grapes to look a certain way to heighten certain smells and flavors. I wanted them to be light straw in color and more translucent, which would give us more tropical scents and flavors in the wine. My hopes took shape as powerful action as the team mobilized to explore the potential pathway. Those blocks are vigorous and challenging to open up, so we bought a new vine hedger to remove some of the vine growth. We then hand removed leaves to bring the perfect amount of sunlight in direct contact with each cluster for a few hours each morning. A dream became a reality. Teamwork.
More experimentation came when the first grapes arrived. I was so pleased and excited that I changed plans on how we would handle the fruit. Instead of whole cluster pressing, we destemmed into the press where we held them soaking with the skins for three hours. The juice was so incredible. Over the next few days from the same blocks, we extended the skin-soaking from a few hours to overnight. This process extracts even more of those yummy tropical tones. So far, the fermentations are telling me that the plan was a good one.
Overall I’d describe this year as a simply beautiful harvest. Crop size (as I estimated pre-harvest in a previous blog post) is more than last year, less than big years like 2014 and 2013. Standouts? I'm pleased with everything. Every year there is an opportunity that arises and it’s great when a well laid out plan comes together just right.
State Department Dinner at the Kennedy Center: Our Ocean, One Future Event Hosted by Secretary Kerry
We are extremely honored that Iron Horse Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs was the toasting wine at last night’s State Department International Ocean Conference - Our Ocean, One Future. The conference hosted by John Kerry brought foreign ministers, NGO leaders, and philanthropists to Washington D.C.
The occasion celebrated President Obama’s a new measure just enacted yesterday, designating the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. The act will protect fragile deep-sea ecosystems off the coast of New England as the “Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.”
Secretary Kerry had much to toast with our bubbles in hand. He also acknowledged an earlier milestone - President Obama’s creation of the world’s largest marine protected area off the coast of Hawaii, creating a safe zone for tuna, sea turtles and thousands of other species in an underwater national park twice the size of Texas.
"Over the past several decades, the nation has made great strides in its stewardship of the ocean, but the ocean faces new threats from varied uses, climate change, and related impacts. Through exploration, we continue to make new discoveries and improve our understanding of ocean ecosystems. In these waters, the Atlantic Ocean meets the continental shelf in a region of great abundance and diversity as well as stark geological relief. The waters are home to many species of deep-sea corals, fish, whales and other marine mammals." - President Obama
With so much history making policy, there was clearly increased pressure to celebrate in kind. Chief of Protocol Peter Selfridge and State Department Chef Jason Larkin (see our past Chef Spotlight here) combined their finely honed diplomatic and culinary skills to create an impactful experience addressing significant global issues through food and wine. The renowned American chef selected to concept the menu was none other than Rick Moonen, who describes himself as a “godfather” of the sustainable seas movement. The four course meal was paired with all Iron Horse wines, featuring Ocean Reserve at the start.
We had the opportunity to speak to Chef Moonen about his starring role and he told us how thrilled he was to be selected as the lead for such an important event and how excited he was to continue making a difference after 40 years of championing the ocean, “My goal was to showcase our resources which need to be protected, creating a menu that reinforces the message … and represents the best of our seafood.”
When developing the progression of the culinary experience, his first instinct was to leverage the fruits of our vineyards, naturally gravitating to to our 2012 Oceans Reserve Blanc de Blancs for everything it strives to accomplish in the mission of saving our seas … and for it’s refreshing zest and creamy, rich finish.
2012 Ocean Reserve was paired with Chef Moonen’s Thai Green Papaya Salad with Toasted Peanuts to open up the dinner. From there, he selected our 2013 Rued Clone Chardonnay, to go with Alaskan Sable Fish and Chesapeake Oyster Chowder. For the entree,our 2013 Q Pinot Noir was served with True North Salmon with Olive Oil Crushed Potatoes and Garlic Caper Sauce. Chef Moonen determined the red wine’s firm and dry finish was the ideal way to round out the meal.
The menu also gave Iron Horse some additional, unexpected recognition, with a short history of the winery. This is the first time Iron Horse has been acknowledged in print on the menu like this, highlighting that our wines have been served by five consecutive US Presidential Administrations. The blurb went on to describe us as “one of the finest family-owned wine properties in the country and the top American-owned, sparkling wine producer in Sonoma County, ” touting our 260 acre reserve in the Green Valley AVA of the Russian River Valley and celebrating our limited edition Ocean Reserve which dedicates a percentage of sales to help establish marine protected areas and global sustainable fishing practices.
The acknowledgement was deeply appreciated by all of us in the Iron Horse family. We are so proud of the coveted role we get to play in such historic events. It is something we think about with each vintage and look forward forward to continuing this relationship, and representing our country with the fruits of our labors! So today we’re raising a glass to the Obama Administration, innovative Chef Moonen, Chef Jason Larkin and the ocean. Cheers!
Find a complete recap of the evening with streaming event video and an overview of the recent eco-responsible governing HERE.
El Niño was a big help to our long term water woes, but not the savior many had hoped (read our blog’s past predictions for the Great Wet Hope here). Winter storms brought normal snowpack in the Sierra, but once the flurries stopped and the seasons changed, melt-off from the high country proved swift and disappointing.
The Department of Water Resources projects that the mountains produced about three quarters of normal runoff during the months of heaviest snowmelt. This shorts the rivers and reservoirs that typically provide a third of California’s water, cementing a fifth year of historic drought for the Golden State (news coverage here). Now the Governor has used his executive powers to enact permanent measures, acknowledging that water conservation has to become a way of life.
“Permanent” turns out to be through January 17 when the state Water Resources Control Board can revise the regulations. For the next five months we are off mandatory water use management and onto voluntary cutbacks.
Instead of a statewide decree, cities and towns are now allowed to manage their individual conservation efforts. This measure acknowledges the obvious - that water, like every resource, is not naturally equally distributed statewide.
Back in 2015, the Governor mandated a 25% reduction in water use compared with a baseline of 2013, with the 411 water districts reporting monthly (full story from the Sacramento Bee here).
Post-El Nino, California officials feel we can afford a break in certain parts of the state, especially in the North. It has now been determined that we can ease off draconian, one size fits all measures. Local communities are empowered to decide their own conservation needs based on a three year stress test. Monthly reporting remains honoring a motto of “Trust, but verify.”
Map of Official Monitoring Stations in the Delta region
In the first month on this “honor system,” the state averaged 23% reduction. July’s numbers will be released soon, concrete evidence of continued commitment to voluntary water frugality.
As an active observer of California Water Policy, I can’t imagine anyone thought El Nino would provide a panacea for drought. Complete recovery requires several more years of “average” rainfall but it definitely was a boon here in Sonoma where soils were saturated and reservoirs refilled.
Long term, the Governor is right to plan for perpetual drought, which experts says is a very real possibility. Some anticipate a time when water may become more valuable than land, positing that land without water won’t be worth much. Shocking.
Theories like these are motivating significant action on a large scale. In an extremely controversial move, Southern California’s powerful Metropolitan Water District recently purchased 20,000 acres, scattered across five agricultural islands in the North’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Shown above, the area is called the “Delta” because it forms a triangle of roughly 1,000 miles of waterways from Antioch to Sacramento to Stockton and is the hub of California’s water delivery network. Metropolitan says they were interested in purchasing the islands so they could restore natural wetlands habitat for plants and wildlife. Such restoration projects are required of water districts to offset the effects of their reservoirs, dams and canals. Two of the islands are in the path of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to build two tunnels underneath the Delta. And owning the islands also grants Metropolitan senior rights to pump water out of the Delta.
Critics say the purchase was an old fashioned water grab. It was challenged in court, but allowed to go through (coverage here and more here).
This story is not without a happy update: Stanford researchers have detected a potential new water source in the Central Valley. Perhaps as much as three times more groundwater than previous estimates.
Previous studies only looked at depths of up to 1,000ft (300m). This one went deeper - and investigations show there’s three times as much fresh water at 1,000–3,000ft (300–900m) below ground.
But the potential “windfall” comes with caveats. It is very deep thus prohibitively expensive to extract and could be salty. Drilling for it could lead to further land subsidence, already a major problem. And much of these hitherto unknown water sources happen to be close to oil and gas wells, which puts them at risk of being contaminated.
Shut-down desalinization plant in Marina, Cali image via NewsDeeply.com
The Central Valley is home to California’s most productive farm belt, but the region’s groundwater is so severely overdrafted that in some places that the land has been sinking two inches a month. Problems with subsidence started decades ago, but have been made worse by the current drought. With surface water so scarce, one study shows we are currently pumping water out of the ground at twice the rate that the aquifers can naturally recharge. At this rate, pulling more water out of the ground wouldn’t help.
The scientists are not advocating the use of this new-found source … at least not just yet. As the old saying goes, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
It'll take a while to figure out how to tap those very deep aquifers … and how to replenish them. In the meantime, we need to approach this new source with caution. Premature efforts could pollute the precious water AND inadvertently poke the “sleeping bear” - a term my friend and fellow water policy wonk Phil Grosse uses to describe the network of fault lines underlying the state. But this is California, where imagination and ingenuity are two of our greatest resources in overcoming technical difficulties and ultimately sway public policy.
In a press release on this topic, the Stanford scientists were cautiously optimistic despite the proximity of the groundwater to a potentially hazardous oil and gas operation. But they noted that the contamination risks are great enough that we should be paying attention. We might need to use this water in a decade, so it's definitely worth protecting. Find further reading on this important finding here and here.
I believe science will move us forward in the long run and I remain hopeful that technology will yield a sustainable solution. But for now, I’m relying on good old fashioned conservation. My wish list includes more normal rainfall, ideally from Thanksgiving through February and preferably at night, like Camelot.
Last day of harvest 2016 for Sparkling at Iron Horse. Photo: Laurence Sterling
We’re two weeks into Harvest 2016. So far it’s been start, stop, start, stop, which is trying because once we get going, we far prefer to maintain momentum.
Looking out at the vineyards from the Tasting Room on top of the hill, you can see the crop on the vines looks good. We're figuring on a more substantial yield than last year, but not as big as 2014.
Quality is being determined with each passing day as the grapes accumulate flavor and arc to optimal ripeness. From here, it’s all about taste.
We had yet another early start. Look back at the archive of our June Vintage Update and you’ll see David’s then shocking prediction that we could start picking August 1. Well, turns out he was right, yet again. Our first day was August 4. Same as last year. This is our third early harvest in a row.
One significant difference relates to water - Topic A in California. We were extremely lucky we had great winter rains, saturating the soils and filling the reservoirs. This is a big departure from the protracted drought conditions of the prior three vintages. (Another topic we have covered widely on our blog).
Early bud break was followed by intense heat, which shot us into a period of rapid growth before we were even done pruning.
June was cool and foggy, slowing things down, while creating its own demands. For the first time in years, the vines had access to groundwater. This major difference translated into fuller, more vigorous canopies which coupled with a humid spell increased the risk of disease.
Late rains and cloudy days of high humidity create the potential for early mildew. Our vineyard crew is extremely vigilant and nimble, but mildew won out in a few small pockets. Those affected areas received extra leaf pulling to increase air circulation and a “vine washing” to stop it from spreading. The combination of manual leaf pulling and the new vine hedger proved successful in combating crop loss.
A quick visit with David provided more clarity on the state of the vineyards heading into the second half of August.
Tarin: Any big surprises?
David: Mother Nature is full of surprises, but the way to keep up is daily, year round walks through the vineyards. The better you know each individual block, the better decisions you can make. No matter how well planned the vineyard, no matter how well tended, there will be spots of greater and lesser vigor. Our team strives to monitor each block separately and even specific blocks within the blocks.
So far, we have harvested:
G - Lower Pinot Noir for Sparkling
I - Pinot Noir for Sparkling
G - Upper Pinot Noir for Sparkling
F- Upper section Chardonnay for Sparkling
H 5 - Lower part Pinot Noir for Sparkling
E - Purple clusters only
The drone shot below from 6-2-16 covers all these areas - all were picked for bubbly.
This shows how we “hop scotch” strategically around the estate. We use a drone as a guide and then on the ground we even differentiate between specific clusters.
Below you can see how much "green thinning" is required by our teams at this stage. Green thinning involves manually dropping green grapes on the ground row by row. This action effectively guides the vines towards using all their energy on ripening only the most mature, promising fruit.