Iron Horse Blog
As harvest draws near, the excitement grows and grows; not just with me as the winemaker, but with everyone here at the winery.
Photo: Elieen Vasko
You know harvest is nigh when we have veraison, i.e. when the grapes start taking on the color you see at harvest. Pinot Noir starts off green, then turns purple. Chardonnay starts off green, then turns a pretty, translucent, straw gold.
Photo: David Munksgard
Other early indicators include the Naked Ladies ...
Photo: LG Sterling
... and the onsalught of squash.
Photo: LG Sterling
Here in wine country, vineyards are everywhere. Even if you are not involved in the wine world, it is hard not to feel the anticipation. My neighbor, a senior airline pilot, noticed the changing color of the grapes on his daily commute, prompting him to knock on my door to ask when I thought harvest might begin this year.
On Wednesday (July 26) we did our very first vineyard grape samples. This is when we randomly pick a cluster here and a cluster there, then mash them up in a bucket. The juice is then tested for Brix, or percent sugar. Based on this sample and general observations, I’m holding by my prediction that we’ll start the second (or possibly third) week in August.
All the winter rain along with late spring rain gave our vines a huge gulp of water. The vines reacted by growing more leaves than I’ve ever seen in my career. Too many leaves cause shading of the grapes as well as raising the humidity in the fruit zone - conditions perfect for mildew and bunch rot. I want beautiful, fully mature grapes that are free of those ugly things. The best option is to remove that excess foliage, open up the fruit zone and allow fresh air in. This is done by vine hedging mechanically as well as removing lateral growth and individual leaves by hand. It’s a "bunch" of work, but so worth it. The vineyards are looking really good. The crew has been working very hard; they are my heroes.
Wish us luck!
David Munksgard, Winemaker
The vineyards look gorgeous. It is raining pink petals at my house from wild climbing roses some 30 feet high, giving new meaning to April showers.
The poppies around the Tasting Room hold special meaning. I remember casting wild flower seeds on walks with my father that first spring after my parents purchased Iron Horse in 1976.
There is no doubt in my mind that the beauty of the estate is very much part of our terroir. In fact, better than words or pictures, the wines capture it best.
I am very proud that our 2013 crop of Pinots received 94 to 90 point reviews in Wine Enthusiast:
94 Points - 2013 Deer Gate
94 Points - 2013 Winery Block
93 Points - 2013 Home Block
93 Points - 2013 Thomas Road
92 Points - 2013 Estate Pinot Noir
90 Points - 2013 “Q”
Thinking ever so slightly ahead, I hope you are properly provisioned for April 22, which promises to be the most celebrated day on the planet. It is Earth Day, the first night of Passover, a full moon AND a Friday. The day miraculously spans an amazing range of subjects we care about deeply.
Earth Day is an international holiday with billions of participants, and one of my favorite celebrations. For newbies to green Iron Horse festivities, see coverage of past celebrations here.
Earth Day 2016 will be one to remember on a global scale. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have agreed to sign the Paris Climate Accord at an official ceremony at the United Nations in New York on April 22.
How fitting to toast with our vintage Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs. The special edition Sparkling was created in partnership with National Geographic to help establish marine protected areas and support sustainable fishing. $4 per bottle sold goes to National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative.
Turning to Passover, we acknowledge the central role wine plays throughout the evening where it is required four times during the Seder. For those of you who still think Manischewitz is de rigeur, my family traditionally serves Pinot Noir. The blessing over the “fruit of the vine” is one we all know by heart. There’s a chalice for the prophet Elijah, plus the 10 teaspoons of wine we each spill out of our glasses into a saucer as a sacrifice to ward off the 10 biblical plagues that God inflicted on Egypt to secure the release of the Israelites from slavery as explained in the Book of Exodus.
I think we can all agree these are calamities ... though we did pray for flooding during the harshest points of the California drought :
The Nile turning to blood
Infestation of frogs
Death of livestock
Thunder & hail
Smiting of the first born
Pharaoh capitulated after the tenth plague, and then changed his mind, portrayed to the utmost of your imagination in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses in one of the greatest moments in movie history.
This is my third year hosting Passover at my house. I will borrow my father’s annotated Haggadah, a silver chalice from my grandmother that we fill with wine for Elijah, and a blue velvet matzo cover embroidered by my great grandmother when she was eight years old, shortly after sailing to America from Odessa.
In a break with tradition, I am planning on serving Russian Cuvee. Bubbles will pair beautifully with classic Passover dishes like smoked salmon, matzo ball soup, potato latkes with crème fraiche and apple sauce, fried artichokes … even brisket. After all, Passover is a celebration – a celebration of freedom against oppression. And I feel Elijah will enjoy bubbly for a change.
The night will not conclude before celebrating the full moon – the pink moon, to be exact. Nothing befits a full moon like bubbles. And a “pink moon” naturally calls for a gorgeous pale rosé like our Wedding Cuvée. This is the most romantic of our Sparklings, the one we are best known for. I describe it as dangerously easy to drink.
I am a major advocate of toasting the full moon. It unites us.
So, to recap, we will be raising a glass for Earth Day, at least four for Passover, culminating with a late night toast to the full moon.
With so much to celebrate, I just hope none of us will have to wake up too early on the 23rd.
With another installment in our celebrity chef spotlight, we took the opportunity to chat with a magical partner around a very special milestone. Andrew Sutton has been the lead culinary visionary at Disneyland since 2000. Chef took a moment to walk us through his experience serving Iron Horse Fairy Tale Cuvee for the past 15 years and throughout Disneyland’s 60th Diamond Celebration (read more about this year long fete from the Wall Street Journal).
The Happiest Place on Earth opened their doors on July 17, 1955. The park has hosted over 700 million guests from over 200 countries. It is an American icon, loved by people around the world.
We first created Fairy Tale Cuvee over 25 years ago thanks to Iron Horse Co-Founder Barry Sterling, who came up with the concept of making Special Cuvees (keep reading for an equally special discount opportunity). Among the first was Fairy Tale Wedding Cuvee originally created for the Wedding Chapel at the Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort in Orlando.
Our star partner’s environmentally-friendly, direct-to-farmer practices define his ever-changing menus. It also aligns him perfectly with the Iron Horse ethos that’s guided by a commitment to operating the right way to yield the right tastes. Andrew explains the satisfaction of offering California Wine Country & fine dining in an iconic American location.
Interview with Andrew Sutton:
Iron Horse: What’s your role at Disneyland?
Andrew Sutton: I manage all three signature restaurants at Disneyland - Club 33, Napa Rose, and Cathay Circle. I also oversee our Grand Californian Bake Shop and Central Bakery with our lead pastry chef who provides sweets for Napa Rose along with Carte Circle.
Iron Horse: How has your role with Disneyland evolved over your 15 year tenure?
Andrew Sutton: We’ve come a long way. Fine dining isn’t something that many expect to see at Disneyland but that’s exactly what we provide. This offering is the product of my approach to food that I brought from my Napa Valley days as chef at Auberge du Soleil. Working directly with the farmers, I was exploring farm to table before farm to table was cool, and brought that to Anaheim. Disney has always been very supportive of my drive to find the right sources. This seasonal, responsible approach has delicious outcomes. You’re rewarded with flavor.
Iron Horse: A “right” source for sparkling wine has definitely been Iron Horse for the past 20 plus years. Explain a little bit about what our bubbly partnership means to you.
Andrew Sutton: As a strong believer in working with local partners who practice sustainable techniques, this is an ideal philosophical collaboration. We serve the Iron Horse Fairy Tale Cuvee on our menu throughout the year, and our prix fixe menu at Napa Rose.
Iron Horse: As someone who brought the “wine country feel” to Disney, what makes our sparkling ideal for your guests?
Andrew Sutton: When I think about Iron Horse there are two things that make it particularly relevant for me. First, I love Joy Sterling! She gifted three cases of wine for my wedding. Second, Iron Horse is a very high quality American sparkling that lends itself to American flavors. I’ve been out at Iron Horse to experience the feel and smell of their land. The initial Francophile sensibility intermingles with a California perspective. That flavor profile comes through.
Iron Horse: How are you using Fairy Tale Cuvee during Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary celebrations?
Andrew Sutton: During the peak of our Diamond Celebration, we’ll have a vintner's table at Napa Rose that will offer the best of our products, starting with Iron Horse Fairy Tale Cuvee. It adds to the "sense of place" that comes and facilitates a smooth flow to the experience.
Iron Horse: How could a guest capture this experience on their own at home? Can you share some pairing recommendations with us?
Andrew Sutton: Iron Horse sparkling can pair with seafood and birds nicely. It’s not afraid to go against grilled flavors and satay as well. It’s that ease of pairing that makes this sparkling ideal to work with. So something like a grilled salmon, american corn, with a highlight of tangerine and lemon in the background.
Join us in a special toast to Walt Disney with Iron Horse 2012 Fairy Tale Cuvee, produced exclusively for the resorts, theme parks and cruise ships, but available at our Tasting Room and in our online shop - use Discount Code 60YEARS to receive special pricing - 20% discount on purchases of six or more bottles, which can include other Iron Horse wines except large formats.
Winemaking at Iron Horse is a passion and brimming with romance. It's a family effort spanning three generations. Winemaker David Munksgard (pictured below in his "mad scientist" lab) has been a part of the vineyard family for the past 20 years. He plays a leading role in determining the outcome of exceptional Iron Horse wines and bubbly.
I had the pleasure of touring the property with David one sunny afternoon in Green Valley. The first thing that sticks out is David’s emphasis on the importance of the “place.” After an ebullient hello and a pop of Wedding Cuvee to celebrate my recent marriage, he informed me that the Iron Horse estate has the most sought after land for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in all of California.
The unique conditions - cool nights and nearby ocean influences, make each of the exclusively estate bottled wines rich with the special flavors, specific to the vineyard and never the result of “recipe winemaking.” Don’t get him started on his “special sauce” or his tireless drive for balance, quality, and class in a bottle.
David starts out every day in a personal paradise. He arrives in the vineyards at 6AM and conducts a sunrise walk through. The winemaking process is about getting on an intimate level with the grapes from beginning of their life cycle ‘til the wine is corked and “laid down” to age. David even admits to whispering motivational words to grapes. And when he returns to his "desk" -- this delicious view below awaits him....
His efforts are grounded in the superior vineyard farming style implemented by Partner and Director of Operations Laurence Sterling. The vineyard has been slowly replanted over the past eight years by 10-15 acre increments. In certain blocks, the row direction was changed to get the most even sunlight with computer generated simulations guiding the proper orientation.
Laurence’s responsible farming has had ripple effects beyond superb wine, even the creek which cuts across the property has begun spawning salmon again. I’m not surprised to see this commitment to doing what’s right pop up again and again. As a keen Iron Horse observer, this pervades all decision making, regardless of just how challenging it might be.
David’s roots are on the East Coast, where European wine is the template. Burgundian wines and French style sparklings are his jumping off point - a style that matches the Sterlings’ love of French tastes/culture based on their history as past French residents! The combined French influence is evident in Iron Horse wines, especially as they age. Flavors also originate from the site and from his deep understanding of his audience - the Iron Horse fans. He works with team members in blind tastings and solicits consumer feedback from visitors at the tasting room to facilitate consistent improvement and innovation.
To better understand the sparkling winemaking process, David walked me through pivotal points which illuminated the intense work, oversight, time and patience required:
Step 1: August is dedicated to hand picking pinot noir for sparkling, followed by chardonnay. Each vineyard block is kept separate until blending time.
Step 2: Fermentation.
Step 3: In February, David starts assessing blend options. He plays with the blends based on smell, visuals, and of course tastes. He consults the team through “blending sessions” and notes that he has to separate from his own preferences at this point. His priority is to determine proper taste for the different occasion and label. (Note - David’s toughest critic is his wife whose all time favorite Iron Horse Sparkling is Russian Cuvee)
Step 4: After the sparkling blends are chosen, they’re put into stainless steel then refrigerated to
force crystals to form so they won’t form in the bottle. You’ll find these “cold stabilization” tanks with ice on the sides!
Step 5: Seven days before bottling day, he grows a yeast culture. One day before bottling, he adds sugar. The product is bottled for the secondary fermentation creating bubbles and then aged for three to eight and even 15 years for the future magnums of Joy!
Step 6: The riddling process and disgorging process remove the spent yeast. At this point, a dose of David’s “special sauce” is added - this secret ingredient determines the degree of sweetness to dryness and sets the style of each of the Iron Horse bubblies.
Fun Fact! Even the Iron Horse corks have been specially curated. The vineyard partners with one family in Portugal - David says they’re the best in the business! Signature cork shown off below by the wonderful Wine Club Manager Kevin Vanderhoff.
If you ask David to name his favorite bottling - you won’t find an easy answer. His passion for all of his creations drives the Winemaker’s Choice Club option where David selects his two favorite bottles each month to answer the question of “what’s the winemaker drinking.” Sometimes he’ll spotlight “hidden gems” which he and the cellar master might stumble upon by accident in some forgotten corner … a discovery prospect which I found very romantic!
He does make a few recommendations:
Summit Cuvee, commemorating the history making free climb by two brave climbers and Iron Horse friends in Yosemite in January. Some have called it his “masterpiece,” the special sauce (aka liqueur de dosage) is a deliciously distinctive flavor with notes of caramelized cream soda like.
Russian Cuvee, the “ideal toasting” sparkling, always at the ready, chilling in his fridge at home.
Ocean Reserve, made in partnership with National Geographic. $4 a bottle goes to National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative to help establish marine protected areas and support sustainable fishing.
And Summer’s Cuvee, a limited production, seasonal pop that he dreamed about for years before actually developing. The new vintage has just been released!
Pictured below... bottles always line his desk and the Tasting Room shelves just outside.
He also enjoys working with longtime Iron Horse special partners, like Charlie Palmer, Michael Mina, Commander’s Palace, and Disney where Iron Horse is the official wine in the theme parks and on board their cruise ships. These friends have a long standing trust in the irresistible allure of the vineyard flavors and David’s winemaking prowess.
David, a poetic and gentle soul at his core, explained sweetly “You want to fall in love with the wine.” This reflects our winemaker’s self-assigned mission to create the perfect sip which anchors you into a memory and an experience. He speaks about overhearing brides in the Tasting Room reminiscing about Wedding Cuvee on their special day and is filled with emotion. That’s what he works for. That pairing of a beautiful moment in time punctuated by the specially crafted and perfectly corresponding bubbles.
For more fun with David, Iron Horse offers very special “Truck Tours” of the vineyard on Mondays, by appointment only. And I must warn you that these tours are becoming legendary at Iron Horse. A recent “Truck Tour” resulted in a proposal and a pop of a champagne cork with David as a co-conspirator.
He began a private tour with a glass of bubbly & an unsuspecting future bride accompanied by her prince charming. David led the couple to a barrel conveniently placed in his favorite area of the vineyard where he strategically stopped the truck to point out the beautiful view of the winery - handed off a bottle of Wedding Cuvee - and stepped aside for the magic proposal to occur in the glow of fizzing Iron Horse bubbles. I think it goes without saying . . . she said YES.
Book your own romantic memories by clicking here . . .
-Interview with D. Munksgard as told to Tarin Teno
Here at Iron Horse we strive to catch every wave and today happens to be World Oceans Day - celebrated every June 8 across our blue planet. Now officially recognized by the United Nations, the date was originally proposed in 1992 by Canada at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Water has been a big topic for us this year. So it should come as no surprise that we are passionate about our ocean - the "heart" of our world. It connects us, regulates the climate, feeds millions of people, produces oxygen, is home to an incredible array of wildlife, provides important medicines, facilitates trade, and is so very beautiful. It’s imperative that we assume the responsibility to care for the ocean as it cares for us.
There are many ways to show some ocean love:
Cut back on using disposable plastic bags
Enter the UN’s photo contest
Go to the aquarium
Get involved in a community beach clean up
If you are lucky enough to be near the water, dive in
Just tweeting about the day spreads the word and gets people interested
Be mindful about your food choices. Educate yourself about sustainable seafood choices starting with this piece from Chef Barton Seaver here
Leverage the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch - a great resource
For the past five years, we’ve gone one step further to merge the oceans we love with what we do best. We will be toasting with our special 2010 Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs, which we produce in partnership with National Geographic.
$4 per bottle goes to NatGeo's Ocean Initiative, helping establish Marine Protected Areas and support sustainable fishing around the globe. It is a great source of pride that our contribution comes to about $220,000 in five years ... and counting.
The first vintage was welcomed with the inspirational Barton Seaver. As explained in this 2010 article here, the National Geographic fellow came to taste with us.
In one video, Barton elaborates on the nearby ocean’s impact on Iron Horse "meroire"… he also conveniently presents a grill-friendly pairing recipe where sustainably farmed seafood appropriately takes center stage. The must-watch video is here.
Barton was an ideal partner in the creation of this cuvee and his words on the topic encapsulate the larger mission of our efforts perfectly:
"The oceans are in all of us and are in all that we hold dear. The wine with which we celebrate World Oceans Day was in fact grown in deposits of ancient marine life, the juice of the grapes itself a product of our oceans and a testament to the power of the oceans to sustain our reality."
In fact, Barton believes how we eat and drink is the first step towards environmental responsibility. He has been known to explain, “Deliciousness is the first line of environmentalism.” And of course the ocean plays a major role in our signature Iron Horse winemaking. The nearby Pacific (only 13 miles as the crow flies) is the driver of our special microclimate that allows us to make unparalleled Sparkling Wine with bright acidity and brilliant aromas.
Today, take a moment to meditate on the ocean’s role in everyday life.
Ocean Day Fast Facts:
Oceans cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contain 97% of the Earth’s water, and represent 99% of the living space on the planet by volume
Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods
Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at $3 trillion per year or about 5% of global GDP
Oceans contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions
Oceans absorb about 30% of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming
Oceans serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than 2.6 billion people depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein
Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people
As much as 40% of the world oceans are heavily affected by human activities - pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats
As you digest these bubbly fast facts do what Mother Nature would want…. pair them with a special bottle of bubbles. Each sip of 2010 Oceans Reserve Blanc de Blanc is made even more wonderful with the knowledge that you’re donating to a beautiful blue cause.
World Oceans Day Organization here
Q&A with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala here
Bio of Barton Seaver, chef, author and National Geographic Fellow here
The National Geographic webpage dedicated to our Ocean Reserve Sparkling here
Iron Horse being served this week at National Geographic’s Explorers Symposium in Washington, DC. Event details here
For those who have been to Iron Horse Vineyards, you know our Green Valley enterprise is a family affair. I run the front of the house, my brother is in charge of operations in the vineyards, and my parents set the standards. We all pitch in where extra hands are needed, but there is one role where exclusive credit is due. And that’s the role of Vegetable Garden CEO.
For years, my father has presided over a massive, roving vegetable garden with help from First Lieutenant Jose Puga who has assisted from the beginning. The garden has “gone viral” and now boasts over 300 varieties of tomatoes alone. The living exhibit of deliciousness rotates to different locations on the property, and this year the open field behind my house is playing host. Because of my proximity to the project, I will be regularly tracking growth on the blog!
Everything is started from seed but won't go into the ground until we are past frost season. Normally we worry about frost as late June 1st. But this year, everything is three weeks ahead, so the planting date is approaching.
Here are some of my dad’s top tips for starting a successful garden:
Q: First, explain the origins of your passion for gardening.
A: Living in France in the '60s was a real eye opener for me. In those days, in California, we didn’t have access to the variety of fresh vegetables and fruits that we encountered in Europe. For example, we had mainly two types of lettuce - iceburg and romaine, and we thought that was advanced. I remember the luncheon at the Savoy Hotel in London where I first had a mache salad.
We took the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the old world, which was new to us. We got very used to having fresh produce from the local markets every morning which generated an early “farm-to-table” menu. It was very exciting. When we moved back home from Europe, we couldn’t find the things that we’d grown accustomed to. So we simply decided to grow them!
To that end, on return visits to France, we made a point of shopping for seeds to continue growing the diversity in our Sonoma garden. Across from Notre Dame, there were two blocks of stalls along the river devoted to seeds. We could also find them in the South of France, near the flower market in Nice.
Q: What is the size and scope of the garden this year?
A: The vegetable garden will be about two acres. I need a lot of room! The size is necessary for the diversity that I’m committed to.
Q: What’s new and exciting this season’s garden?
A: There are always some new things to try. I have a special enthusiasm for my tomatoes, but in order to save space for new things, I limit myself to 300 types of tomatoes. And I’m constantly refining my collection to allow for new varieites to enter the garden’s repertoire.
Charentais melons have always been one of my specialities, a product indigenous to Provence. I’m also starting fresh with new artichokes this spring. For me, the “excitement factor” is delivered by innovations in produce color, flavor, and shape. It’s the ever evolving variety that keeps me passionate and engaged. Any one vegetable can have a number of different textures, colors, and styles. Years ago, most items had one color - like white cauliflower, green beans and red beets. Now you get a gorgeous range of colors for some if the classics. One of our favorites last year was beautiful golden cauliflower.We now make the most delicious beet chips, sweeter than potatoe chips, made from white beets.
Food really is more exciting now than ever.
Q: What environmental considerations do you keep in mind on the estate?
A: It’s important to rotate crops so you don’t play out your land. We rotate our garden on the property every couple of years.
I have farming in my blood passed down from several generations. One set of grandparents were homsteaders in Alberta, Canada. My mother's family grew walnuts in San Juan Capistrano. My father grew grapefuit and dates in the Coachella Valley, so I have always had ties to the land, a love of the land, and we work towards a better understanding of sustainable farming principles. No chemicals. We weed with old fashioned, long handled hoes and irrigate with recycled water using drip hoses.
Q: How has the vegetable garden added to the overall richness of the Iron Horse estate?
A: Variety is the spice of life. Nothing tastes quite like our home grown tomatoes. We firmly believe the fruits and vegetables we grow here naturally pair beautifully with our wines - terroir and terroir. The enthusiasm has touched every member of my family. My children and grandchildren have all participated in the garden planning and tasks at some point.
Q: What are your top tips for the at-home grower?
A: As you sketch out the garden and pick your seeds, you can start planting certain items in a hot house to get them going. It’s important to be aware of your climate’s limitation. For us, we can still get frost through the end of spring, so getting a head start is key. I also grow three seedlings for each of 300 types of tomato I will plant and then only plant out the strongest one of each varitety in the ground. Right now, that means I have 900 tomato plants that we are raising. This is to insure we have a succesful crop.
My top tip is to get a hot house. These days you can purchase a self assembling, small hot house. Getting that head start is worth-while.
Q: What are some of your favorite sources of seeds for those who need a little guidance?
A: There are marvellous catalogues and exchanges like “Seed Savers” and “The Territorial Seed Company” and "Totally Tomatoes". Here in Sonoma County, Petaluma has the "Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company"store inside a grand old bank bnuilding, which has a beautiful selection comparable to my old haunts in Paris. Every year, these sources bring a few options that end up as permanent "favorites" in the planting schedule. The hard part is being restricted to just 300 kinds of tomatoes.