Iron Horse Blog
With so much happening around us, there is something very centering about focusing on harvest.
Photo: David Munksgard
All the fruit for Sparkling and Pinot Noir has now been picked. We will probably be done by the end of this week, which seems very early, but remember, our harvest started on August 4 for bubbly, so, that’s a month … and this weekend’s heatwave accelerated everything.
Photo: David Munksgard
So far, Vintage 2017 is all about extremes – even just speaking climatically, we went from extreme drought to record rain fall to record breaking heat. This weekend is certainly one for the record books. It was 106 degrees in San Francisco Friday. 70 degrees here on Saturday at 5am. That never happens.
Extremes always lead to more work. And I could not be more proud of our vineyard and winery crews. This is the first vintage for our new Assistant Winemaker Megan Hill. It has certainly been challenging, but her smile speaks volumes.
Photo: David Munksgard
It’s hard to pry a quality assessment of the vintage out of my brother Laurence and our winemaker David, but I spied a hint on a sample of Chardonnay free run juice. The labels says “F-Low” (for the lower part of block F on the Estate) – “the beginning of a great BdeB (Blanc de Blancs).”
Photo: LG Sterling
Free run juice straight out of the press also makes a delicious Sparkling cocktail, which you can only have here at Iron Horse and only this time of year. We call it the “Sterlini”.
One of my favorite though little-known quotes is from (I believe) JFK, talking about something he learned playing touch football, “When you see blue sky, go for it.”
In that spirit, Happy Labor Day! I hope you are celebrating with the fruits of our labor and join us in sending all of our positive energy to our many friends and my cousins Rand and Pamela in Houston.
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
The nature of our business is completely dependent on, well, nature! And though we’re just now approaching summer, the vines are already filled out and we have blocks with completed set – cues points to yet another very early harvest, which amazingly will be our 40th vintage.
Our winemaker David Munksgard shocked me this morning, advising we could possibly start picking August 1. But he cautioned that’s just a time frame, not an exact date. “Some of what I do here is science. Most is what I call practicing my craft. The rest is instinct, good hunches, what my gut tells me.” And being ready, come what may.
Our start date for harvest has been inching ahead for the past several vintages:
2015, August 4
2014, August 8
2013, August 21
2012, August 30
So far, the set looks very good. “Set” refers to how the fruit sets behind the blossoms. A good set means we have a shot at a healthy sized crop which is extremely welcome news – our livelihood depends on it. Of course a lot can happen between the lip and the sip, but the ideal would be a nice steady even summer, i.e. cool, foggy mornings with the sun finally poking out at about 11am – not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Keeping up with Mother Nature is a full time job. Shoot thinning is a perfect example. Laurence Sterling has acquired a hedger tool to assist in letting just the right amount of filtered sunlight to get to the grapes. He calls this a “Goldilocks solution” to a higher quality outcome.
Meanwhile, David has started flying his drone looking for variation in shoot density. Some blocks are beautifully consistent; others have uneven pockets. When you walk a vineyard, you walk so slowly that you simply do not see the gradual change in canopy density. If you could just jump up 200 feet and look down you'd see the difference. Now we can!
Our heroic drone helped detect unwanted gaps in the vineyard canopy in a Chardonnay block up on the highest most westerly part of the estate. A seasoned winemaker’s hunch pointed to a likely culprit, but that experienced guess was substantiated by drone shots, showing a signature pattern associated with a vineyard fungus called Eutypa. This is a common disease, which delays shoot emergence in spring, affected shoots that eventually do grow have dwarfed, chlorotic leaves.
The drone shot clearly shows missing vines neatly aligned “within the row” suggesting something was being spread vine to vine. If it was a root pest or flying bug, the disturbance in the vines would not be as “neat and inline.” Once properly diagnosed, the vineyard crew descended upon the cause to cure it and Laurence has ordered replacement vines to fill in those gaps in the Thomas Road Vineyard.
Today our bird’s eye views show a healthy and strong vineyard.
Even after 40 years, this is a completely new view for us. And the pictures, besides being informative, are just plain cool.
Speaking of cool, we are experiencing our signature summer cool, foggy weather with the sun just beginning to poke through at 11am, validating Mark Twain’s famous quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” A word to wise when coming to taste with us is definitely dress in layers.
As summer beckons, our thoughts naturally turn to love. This is high season for Wedding Cuvee aka Love Potion, a sure fire way to help newlyweds live deliciously ever after.
We recommend taking our bottles of Wedding Cuvee into the big day in a big way. Jeroboams of our most romantic bubbly can be engraved with the names of the bride and groom and the wedding date. Have the bridal party sign the bottle with a metallic pen, then send us the empty and we’ll re-cork and re-foil it (note: not re-fill) to make a beautiful keepsake.
Rainbow Cuvee adds another level of meaning as we celebrate the nuptials of every American and marriage equality. This year marks the one year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court “love wins” ruling and we are extremely honored that the Obama Administration served Iron Horse at the White House LGBT reception June 9.
My new favorite word is florilegium.
flor·i·le·gi·um (flôr′ə-lē′jē-əm) n. pl. flor·i·le·gi·a (-jē-ə) [New Latin flōrilegium, flower-gathering (translation of Greek anthologion, flower-gathering, anthology), from Latinflōrilegus, gathering flowers : flōs, flōr-, flower; see flower + legere, to gather; see leg- in Indo-European roots.]
A collection of botanical drawings and paintings depicting the plants of an area, focusing on their beauty. The artful science of florilegia flourished from the 17th century to the late 19th century, portraying special selections of rare and exotic plants from far afield. The modern florilegium seeks to record the plants from within a particular garden or place.
My friend Maralee Beck, visiting from Los Angeles, recommended we start compiling an Iron Horse florilegium after going on a garden tour with my father and being enthralled by his stories. “He knows the provenance of every flower and tree and when each was planted.” she said. “It will be a wonderful record.”
So, today the project gets underway. The beginning may be a little haphazard, but it will evolve and it seems most auspicious to begin on the eve of May’s Full Moon which happens to be called the Flower Moon because so many plants are peaking right now. In the end, I hope to have an inventory of what’s in bloom as well as a catalogue of the various plants whose lives are rich with history here.
The early results follow …
First the vines. Iron Horse is a series of gentle, rolling hills covered in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The official start of the wine growing season is bud break … then we have bloom. This year’s bloom started the first week of May, about the same time as last year. The flowers are tiny, off-white and have a very subtle scent individually, but cumulatively contribute to a faint sweetness in the breeze. The grapes set behind the flowers.
Most spectacular right now are the roses along the road leading up to the winery. My mother’s favorite, the Cecile Brunners, are like giant fountains of pale pink. These have been propagated by my father from one bush he planted 40 years ago in front of an old potting shed. Now they crown the fence along the Chardonnay vineyards. I count 70 of these beauties in a quarter mile.
Interspersed are white JFKs, tall red Mister Lincolns and Peace Roses, the most popular rose in the world which, commemorating the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. (My mother attended the ceremonies at the War Memorial Opera House as a highschooler and sat in the last seat in the last row. I was honored to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations last year at the Fairmont Hotel, where the charter was drafted, and at City Hall, where I met Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl awardd the Nobel Peace Prize for standing up the Taliban and defending her right to education.
My mind (and legs!) climb the hill to the colonnades of alternating palm and olive trees that lead to the winery, which my brother dubbed Palmolive Drive.
The olives trees along the drive are in bloom. These are Mission Olives, planted 40 years ago. We make our own olive oil, just enough for personal consumption.
Sauntering along this road I soak in the statuesque beauty of my surroundings. The entrance is still awe inspiring no matter how many times I’ve pass through it. And it’s a respect I share with our many guests who walk or drive along this corridor. We hosted a sit down dinner for 500 people at one continuous table a quarter mile long down this drive for the Sonoma County Barrel Auction in 1987. There were six chefs, three on each side, each with their own cooking station and wait staff to prepare and serve the meal for 83 guests. Obviously you couldn’t cross sides, so the servers walked out single file and turned like cadets to set down the plates for each course. There were rolling toasts that started at one end and traveled down the entire length of the table like a wave.
The palms now stand 50 feet tall and like stately pillars are the defining architecture of our place. But they were completely laughable the first spring (circa 1977) when the daffodils were taller than the trees. Most of them are Washingtonians. They can reach an awesome 100 feet. They were very popular in Victorian times (when my parents’ home was built) as an exotic and a sign of establishment.
In 2010, when then Chairman of the National Geographic Society Gil Grosvenor spoke at our annual Earth Day event, Palmolive Drive became an outdoor gallery with poster size National Geographic magazine covers lining the way … and a small fleet of bamboo bicycles people could test ride up and down the drive.
There are a number of other palms around the property … some we can’t identify. Back in the 1970s and 80s people would advertise in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that they had mature palms for the taking, if you could provide the labor to pull them out of the ground and transport them. So, my father would go to those homes with a couple of guys from the vineyard crew and pick them up. My parents are incurable collectors and we are now extremely wealthy in palms. My informal inventory puts us at about 100 and counting. A recent addition is a beautiful Lady Palm that my parents purchased for their 63rd wedding anniversary, now flourishing amid the dahlias near their home.
A second, perpendicular row of palms lead to my parents home. There you see Smoke Trees showing off their puffy, billowy, pink smoke-like flowers ...
interspersed with pomegranates also in bloom. Just as it says in the Songs of Solomon: “Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom— there I will give you my love.” I think of the pomegranate as my father’s fruit, because we get them in October for his birthday.
While the palms and the roses tend to steal the show, there are many more co-stars that deserve recognition. Around the winery, some of the stand-out specimens include:
Red Hot Pokers aka “Torch Lilies” - drought tolerant, grow on their own without much care, thrive in our Gold Ridge soil and, best of all, are very alluring to hummingbirds. My father loves them. “They are delightful” he says, “Like beacons of light. That’s why you put them at entrances because they are welcoming.”
Lavandin – not true lavender, it’s a hybrid. The smell is very different - woody, spicy-green, more pungent than sweet. It has larger leaves, longer stems, and larger, more vibrantly colored flowers, pointed at the tip. More of a landscaping plant in cool regions, great attraction for bees and butterflies.
Daisies: The origin of the word Daisy is the Anglo Saxon for day’s eye because they open at dawn. It symbolizes new beginnings and in the “language of flowers means loyal love and “I will never tell”. They are also skillful in attracting butterflies.
They will be done blooming very shortly and replaced with yellow marigolds and then in August with zinnias, grown from seed in the hothouse.
I hope you enjoyed meandering with me. The busy ecosystem at Iron Horse doubles as our home. Three generations live on the estate. The walk from my house to the winery is the best in the country. And while I love all seasons here, there’s something magical about the vivacity of spring striving for our affection under May’s moon. I hope you’re inspired to visit and experience the natural beauty for yourself.
Next month brings a whole new crop of blooms … and another moon to toast. In the meantime, cheers to the Full Flower Moon.
The allure of buried treasure beguiles us as children. We trudge through our backyards guided by maps which point us to the spot marked X. Ah! The excitement of discovering something hidden.
This is an experience which eludes most of us as adults. That was, until our cellar master discovered a cache of long forgotten, unlabeled magnums of Sparkling Wine from various vintages going back 10-15 years. A treasure trove of beautifully aged bubbly - 30 cases of this, 40 cases of that, from seven vintages and 13 different base wines. The first vintage of Joy! was a 1991, which we released in spring of 2007.
Today, the Joy! project is in full bloom. The new release, vintage 2003, makes its debut Friday, March 18th (details about Release Day Joy! at the vineyard here). Shop it here.
To sip this wine is to experience the magic of 12 years aging in contact with the yeast before disgorging. As winemaker David Munksgard explains, it takes a full 12 years for the wine’s alcohol and acid to have the time to dissolve the goodness inside the yeast’s mitochondria (break out those biology textbooks!). Once released, those "goodies" (amino acids, proteins, and fatty acids) achieve two things, both hallmarks of truly beautiful bubbles. They contribute to the umami experience and the fatty acids coat the bubbles which making the perfect, pin point, tiny orbs that accumulate at the surface of the glass creating a “foam cap” or crown. The result is an especially creamy texture and nutty, brioche aromas.
I wish I could say that we planned Joy!, but I do feel it is to our credit that we hold onto these magnums for so long. As everyone in business knows, the most expensive thing you can do is hold onto inventory.
There is no doubt in my mind that longer aging is the key to creating the greatest California Sparklings, second only to vineyard site. The longer the time en tirage, the smaller the bubbles, leading to richer, creamier and more elegant wine. Top quality bubbly is so much about texture, which can only come from extended time on the lees. When you are drinking a tete de cuvee, like Joy!, you should not even have to swallow. It should just effervesce away in your mouth. (See our blog post on The Science behind the Magic, October 2015).
David says that he doesn’t know of any other California producers nor many French houses making this kind of time investment. (Maybe we should change the name of the wine to Patience?) That said, we urge you to be completely spontaneous in drinking Joy! We’ve already held onto to it long enough and David is always quick to remind us that even the most special wines are not made to be revered, but shared and enjoyed.
Here are his tasting notes:
"By nose, yeast and toasted hazelnut lead the way to grapefruit and baked apple scents with a hint of ginger. By mouth, your first impression is more sensual than taste. Full, rich and yet youthful and bright all at once. The most perfect lemon curd; creamy richness with freshness and bright finish. It is lush and refined like a silky ribbon."
How can you resist?
It has been four long, thirsty years since we have had any Joy! to share. That was the 1999 vintage, which won a near perfect 98 point score in Wine Enthusiast, 93 Points from Robert Parker and 93 points from Wine & Spirits.
The reviews were spectacular:
“Graceful and refined, with crisp apple and yeasty lemon aromas that lead to complex flavors of toasted almond, ginger and spicy mineral. Finishes with pinpoint crispness.”
“Light gold in the glass with aromas of wet stones, lemon, and roasted nuts, this wine tastes of bright apple, lemon, buttered toast, long finish. Wonderful acidity. One of the finest made in California”
“A deft blend of richness and delicacy, offering mature aromas of spiced apple, almond and cinnamon, with opulent flavors of toasty crème brûlée, laced with notes of mineral and ginger. Great length.”
We were greatly honored when it was served to the Queen of England at a State Dinner at the Ambassador's residence in London, Winfield House, in 2011.
Fortunately, the four year “drought” has been worth the wait! The current release is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay. The disgorging date (day/month/year) is on the back of each bottle.
Spring forth and enjoy!
Happy Winter Solstice! The official start of winter. Meteorologists consider December 1 as the first day of winter, but the season's celestial start is tonight.
Though the entire day is "observed", solstice occurs at a specific time - the same time everywhere on Earth when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun.
It is the shortest day of the year ... and the longest night.
This certainly deserves a toast!
Winter Solstice as a celebration goes back millennia. The most famous at Stonehenge, seemingly built for this specific astrological event as the stones are aligned on a sight-line that points directly to the winter solstice sunset.
Ancient Romans celebrated with the Feast of Saturnalia - a festival that lasted seven days with banquets honoring Saturn, father of the gods. These Saturnalian banquets were held as far back at 217 BCE.
Pre-Christian Scandinavia celebrated the winter solstice with the Feast of Juul and the burning of a log, which became the traditional Yule log.
A perfect way to celebrate tonight is by cozying up with a wood burning fire (or lots of candles) and a glass or two of bubbly.
It is also a perfect occasion to say thank you for your role in making this such a gratifying year for us. Please know that we are toasting you and send our warmest wishes.
Always up for a celebration, I was very excited to learn that October 1st is the official start of the New Water Year in California. This should be greeted with popping corks and renewed optimism. First because we made it through Water Year 2015 … and second because we might just luck out with El Niño, now being ballyhooed as our “great wet hope.” As I follow local coverage of rising El Niño fever (here) I encourage you to read along with me and ultimately draft your own personal New Water Year Resolution #MyNewWaterYearResolution
As a friend and neighbor says, “Here we are, enjoying Indian summer and praying for a rip-roaring El Niño to clobber us this winter. How California, to hope for a disaster to end a catastrophe!”
Photo via @Claudio Chea
Water Year 2015 has been noteworthy for several reasons:
Far less precipitation than normal in California
Temperatures far warmer than normal
A strengthening El Niño in the equatorial Pacific that some scientists believe is now “too big to fail.” Find the scientific facts in last week’s LA Times coverage here.
In a revised forecast released last Thursday, the National Weather Service said Northern California stands a decent chance of getting significant precipitation this winter. WeatherWest.com data points to this conclusion as well. In fact, they explain that the present track is comparable in magnitude to both the 1982-1983 and 1997-1998 events which were the strongest in the long-term record.
While forecasters have been saying this winter will likely bring heavy rains to Southern California, which is typical for El Niño, they’ve been less certain about the outlook for the northern half of the state. This is insight we desperately need. The state’s major reservoirs are in the north, making rain and snow in that region of utmost importance to significantly bolster the state’s water supplies.
The bulk of the precipitation is predicted to fall in December but mainly during the traditional rainy season from January - March. Luckily, Winter Is Coming.
William Patzert, a climate expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, is the most optimistic and outspoken about the northern rain exposure. He’s convinced El Niño will be felt in Northern California. “At this point – at this particular time – this is too large to fail,” he said.
If history is a guide, California will see big snow in the northern mountains along with rain in the south, Patzert said. “The last two El Niños that were of this magnitude hosed all of California,” he said. “If you look at the snowpack for those two El Niños, you had double the snowpack, too.”
What’s changed since the weather service’s previous forecasts? Temperature anomalies in the Pacific are increasingly favorable to Northern California’s rain outlook and according to Jeffrey Mount, a water specialist at the Public Policy Institute of California, the so-called “ridiculously resilient ridge,” the high-pressure system that has kept rain and snow from falling on California, is finally breaking down.
Also check out this extremely cool NOAA video animation showing their weekly temperature readings of El Nino.
But Mount and Jay Lund, an engineer and watershed specialist at UC Davis, want to manage expectations. The experts point to the relative rarity of strong El Niños – just six since 1957. Their main point? We could still be left disappointed.
“We have a small sample size,” Lund said. “There’s still a substantial probability that we’re going to continue to be in a drought next year.”
So this is no time to become over confident. We must remain committed to conservation.
Here in Sonoma County, I am very proud to say the vintners have stepped up with voluntary measures to save water and help protect the Coho salmon. The Press Democrat quoted state regulators who showered Sonoma County landowners with praise. Read about the creative efforts and resulting hope for the future here.
Statewide, we Californians continue meeting the Governor’s water conservation mandate. We reduced water use by nearly 27 percent during August, exceeding Jerry Brown’s 25 percent conservation mandate for a third straight month.
Now we need everybody to make a New Water Year Resolution! My suggestion is that you resolve to capture and store as much rain possible. Whether it be in a reservoir, cistern or water barrels sold at the hardware store. Tip - old wine barrels actually work very well for this purpose. Share your resolutions with our us in the comments or on social media with the #MyNewWaterYearResolution
Hopefully, we will look back on Water Year 2015 as the final year of one of the state’s most severe dry periods on record. And may 2016 be the year we “win” the drought (see NY Times’ “How California Is Winning the Drought” here).
Many cultures mark the New Year on different dates and with special rituals. There’s Chinese New Year in January-February and Jewish New Year in September. The Ancient Egyptians timed their New Year to the flooding of the Nile in July. So, in some ways, October 1st can be seen as California’s New Year … appropriate as we tend to be a culture apart on most things.
And how to celebrate California New Year? With California bubbly, of course.
Cheers! Happy #winewednesday & Happy New Water Year!
This year’s harvest offered a bunch of “firsts” for the Iron Horse team and provided challenges for expert wine growers like the Sterling Family and winemaker David Munksgard. Each harvest offers its own hurdles and opportunities to recommit to a vineyard philosophy of garnering exceptional flavors. But as the 2015 harvest comes to a close, it’s apparent that this year was uniquely challenging for several reasons.
To learn more about the unprecedented growing conditions and harvesting game plan that define the vintage, I snagged some precious time with David, the 35 year “veteran of the vines” who teamed with Laurence Sterling to employ methods that traditionally are only seen in the finest wine chateaus in France.
Tarin: Where are we with harvest? Close to wrapping up?
David: We will finish this week.
Tarin: Is it appropriate to say that this year’s harvest calendar was anything but expected?
David: Yes, it was completely mixed up. The normal progression would be to start by picking Pinot Noir for Sparkling, followed by Chardonnay for Sparkling. Then we’d move to Chardonnay grapes for still wines and finish with Pinot Noir for still. This year, we started with Pinot Noir for Sparkling but then jumping all over the place from there. We’re actually wrapping up with sparkling. In my 35 year career, I have never seen a harvest like this. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It simply means that it’s challenging. You really needed to be IN the vineyard to observe and judge the ripening vine by vine, day by day, so that you could improvise a game plan to take advantage of a constantly changing situation.
Tarin: Explain some of the hurdles you experienced upon starting the harvest.
David: Compared to the previous three bountiful years, this crop was sadly very light. Additionally when we assessed the grape vines, rather than finding uniformity, we found Pinot Noir vines where half the grapes were green and half were purple. Knowing that it was going to be a smaller harvest, we had to work with this diversity and not just cut those green grapes and let them drop to the ground. Essentially, we had to pick each vine twice. Laurence and I were clear with the vineyard team about which shades of purple were ripe for picking. It was the only way we could protect our ability to make the highest quality wine.
Tarin: How do you describe the vintage?
David: Challenging! But it is so satisfying to work with people who can all agree on the solution even when it is the more difficult path. Sure, we could have waited until the average analysis of the vineyard was what we needed, but the truth is that we would never have been able to make an amazing product by picking under-ripe or overripe fruit and let it even out in the press. We simply can’t do things like that with our commitment to excellence. We have to protect the reputation of the winery and if that means working twice as hard and incurring the cost, then we will. In the end, we devised a way to make really great wines in a difficult vintage.
Tarin: How does this harvest compare with last year?
David: Last year, harvest was delivered to us with a ribbon. But I think the wines are going to be on par with the last couple of excellent vintages.
Tarin: We’re hearing that quantity is down … but quality is high?
David: Quality is not high because the crop is small - the quality is simply there thanks to what Iron Horse does in the vineyards.
Currently we have only six wines available to taste. The rest are still fermenting. But they are clearly equal to the past few great vintages. Honestly, this was kind of shocking. Based on what we had to go through, I was expecting the results wouldn’t be so great. I am extremely happy to be surprised.
Tarin: Weather was clearly a driving factor, describe the weather starting with that nice rain in December 2014…. then what?
David: Nice and promising ... then extreme, protracted drought. Luckily we have a reservoir on the property, which the Sterlings had the foresight to build in the 70s. We use recycled water which Laurence and the vineyard crew carefully allocated to keep the vines in really great shape. We never got to a place where I was nervous about the vines holding up until the grapes were mature.
We didn’t have as much fog as we normally have. There was a time where the harvest was faster than normal - the sugars were rising quickly, but then we dropped into moderate weather with cool nights. For the most part, the weather was cooperative with cooler conditions that envelope the grapes through the night until mid morning and allowed the crew to pick until 10-11am.
However at the very end, we had a few days of 100+ heat. By then, the few remaining blocks could be completely picked before the day got too hot. We only had one very small block that suffered a slight bit from the high temperatures. It was our last block of Pinot Noir for still wine, our harvest crew culled out clusters that had raisined.
Tarin: What has the long growing season meant?
David: When we started bud break, it was ridiculously early - two weeks ahead of last year, which was three weeks ahead of 2013. Then we went into a period of cool almost cold weather and that stopped the clock. The vine is only active when the average daytime temps are above 60 degrees, if it doesn’t meet that, the vine goes into a dormant, slumber state. So essentially, the early spring didn’t count. In the absence of a consistent rise in temperatures, we got the cluster to cluster variation which was so challenging. All the historically important and reliable timelines got stopped and re-started repeatedly. That interruption of the normal cycle in the vineyard led to uneven ripening and us picking the same vines repeatedly.
Tarin: What are your great take aways from this harvest?
David: I’ve always heard that the great vineyards in France make exceptional wines even in a difficult vintage, while lesser chateaus often miss the mark under distress. What it boils down to is the commitment on the part of those great wineries. Iron Horse has that passion and dedication. As Laurence says, “It has to MEAN something when we put ‘Estate Grown.’” on our labels.
Tarin: Now, tell us about your new drone! We LOVE this video shot recently. How are you using the drone in the vineyard?
David: I initially used a small drone with a 1-2 megapixel camera to take some vineyard photos. At the time, I of course knew the property was beautiful but I didn’t know it was that beautiful! I ultimately upgraded to a big drone with a large high def camera and I’ve been blown away at the view from 400 feet.
From a practice perspective, the benefits are untapped. Years ago, we would do an annual flight over the vineyard for infrared insights into the foliage conditions in different sections. With the drone, we can do this much more frequently and at lower cost.
Tarin: How has it helped with the harvest?
David: I got this drone a couple weeks into harvest, but next year I plan on getting it up there weeks before we start picking to look around with a hawk’s perspective. These flights will serve to help us identify which vines need more emitters (more water). It also has the potential to pinpoint differences in the canopy. Once something out of the ordinary catches your eye, you can walk out to that spot and see what’s going on. I’m sure this drone can be used to make a better bottle of wine.
Tarin: When will we be able to taste the wines of 2015?
David: The Sterling family tradition has been to get together around Thanksgiving to taste the new vintage. Generally, November-December is when you get your first good sense of quality ie depth of character and complexity of flavors.
And as winemaker I taste the wines continuously as they develop.
As a finished product, the Chardonnays will be released in two years, the Pinot Noir in three and most of the bubbles in 2019.
With the start of summer, the drought has been hitting closer and closer to home … and then, suddenly, it is home.
Wells are starting to go dry in nearby Forestville. Up until now, I have felt relatively secure that the North Bay (Marin, Sonoma, Napa) is experiencing nothing more than a “severe drought.” This classification is a level five on the seven levels of severity. Therefore, in a small way I have considered our vineyard as more fortunate when compared with other parts of the state, like Fresno, which is suffering “extraordinary drought.”
Since I last blogged on this topic, the State Water Resouces Control Board approved an emergency regulation aimed at protecting the threatened Coho Salmon and Steelhead. Ordinances affect about 13,000 properties in the watersheds of Dutch Bill Creek, Green Valley Creek, which bisects Iron Horse, Mark West Creek and Mill Creek. Water users in these watersheds, i.e. us, will be subject to: 1) enhanced conservation measures built on existing statewide water restrictions 2) regular submission of reports detailing surface and groundwater use. (Note: Below is a photo of our creek from May 2013. It shows water … today it is just muddy.)
The center of this issue goes beyond the mandatory reporting of diversions, focusing on the very definition of a diversion. According to a draft of the emergency regulation:
“Diversions” means all water diverted or pumped from surface waters or from subsurface waters that are hydraulically connected to the surface stream within the watersheds.
All subsurface water is considered hydraulically connected to the surface stream if pumping that water may contribute to a reduction in stream stage or flow of any surface stream within the watersheds.
For the first time ever we will monitor and report on our groundwater use, filing what we have diverted with the State Water Boards.
Really this just means more paperwork. Historically, we only divert water from the creek when the water level is high enough for the health of the fish. Our Iron Horse family has been working with Fish & Wildlife officials since last November to remove any barriers preventing fish from commuting up and down stream. To support our joint efforts, we have significantly reduced our diversions. In 2013 we pumped 8 acre/feet, in 2014 just 2.75, and in 2015, none … so as not to endanger the hatchlings seeded by Fish & Wildlife. We love the salmon and do everything we can to help them navigate Green Valley Creek.
This makes us more reliant on the fruits of our conservation efforts including recycled water and winery grey water which goes to the reservoir for the vineyards, gardens and landscaping. This reservoir is just about full - re-charged by advanced treated water from Forestville. We are installing meters on our wells and our houses. We are mowing more frequently in the vineyards to preserve the cover crop and keep it from competing with the vines. We pruned and have been thinning shoots to reduce water needs of the vines. (Below - a picture of the vegetable garden, irrigated with advanced treated water.)
Good news is that at least in May, we celebrated residential water use wins as shared in the Los Angeles Times. Urban areas reported a 29% drop in usage which is the biggest monthly decline yet since Gov. Jerry Brown ordered mandatory cuts. But officials caution that these efforts will have to ramp up as the warmer months become more exaggerated, we need six consistent months of similar water use declines to see serious impact.
As experts admit, overall water usage this summer is anyone's guess and is largely dependent on the heat. Every drop counts - a philosophy that has been embraced by everyone at Iron Horse. In fact, my brother is growing a “drought beard” to proactively “repurpose” water normally used while shaving.
As for our beloved California salmon …
We spend a good part of the year waiting for summer, which heralds the return of wild king salmon, considered by many to be Sonoma’s “National Dish”.
State and federal wildlife agencies have been transporting the new generation of baby fish via tanker truck to San Francisco Bay. Due to the drought, rivers and streams have become too shallow or too warm for salmon to navigate and survive the journey to the Pacific.
The salmon transport has been in progress since February, with 35,000 gallon tanker trucks being used to transport salmon along the 90 minute journey from hatcheries to the ocean via the freeway to bypass dried-up riverbeds.
In the next few years, we will start to see the effect of the drought on fish in the ocean. Warmer water makes the fish harder to catch because they’re not concentrated in their normal areas. And we don’t yet know how many fish have reproduced in the rivers and creeks … and how many will make it back.
The Salmon’s Life Cycle:
The fish swim up the river and spawn, those baby salmon grow into smolts and work their way down to the ocean within a year or two. They spend five or six years in the ocean, and then they go back up the river they were born in to spawn again and die. If there’s no water, they can’t swim downstream to the ocean or back upstream to reproduce. We’re affected by the water conditions from five or six years ago. So we’ll see the effects of the drought in the next few years.
California wild and natural King Salmon is considered by many to be the finest member of the salmon family and extremely nutritious. “Fast” food facts:
less than 200 calories per 3-ounce portion
excellent source of quality protein (21 grams, 47% of the Recommended Daily Intake)
low in saturated fat and sodium
rich in vitamins and minerals
ocean-run California King salmon is also very rich in omega-3 fatty acids
Salmon can be grilled, baked, broiled, poached, microwaved, sautéed, smoked, canned, or eaten raw in sushi and as sashimi. It can be prepared with any of your favorite seasonings or marinades: simple or exotic, homemade or store-bought. Don’t think of it as only an entree; it can also be featured in chowders and soups, pastas, appetizers, salads and sandwiches. And most importantly, it pairs beautifully with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and bubbly!
Iron Horse Favorite Recipe: Whole Roasted Salmon in a Crust of Sea Salt
1-8Lb. Salmon, gutted, scaled and trimmed
salt and pepper
1 bunch fresh thyme
several fresh bay leaves
6 Lb. sea salt
extra virgin olive oil
zest of 4 lemons, finely chopped
Serves: 8 people
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Wash fish thoroughly, inside and out, and pat dry. Season the cavity of the fish with salt and pepper, the thyme and bay leaves.
Spread half the sea salt on the bottom of a large baking dish or half sheet tray. Place the fish and completely cover it from head to tail with the remaining salt. Put in the oven and bake 10 minutes per pound.
Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Brush away as much salt as possible from the fish. Then, using a sharp knife, gently remove and discard skin. With a thin spatula, remove the filets from along the backbone, place on a serving platter and drizzle with olive oil and lemon zest.
Serve with Iron Horse 2013 Chardonnay, 2012 Pinot Noir and/or 2011 Summer’s Cuvee
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.