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.
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
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.
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
A discussion with our inimitable in-house Hospitality Director Dixie Bohlke illuminates plans to celebrate this summer’s milestone, the Sterling family vision, the importance of small details in creating the extraordinary … and how to join the celebration with a new limited production bubbly.
Dixie pouring Iron Horse '76
As Joy shared in the previous blog, the Iron Horse family is warming up to celebrate the 40th anniversary of our first vintage.
First, the skinny on the summer soiree we have affectionately dubbed “The Spirit of ‘76"
Date: July 3, 2016
Time: 11AM - 2PM
Where: Iron Horse Vineyards
Festivities begin in the beautiful garden of the Sterlings’ Victorian home. Then it’s a short walk to the corral for lunch at noon.
Who: Friends, Family and Wine Club Members
Next the full bodied exploration behind the scenes setting up such an event ….
Why: We’re honoring the vision of our founders which was nothing short of revolutionary when they purchased Iron Horse in 1976, the restoration of the Sterling’s beautiful Victorian home built in 1876, and of course the all American spirit of 1776.
How: A reception in the garden of the Sterlings’ home with the Caviar Cowboys serving California Osetra on buckwheat blini fresh off the griddle, a roving Oyster Girl shucking fresh Myagis from Tomales Bay and free flowing bubbly.
Such a special occasion calls for a special limited edition bubbly, naturally called “Spirit of ‘76”, which we also be pouring in the Tasting Room for the holiday weekend and which is available on-line.
Joy and David came up with the idea of creating a special cuvee about three months ago. David picked the 2011 Blanc de Noirs in magnum for the base wine. Mark Berry designed the label. We have just 22 cases (132 magnums) and Joy says there’s no better place in time to enjoy them especially in commemorative flutes with our logo, the rampant horse on a weathervane and the addition of “Est 1976”.
Dixie perfected a cocktail called the Iron Horse 76, which we make with our own brandy called Audrey, distilled by Germain Robin using 1987 estate grown Pinot Noir.
1.5 oz Brandy*
3/4 oz Fresh, Strained Lemon Juice
1/4 oz Simple Syrup
1 bar spoon Apricot Preserve**
Shake ingredients (except sparkling) vigorously with ice, strain into a Pinot Noir style stemmed glass, slowly pour in the bubbly, garnish with a lemon twist.
*We use the Iron Horse Audrey Brandy (made from 1987 Iron Horse Estate Pinot Noir distilled by Germain Robin). Substitute with VSOP Cognac
Based on the classic French 75, made from gin or Cognac, Champagne, lemon juice, and sugar. It is also called a 75 Cocktail, or in French simply a Soixante Quinze (Seventy Five). The drink dates to World War I, and an early form was created in 1915 at the New York Bar in Paris—later Harry's New York Bar — by legendary barman Harry MacElhone, a defining figure in early 20th-century bartending. The combination was said to have such a kick that it felt like being shelled with the powerful French 75mm field gun.
Shake ingredients (except sparkling) vigorously with ice, strain into a Pinot Noir style stemmed glass, top with bubbly, garnish with a lemon twist.
Back to the event….
After the one hour reception, the party moves to an old, redwood, 1920s corral led by “Uncle Sam” and a 20 person brass band called The Hub Bub Club. Here, the party decor includes gorgeous vineyard views, deep red roses growing on the fence of the Corral, red and white geraniums in pots sitting on top of old wine barrels, and scattered hay bales covered in the stars and stripes.
The menu includes everything you'd want for a July 4th celebration: lobster rolls, bison burgers, fried chicken, an unbelievably delicious potato salad.
Always thinking ahead to dessert, back in mid-May we delivered flat upon flat of local Sonoma cherries to our favorite Patisserie Angelica for classic cherry pie.
Naturally, the wine theme is red, white and bubbly.
Thematic Extra-Credit: Dixie has collaborated with Joy and the Sterling family to perfect the day’s theme, bountiful food, and run of show but then she has taken it a step further with a fashion show in an homage to 1776, 1876 and 1976 with five fashion models showing costumes from each era. The models in this “Fashion Show with a Fashion Statement Honoring Three Centuries” will appear at various times throughout the day to show off the beautiful vintage clothes and mingle with guests. The background music will waft sounds of San Francisco circa 1976.
A sweet note and some final thoughts ….
One of the pleasures of staging this fete has been reminiscing about the early days, going through old photographs and compiling a time capsule exhibit of memorabilia, including decades of winemaker dinners and White House menus featuring Iron Horse wines.
In the words of the supremely talented Hospitality Director Dixie Bohlke, this summer soiree honors “the fulfilment of what Audrey and Barry Sterling’s dream was then and what it has become.”
Dixie notes that this event carries as truly special feeling for her. Her planning has been driven by a desire to property recognize the vision of the founders that would ultimately shape so much. But most importantly, acknowledge that their vision and “revolutionary” spirit has determined the way forward for the vineyard.
As we celebrate the past with the Spirit of ‘76 Cuvee, we also toast to the future. “It’s going to be an incredibly special time capsule for Audrey and Barry, but they are also moving ahead to the future. When you look around to the new planting, you can see that. “ For all the history and the pleasures of nostalgia, Iron Horse is an exciting and dynamic place.
Couldn’t agree more.
What else does a party need once you have identified the theme, the venue, the food, the wines … as the ultimate party planner will tell you, it's the people who make the party. So we raise a glass to our guests! Happy Spirit of ‘76.
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.
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.
We were dreaming of a green Christmas this year and we got it. Thank you Santa! A near average amount of rain, bringing the hills back to life.
Even more importantly, we have snowpack to the Sierras.
The Sierra Nevada Snowpack currently stands at 105% of normal - the first time above average since 2012.
This is a remarkable milestone in a state where snow was virtually absent even at the highest elevations well into February last winter, and has been consistently far below average for four consecutive years. The early season storms in NorCal have been cold ones, creating a very healthy accumulation of snow across even in the middle elevation.
Think back to April 1 when Jerry Brown at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, walking across dry grass, announced the first ever mandatory water cutbacks of 25%. The Governors of California have trekked to that spot for 65 years and this was the first time there was no snow.
Snowpack contributes about 30 percent of California's water supply. This season’s first measurement was last Wednesday, December 30. The next will be April 1.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we recorded about seven inches of rain in December. The hills have greened-up. There’s water running down the creek.
We actually had flooding for two days, closing off the main entrance to the winery. All visitors, tasters, workers, the office, tasting room team, FedEx trucks had to go around the back way – a solid 30 minute detour, two days before Christmas. It was hard not to complain. We need the water. And it is amazing how many intrepid tasters there are.
The week leading up to New Year’s was old and dry with blue skies, puffy grey clouds and sometimes rainbows in our view.
We started pruning mid-month. We are pruning as if the drought will continue, deciding to err of the side of caution, though it means lowering our sights again in terms of crop sisze. The vineyard teams were given golf pencils with instructions that only shoots bigger than the pencil could be pruned down to two buds (meaning two shoots per position), anything smaller, would be pruned to one bud.
We are hoping for nice, steady, but not overwhelming rain in January. More specifically, we’d like for the storms to unfold with ideally a two-day lull between each one to allow the water to seep into the ground and not just rush off down the creek to the Ocean, please.
Wish for a good El Nino!
‘Tis the season for gift guides, discount codes (insider tip: use code HOLLY for $10 shipping valid through 12/15 on three or more bottles) and predictions for the year ahead.
I know it’s hard to believe, but 2016 is coming on fast. As a winery deeply rooted in our home place, we generally operate outside the trendy category, striving for classic, true to our vineyards, always in style, elegance and balance. But it is exciting to get a glimpse into the data based forecasts for where our cohorts are headed and we are tickled to find ourselves “ahead of the curve."
Since we’re in the gift-giving mood, we’ve rounded up some of the stand out themes from our future gazing friends.
One such visionary is Kimberly Charles, founder of Charles Communications Associates, who provides perspective on volume (bookmark Kimblery's blog for access to her extremely valuable insights at All the Swirl). In our data focused chat, Kimberly explains that global wine consumption is up 5.3% and she estimates we’ll enjoy 35 billion bottles in 2016. Yes that’s billion with a b … with plenty of room to continue growing in the U.S (more on that growth here). This is where the Millennials come in. They grew up watching their parents drink wine, see it as a daily pleasure, and according to a report from Canadian Investment Bank RBC Capital Markets, Millennials want premium bottles.
Trend spotter Andrew Freeman of AF & Co proclaims in his 2016 Trends Report that consumers are enjoying a case of “multiple personality disorder.” In other words, we want the best of all worlds. We participate in wellness movements favoring moderation, then swing to indulgent experiences, sometimes in just a matter of hours.
Here are some trends to watch for in 2016 in the Food World:
Vegetables are the hero, especially amongst Millennials. People want less animal protein and support veggies as a “center of the plate component.”
Hawaiian is the cuisine du-jour. It’s the latest regional “New American” food in the spotlight.
The spicier, the better! Even desserts are getting the fiery treatment as data shows that embracing the heat is not only delicious, but healthy.
Table service at upscale restaurants livens up in a response to a Millennial demand to be entertained and get a peek at what’s happening behind the scenes. Chefs themselves are getting in on the action upping the ante on engaging experiences.
Brunch becomes a main event. Even health nuts are relishing the opportunity to throw caution to the wind once a week during brunch, indulging in the carb heavy, over the top feast.
Now for the Beverage World:
Bubbles mania reigns. But we knew that! Sparkling Wine has captured the imagination of the public beyond celebrating special occasions. The growth of bubbles dwarfs that of still wines (see image). Restaurants are embracing this trend with expanded offerings. As Kimberly Charles declares, “There’s is a virality to hearing the pop of a cork, you want to be part of it.” We certainly agree! According to consumer products analyst Nik Modi at RBC Capital Markets, the rise in Sparkng Wine sales dwarfs still wine sales.
Note: In economists' terms, C0nsumer Value = the ratio of product price to product benefit
Stylistically, white wines are showing more restraint - lower alcohols, less oak, brighter acidity - a trend that’s part of our core values at Iron Horse.
Chardonnay is America’s #1 selling varietal, showing double digit growth. Even traditional red wine drinkers are exploring more white wines.
Coffee gets a modern makeover. New techniques and flavors create balanced and “treatful” beverages.
Instagram worthy embellished cocktails dominate. Think gold dusted flowers, sugar stirrers, designer straws, even perfectly smoked pork belly pieces. Andrew Freeman posed the very apropo question, “If we don’t Instagram it -- did it even happen?” (By the way, we’re on Instagram @IronHorseVyds)
The Bloody Mary is having a moment. Could there be a better way to recover after a late night sampling of our “Brilliant Bubbles Collection”? We don’t think so! And none are more delicious than Diane’s Bloody Marys featured at Michael Mina’s Tailgate at Levi Stadium (mentioned on recent our Star Chef Spotlight in Michael Mina).
As we take stock of a fantastic year at Iron Horse, and give thanks for your great support and friendship, we are already looking forward to a new year of success and innovation in our continued pursuit of toast-worthy excellence.
We’d love to hear your delicious predictions for 2016. Chime in on social media and in the comments below!
Bubbles in Sparkling Wine are not just pretty, little nothings. They work harder than you think.
For one thing, they are not empty. The bubbles deliver hundreds of molecules to the top of the glass. When they explode on the surface, they deliver the aromas & flavors which make top quality Sparkling a truly delicious wine.
Creating bubbles is the littlest trick of nature. This begins at Iron Horse Vineyards by hand harvesting the fruit, gently pressing the grapes. We then ferment the juice completely dry, making a gorgeous blend and ultimately bottle it as a low alcohol base wine … adding a precise amount of sugar and yeast.
The sugar triggers the secondary fermentation, bumping up the alcohol by about a point. One of the natural by-products of fermentation is the creation of carbon dioxide (Co2), which normally escapes from the barrel or the tank, but for bubbly we trap it in the bottle with a crown cap, forcing the gas to dissolve into the wine creating … ta da … bubbles.
More than 600 chemical compounds join the carbon dioxide - each lending its own unique aroma and flavor quality.
The magic is in how long we age the wine on the yeast in the bottle. The longer we age it en tirage, the smaller the bubbles and the greater the finesse on the wine.
A perfect example is our 2000 Brut LD, aged for 14 years and disgorged just last month.
The yeast cells feed on the nutrients in the wine. As they become saturated, they start to die off giving back to the wine a rich, creamy texture through a chemical progress (autolysis), much like stirring the lees of Chardonnay in the barrel.
You can see the difference just holding the glass to the light. Big bubbles are called “frog's eyes”. Not a compliment!
You can also feel the difference. The longer the wine is aged on the yeast, the more integrated the bubbles, the smoother the texture, the more elegant the “mouth feel.”
As the yeast cells break down, they emit amino or fatty acids that coat the bubbles, so that when they launch off the bottom of your glass, they don’t glom together. Instead they stay separate and travel up to the surface in streams of tiny, diffuse, gas-filled spheres.
As the bubbles ascend the length of a glass in tiny trails, they drag along the molecules of aroma and flavors which explode out of the surface.
When they burst, they release enough energy to create tiny auditory shock waves; the fizzing sound is a chorus of hundreds of individual bubbles bursting every second.
With each sip, the bubbles excite special receptors on the tongue contributing to that tingling feeling that makes bubbly so seductive.
The bubbles also serve to retain the acidity of the wine. A flat bottle will taste too sweet and out of balance.
The collapse of bubbles at the surface is even more exciting under a microscope.
According to Gerard Liger-Belair, a physicist at the University of Reims in Champagne (of course), bubbles collapsing close to each other produce unexpected lovely flower-shaped structures unfortunately completely invisible to the naked eye.
“This is a fantastic example of the beauty hidden right under our nose.” (Source: Uncorked: The Science of Champagne, published by Princeton University Press.)
British physicist, oceanographer and Champagne aficionado Helen Czerski, explains that bubble dynamics of Sparkling Wine are the same as in the ocean, but with greater consequence. Bubbly can change our mood, but the bubbles in the ocean affect climate.
"Bubbles are little packets of gases that rise or fall as if they're on little conveyor belts," she says. They carry carbon dioxide and oxygen from the atmosphere down into the ocean, and then when they go back up again they pop and sulfur compounds from marine plants are sent upward, forming particles in the air that lead to the formation of clouds."
Czerski is studying how to detect and count ocean bubbles of different sizes to help scientists in other disciplines create more accurate models. She said that scientists have found it difficult to judge the effect of bubbles on their data for years and usually have had to add a "fudge factor" to account for them.
"For instance, bubbles ring like bells when they are formed or when sound waves go past them, and if you're studying sounds traveling through the ocean -- like sounds from whales or sonar -- bubbles can get in the way of what you're trying to listen for,"
And she adds, “A good way of getting people to enjoy my lectures on bubbles is to give them a glass of Champagne.”
Her favorite “parlor trick” is to drop a few raisins into the fizz. The raisins sink to the bottom of the glass, before being lifted back to the surface by the bubbles, which then burst, sending the raisins back down again.
So, what’s the best way to pour a glass of bubbly and maximize the sensory experience? A study published in the American Chemical Society Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry answers that question. Pouring on an angle preserves twice the carbon dioxide bubbles compared to pouring down the middle of the glass.
More scintillating sparkling facts:
Never underestimate the force of a flying cork. The warmer the bubbly, the more the pressure builds and the faster the cork flies when you pop it open, clocked at up to 30 mph.
The magnum is the optimum size for bubbly because the larger bottle retains more CO2 in the wine as it is being poured.
The white wisp of mist rising from a just-popped bottle is not carbon dioxide. That's a fog of ethanol and water vapor, triggered by the sudden drop in gas temperature when the pressure is released. (adiabatic expansion)
No need to swirl a glass of Bubbly, in fact it is frowned upon. The bubbles are already releasing the aromas and flavors. Swirling just knocks down the bubbles we work so hard to achieve.
Now let's talk about glassware.
The old fashioned flat coupe ( like the ones my parents drank from at their wedding) has a very slow bubble engine because the bubbles don't get to rise very far. Flavour is delivered to the air gradually, but escapes from the space above the glass very quickly.
The tall thin flute has a very powerful bubble engine, delivering lots of flavour very quickly, and spitting lots of fizz upwards.
Some sommeliers like to serve champagne in white wine glasses because flutes "stifle the flavour".
The Riedel glassmakers have taken it a step further with their new “Champagne Wine Glass.” President, CEO, & 11th generation glassmaker Maximilian Riedel says “the larger rim diameter enables the aromas of the Champagne to be released” and complexity to develop.
I had the honor of conducting an impromptu experiment with George Riedel, Maximilian’s father, several years ago in Healdsburg. We tasted Iron Horse vintage Blanc de Blancs side by side in a flute and a Burgundy glass. In the flute, the Bubbly was bright and vibrant. In the other glass, it seemed older, softer.
Next time, I hope to try it in a glass slipper.