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Iron Horse Blog

Joy Sterling
 
September 4, 2017 | Joy Sterling

Harvest Update

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.

Time Posted: Sep 4, 2017 at 9:18 AM
David Munksgard
 
July 28, 2017 | David Munksgard

The Run Up to Harvest

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

Time Posted: Jul 28, 2017 at 8:51 AM
Joy Sterling
 
January 27, 2017 | Joy Sterling

State of the Winery


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.

Time Posted: Jan 27, 2017 at 10:16 AM
Tarin Teno
 
October 12, 2016 | Tarin Teno

Sabers & Bubbles -- A Brief History

 
 
The Iron Horse “marketing ” team is lean, to say the least, but we think big and are quick to move on a great idea.  A new product launch becomes part of an illustrious and dynamic legacy. Standards are high, and family expectations are higher. So when Joy informed me that Iron Horse would be releasing a new gift item, I was intrigued. That curiosity grew to excitement when I discovered that item would be a saber. Shiny and beautiful but also useful and extremely efficient towards the end goal of unleashing delicious bubbles. An engraved saber that comes in a branded wood box is the perfect accompaniment to Iron Horse Sparkling Wines.
 
I jumped at the chance to understand why Joy selected this particular item to add to the family’s special cache of Iron Horse offerings. Maybe because my wedding party sabered bottles to fuel a champagne tower at our reception or maybe because sabering is enjoying a pop culture renaissance ....  either way, I dove in. Which required research. My mini investigation transformed me briefly into my AP World History student-self, this time with the joys of the internet and none of the dust of the library. The discoveries were as enchanting as the sunrise in Green Valley and as rooted in French history as the winemaking methods at Iron Horse.
 

 

The lore of sabering takes different turns depending on your source. Most agree it all starts with Napoleon. After the French Revolution of 1789, The Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe. Napoleon’s soldiers mounted fast horses and dressed in lavish uniforms. Oil paintings depict young men in long cloaks with furs draped over broad shoulders. Most importantly, they were armed with rifles … and brass handled sabers. Early victories came easily for this force, who charged home through villages where revellers tossed them bottles of Champagne.
 
But it seems riding a horse while fumbling with a bottle secured with cork, wire cage and foil-wrapping didn’t fit the dashing portrait of Napoleon’s men. So they improvised, discovering that a quick stroke of a saber blade to the neck of the bottle both released the “drink of the stars” and did so in a decidedly heroic fashion. The upturned bottle with a dangerously sharp tip added to the overall vision of youthful brashness and celebration.
 
 
The  “Widow” Clicquot makes an appearance in accounts of saber lore. This famous female Champagne house owner symbolises quite a bit for the women of Iron Horse (a story for another blog). But in this context, the story goes that the savvy business woman opened her mansion to Napoleon’s officers and then  armed them with her bottles on their way back into battle. Wishing to display gratitude, or perhaps hoping to capture the fancy of the wealthy lady, the young men would perform the saber ritual for her before racing back to the front lines. Swoon.
 
It is comforting to me that the best things through history seem to endure. And that is truly the case with sabering. I caught up with several Iron Horse friends who were happy to chat saber etiquette and procedure. Meet Master Sabreuse Catherine Fallis aka the Grape Goddess, Master Sommelier David Glancy founder of San Francisco Wine School, Brad Kinder of Kind Wines, who represents Iron Horse through Florida, and Petra Polakovicova, Wine Director at Epic Steak in San Francisco. All have a slightly different take on the art of the performance. But all share their concern for safety above all else.
 
 
David Glancy explained, “Sabering really started out as a quick and dirty tactic. You used a sword or knife or a blunt object to knock off the neck of a champagne bottle. It started with Napoleon’s troops who employed this method very sloppily I’m sure. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.” He told us that the key to the whole show is to get the champagne REALLY cold. Especially the neck. We’re talking ice bath cold, completely submerged for at least an hour.
 
David emphasized this point saying, “Bottles DO explode. I’ve gotten very tiny shards of glass in my wrist and in my neck even from what seemed to be perfect sabering.” Catherine Fallis is also a fanatic about the well-chilled, near-frozen temperature in her sabering performances. Our favorite Grape Goddess added that she prefers magnums, which are easier to take contact with along the seam to the lip. And she reminds us the sabering is an unright motion, not a downward “decapitation” (an appropo reference when speaking of the French Revolution).
 
Michael Rosati Photography
 
But if all goes well you can be assured that party goers will clamor for more. It seems to put a punctuation mark on the event. As Brad Kinder told us, “Bubbles are the beverage of celebration and nothing really kicks it off in a better way than sabering the bottle. It draws attention and is super cool especially for people who have never seen it before.” He went on to say, “It’s showmanship and that’s what bubbles are all about. It’s a perfect pairing.” Do not try this at home, but Brad has been know to “saber” a bottle using the bottom of a wine glass.  “The danger and the uncertainty of success adds to the fun. I’ve sabered many bottle but I always get an adrenalin rush.”  
 
Taking a risk on an innovative approach can be the most powerful strategy.  If this YouTube video involving a golf ball doesn’t make you jump out of your chair, I don’t know what will.
 
However you decide to go about it, here are some performance and safety MUSTs which I gathered from our experts:
 
 
  • Pre-planning is key.
  • The bottle needs to be as cold as it can be before the wine turns to slush.  That “tames” the bubbles. With a warm bottle, the cork is likely to fly out.
  • Wear protective eyewear, sunglasses are a dramatic, easy option.
  • Some experts recommend gloves. Our friend Catherine Fallis favors opera gloves for protection disguised as glamour.
  • Crowd control is a must. Select a safe space with a clear opening, set up something to aim for, and make sure people aren’t in your path.
  • Aim at something soft which might absorb the impact … or the great outdoors.
  • Common sense should also lead you to remove the wire cage from the neck, to avoid a boomerang effect.
  • Taking off the cage is the most dangerous part - remember it has the power to take your finger off with it!
  • The maneuver is not about force … or even a sharp edge.
  • In fact, a butter knife will work.
  • They key is to run the saber along the seam of the bottle, hitting the neck at just the right angle.
  • A smooth, clean stroke works best.
  • Form is everything.
 
Petra Polakovicova presides in a well-known dining room and can attest to the celebratory vibe created by even a traditional pop of the cork. But she too is moved by the elevated experience  of the  sabering ritual. “Sabering adds drama. When you open bubbles with a sword, there’s an anticipation. The anticipation of something really cool.”
 
In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it. -Napoleon

Welcome to the family, Iron Horse saber, Sebastopol Edition.

 

Time Posted: Oct 12, 2016 at 1:44 PM
Tarin Teno
 
October 12, 2016 | Tarin Teno

Sabers & Bubbles -- A Brief History

 
 
The Iron Horse “marketing ” team is lean, to say the least, but we think big and are quick to move on a great idea.  A new product launch becomes part of an illustrious and dynamic legacy. Standards are high, and family expectations are higher. So when Joy informed me that Iron Horse would be releasing a new gift item, I was intrigued. That curiosity grew to excitement when I discovered that item would be a saber. Shiny and beautiful but also useful and extremely efficient towards the end goal of unleashing delicious bubbles. An engraved saber that comes in a branded wood box is the perfect accompaniment to Iron Horse Sparkling Wines.
 
I jumped at the chance to understand why Joy selected this particular item to add to the family’s special cache of Iron Horse offerings. Maybe because my wedding party sabered bottles to fuel a champagne tower at our reception or maybe because sabering is enjoying a pop culture renaissance ....  either way, I dove in. Which required research. My mini investigation transformed me briefly into my AP World History student-self, this time with the joys of the internet and none of the dust of the library. The discoveries were as enchanting as the sunrise in Green Valley and as rooted in French history as the winemaking methods at Iron Horse.
 

 

The lore of sabering takes different turns depending on your source. Most agree it all starts with Napoleon. After the French Revolution of 1789, The Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe. Napoleon’s soldiers mounted fast horses and dressed in lavish uniforms. Oil paintings depict young men in long cloaks with furs draped over broad shoulders. Most importantly, they were armed with rifles … and brass handled sabers. Early victories came easily for this force, who charged home through villages where revellers tossed them bottles of Champagne.
 
But it seems riding a horse while fumbling with a bottle secured with cork, wire cage and foil-wrapping didn’t fit the dashing portrait of Napoleon’s men. So they improvised, discovering that a quick stroke of a saber blade to the neck of the bottle both released the “drink of the stars” and did so in a decidedly heroic fashion. The upturned bottle with a dangerously sharp tip added to the overall vision of youthful brashness and celebration.
 
 
The  “Widow” Clicquot makes an appearance in accounts of saber lore. This famous female Champagne house owner symbolises quite a bit for the women of Iron Horse (a story for another blog). But in this context, the story goes that the savvy business woman opened her mansion to Napoleon’s officers and then  armed them with her bottles on their way back into battle. Wishing to display gratitude, or perhaps hoping to capture the fancy of the wealthy lady, the young men would perform the saber ritual for her before racing back to the front lines. Swoon.
 
It is comforting to me that the best things through history seem to endure. And that is truly the case with sabering. I caught up with several Iron Horse friends who were happy to chat saber etiquette and procedure. Meet Master Sabreuse Catherine Fallis aka the Grape Goddess, Master Sommelier David Glancy founder of San Francisco Wine School, Brad Kinder of Kind Wines, who represents Iron Horse through Florida, and Petra Polakovicova, Wine Director at Epic Steak in San Francisco. All have a slightly different take on the art of the performance. But all share their concern for safety above all else.
 
 
David Glancy explained, “Sabering really started out as a quick and dirty tactic. You used a sword or knife or a blunt object to knock off the neck of a champagne bottle. It started with Napoleon’s troops who employed this method very sloppily I’m sure. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.” He told us that the key to the whole show is to get the champagne REALLY cold. Especially the neck. We’re talking ice bath cold, completely submerged for at least an hour.
 
David emphasized this point saying, “Bottles DO explode. I’ve gotten very tiny shards of glass in my wrist and in my neck even from what seemed to be perfect sabering.” Catherine Fallis is also a fanatic about the well-chilled, near-frozen temperature in her sabering performances. Our favorite Grape Goddess added that she prefers magnums, which are easier to take contact with along the seam to the lip. And she reminds us the sabering is an unright motion, not a downward “decapitation” (an appropo reference when speaking of the French Revolution).
 
Michael Rosati Photography
 
But if all goes well you can be assured that party goers will clamor for more. It seems to put a punctuation mark on the event. As Brad Kinder told us, “Bubbles are the beverage of celebration and nothing really kicks it off in a better way than sabering the bottle. It draws attention and is super cool especially for people who have never seen it before.” He went on to say, “It’s showmanship and that’s what bubbles are all about. It’s a perfect pairing.” Do not try this at home, but Brad has been know to “saber” a bottle using the bottom of a wine glass.  “The danger and the uncertainty of success adds to the fun. I’ve sabered many bottle but I always get an adrenalin rush.”  
 
Taking a risk on an innovative approach can be the most powerful strategy.  If this YouTube video involving a golf ball doesn’t make you jump out of your chair, I don’t know what will.
 
However you decide to go about it, here are some performance and safety MUSTs which I gathered from our experts:
 
 
  • Pre-planning is key.
  • The bottle needs to be as cold as it can be before the wine turns to slush.  That “tames” the bubbles. With a warm bottle, the cork is likely to fly out.
  • Wear protective eyewear, sunglasses are a dramatic, easy option.
  • Some experts recommend gloves. Our friend Catherine Fallis favors opera gloves for protection disguised as glamour.
  • Crowd control is a must. Select a safe space with a clear opening, set up something to aim for, and make sure people aren’t in your path.
  • Aim at something soft which might absorb the impact … or the great outdoors.
  • Common sense should also lead you to remove the wire cage from the neck, to avoid a boomerang effect.
  • Taking off the cage is the most dangerous part - remember it has the power to take your finger off with it!
  • The maneuver is not about force … or even a sharp edge.
  • In fact, a butter knife will work.
  • They key is to run the saber along the seam of the bottle, hitting the neck at just the right angle.
  • A smooth, clean stroke works best.
  • Form is everything.
 
Petra Polakovicova presides in a well-known dining room and can attest to the celebratory vibe created by even a traditional pop of the cork. But she too is moved by the elevated experience  of the  sabering ritual. “Sabering adds drama. When you open bubbles with a sword, there’s an anticipation. The anticipation of something really cool.”
 
In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it. -Napoleon

Welcome to the family, Iron Horse saber, Sebastopol Edition.

 

Time Posted: Oct 12, 2016 at 1:44 PM
Joy Sterling
 
September 2, 2016 | Joy Sterling

On the Waterfront: In Case You Haven’t Heard, California Is Still In a Drought

 
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

 

####

Time Posted: Sep 2, 2016 at 6:47 AM
Tarin Teno
 
June 23, 2016 | Tarin Teno

Behind the Scenes: Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of Iron Horse

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.  
 
 
Recipe:
1.5 oz Brandy*
3/4 oz Fresh, Strained Lemon Juice
1/4 oz Simple Syrup
1 bar spoon Apricot Preserve**
4-5 oz Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut
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
**Dixie’s homemade
 
Recipe Backstory:
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.
 
Directions:
Shake ingredients (except sparkling) vigorously with ice, strain into a Pinot Noir style stemmed glass, top with bubbly, garnish with a lemon twist.
 
Old labels
 
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.

 

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Time Posted: Jun 23, 2016 at 9:44 AM
Joy Sterling
 
June 10, 2016 | Joy Sterling

Vintage Update: June 2016

 
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.

 
 

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Time Posted: Jun 10, 2016 at 2:56 PM
Joy Sterling
 
May 19, 2016 | Joy Sterling

Blooms and Full Moons at Iron Horse

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.

 

 

Time Posted: May 19, 2016 at 12:35 PM
Tarin Teno
 
May 2, 2016 | Tarin Teno

A Closer Look at the Special Sauce of Iron Horse

 
We believe in the power of special ingredients at Iron Horse. Each bottle is infused with their essence. It is deeply gratifying that friends and family appreciate the intangible draw of our bubbles, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  For some, the journey to understanding the Iron Horse mystique ends with enjoying a glass or two. There’s certainly no better place to begin and end! But for others, it’s intriguing to get to know  the truth behind this seemingly effortless deliciousness. With winemaker David Munksgard as a guide, we are delighted to introduce you to some of the wonderful people who are the hands on contributors to our success.
 
 
David starts out so many days walking the vineyards as we’ve frequently chronicled on the blog. But our focus rarely zooms out past him in that moment. Widen the frame of that morning scene and you see the vineyard team hard at work, including Vineyard Foreman Manuel Briano kneeling in front of the vines with a young protege at his side  - a learning moment while shoot trimming , carefully removing  unwanted growth from the vine with a decisive nudge of the thumb. Their genuine interest is written all over their faces.
 
 
The Vineyard Team, which reports to Laurence Sterling, is an integral part of our magic. Some might call them “behind the scenes,” but as David explains and all of us know, “they are front and center and the foundation upon which growth happens.” We rely on team members like Manuel, to bring natural coaching skills into play. Manuel was a talented amateur baseball player whose team spirit extends into the vineyards.
 
 
Many on Team Iron Horse were farmers in their native country of Mexico where they gained an innate understanding of agriculture and love of the land. They work hard, tinker until something’s fixed and draw upon wisdom from within. As David shares, “they really care and take great  pride in what they do.” This is undeniably evident in the work of Jose Puga who is the Grounds Manager reporting to Chief Gardener Barry Sterling. He keeps Iron Horse looking so beautiful and maintenance efforts are massive. Besides the signature flower, fruit, and vegetable gardens, Iron Horse is a 260 acre reserve and grounds like these demand constant attention. It’s second nature for Jose who started working with Barry Sterling when he was just 17 years old (Note: Jose Pugo and Manuel Briano also run the frost protection system which we referenced in our Spring 2016 Vineyard Update Blog - photo of the system at the close of the blog).
 
 
David was particularly moved by the all-for-one ethic of the winery crew during his 20th anniversary celebrations at Iron Horse. It was then that he realized the true value of “extended family”. We simply can’t do this without them. I understand their skill sets and appreciate how fortunate  we  are. It almost made me embarrassed to be recognized in front of them.” Many on his team have been with Iron Horse for decades, some since the beginning, “We probably have the most experienced riddler in North America. Jose Luis Briano (Manuel’s brother) has been here since 1984, which is a testament to both him and to Iron Horse.”  
 
Cellar Master Rigoberto Moreno Rojas aka Rigo (below), a veteran of 28 vintages here, was the first to shake David’s hand when he started at Iron Horse. David calls him The General. “Rigo and I talk about what we want to accomplish  and he’ll step in to explain, why we can’t physically do that but THIS is what we can do and then he makes it happen. The Cellar Master is a key player in every winery and someone to be taken very seriously. It is a coveted position. He or she has to know absolutely everything about the winery. And we are in excellent hands with ours.”
 
 
To continue raising the bar, requires ever more meticulous, rigorous, detailed work in the vineyard and the cellars.  It’s getting harder each year for Vineyard Manager Victor Arreola to recruit and keep the highly trained and dedicated people we need. Young farmers are becoming more rare. And there’s a concern that the knowledge is not passing passed on.
 
“This is such a talented crew and I absolutely love these people,” says David. It’s an honor to see them with their families and taking so much joy in what they do. It seems like the light is always shining on them.”

His closing remarks are the inspiration for the spirit of this grateful blog post. “There’s something about this place that gets me. Iron Horse has allowed me to live my dreams and convey the beauty of the place. And these are the people who will just do anything we ask to make it happen. They are the ingredient X in our wines.

 

Time Posted: May 2, 2016 at 4:10 PM