Iron Horse Blog
With so much happening around us, there is something very centering about focusing on harvest.
Photo: David Munksgard
All the fruit for Sparkling and Pinot Noir has now been picked. We will probably be done by the end of this week, which seems very early, but remember, our harvest started on August 4 for bubbly, so, that’s a month … and this weekend’s heatwave accelerated everything.
Photo: David Munksgard
So far, Vintage 2017 is all about extremes – even just speaking climatically, we went from extreme drought to record rain fall to record breaking heat. This weekend is certainly one for the record books. It was 106 degrees in San Francisco Friday. 70 degrees here on Saturday at 5am. That never happens.
Extremes always lead to more work. And I could not be more proud of our vineyard and winery crews. This is the first vintage for our new Assistant Winemaker Megan Hill. It has certainly been challenging, but her smile speaks volumes.
Photo: David Munksgard
It’s hard to pry a quality assessment of the vintage out of my brother Laurence and our winemaker David, but I spied a hint on a sample of Chardonnay free run juice. The labels says “F-Low” (for the lower part of block F on the Estate) – “the beginning of a great BdeB (Blanc de Blancs).”
Photo: LG Sterling
Free run juice straight out of the press also makes a delicious Sparkling cocktail, which you can only have here at Iron Horse and only this time of year. We call it the “Sterlini”.
One of my favorite though little-known quotes is from (I believe) JFK, talking about something he learned playing touch football, “When you see blue sky, go for it.”
In that spirit, Happy Labor Day! I hope you are celebrating with the fruits of our labor and join us in sending all of our positive energy to our many friends and my cousins Rand and Pamela in Houston.
El Niño was a big help to our long term water woes, but not the savior many had hoped (read our blog’s past predictions for the Great Wet Hope here). Winter storms brought normal snowpack in the Sierra, but once the flurries stopped and the seasons changed, melt-off from the high country proved swift and disappointing.
The Department of Water Resources projects that the mountains produced about three quarters of normal runoff during the months of heaviest snowmelt. This shorts the rivers and reservoirs that typically provide a third of California’s water, cementing a fifth year of historic drought for the Golden State (news coverage here). Now the Governor has used his executive powers to enact permanent measures, acknowledging that water conservation has to become a way of life.
“Permanent” turns out to be through January 17 when the state Water Resources Control Board can revise the regulations. For the next five months we are off mandatory water use management and onto voluntary cutbacks.
Instead of a statewide decree, cities and towns are now allowed to manage their individual conservation efforts. This measure acknowledges the obvious - that water, like every resource, is not naturally equally distributed statewide.
Back in 2015, the Governor mandated a 25% reduction in water use compared with a baseline of 2013, with the 411 water districts reporting monthly (full story from the Sacramento Bee here).
Post-El Nino, California officials feel we can afford a break in certain parts of the state, especially in the North. It has now been determined that we can ease off draconian, one size fits all measures. Local communities are empowered to decide their own conservation needs based on a three year stress test. Monthly reporting remains honoring a motto of “Trust, but verify.”
Map of Official Monitoring Stations in the Delta region
In the first month on this “honor system,” the state averaged 23% reduction. July’s numbers will be released soon, concrete evidence of continued commitment to voluntary water frugality.
As an active observer of California Water Policy, I can’t imagine anyone thought El Nino would provide a panacea for drought. Complete recovery requires several more years of “average” rainfall but it definitely was a boon here in Sonoma where soils were saturated and reservoirs refilled.
Long term, the Governor is right to plan for perpetual drought, which experts says is a very real possibility. Some anticipate a time when water may become more valuable than land, positing that land without water won’t be worth much. Shocking.
Theories like these are motivating significant action on a large scale. In an extremely controversial move, Southern California’s powerful Metropolitan Water District recently purchased 20,000 acres, scattered across five agricultural islands in the North’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Shown above, the area is called the “Delta” because it forms a triangle of roughly 1,000 miles of waterways from Antioch to Sacramento to Stockton and is the hub of California’s water delivery network. Metropolitan says they were interested in purchasing the islands so they could restore natural wetlands habitat for plants and wildlife. Such restoration projects are required of water districts to offset the effects of their reservoirs, dams and canals. Two of the islands are in the path of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to build two tunnels underneath the Delta. And owning the islands also grants Metropolitan senior rights to pump water out of the Delta.
Critics say the purchase was an old fashioned water grab. It was challenged in court, but allowed to go through (coverage here and more here).
This story is not without a happy update: Stanford researchers have detected a potential new water source in the Central Valley. Perhaps as much as three times more groundwater than previous estimates.
Previous studies only looked at depths of up to 1,000ft (300m). This one went deeper - and investigations show there’s three times as much fresh water at 1,000–3,000ft (300–900m) below ground.
But the potential “windfall” comes with caveats. It is very deep thus prohibitively expensive to extract and could be salty. Drilling for it could lead to further land subsidence, already a major problem. And much of these hitherto unknown water sources happen to be close to oil and gas wells, which puts them at risk of being contaminated.
Shut-down desalinization plant in Marina, Cali image via NewsDeeply.com
The Central Valley is home to California’s most productive farm belt, but the region’s groundwater is so severely overdrafted that in some places that the land has been sinking two inches a month. Problems with subsidence started decades ago, but have been made worse by the current drought. With surface water so scarce, one study shows we are currently pumping water out of the ground at twice the rate that the aquifers can naturally recharge. At this rate, pulling more water out of the ground wouldn’t help.
The scientists are not advocating the use of this new-found source … at least not just yet. As the old saying goes, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
It'll take a while to figure out how to tap those very deep aquifers … and how to replenish them. In the meantime, we need to approach this new source with caution. Premature efforts could pollute the precious water AND inadvertently poke the “sleeping bear” - a term my friend and fellow water policy wonk Phil Grosse uses to describe the network of fault lines underlying the state. But this is California, where imagination and ingenuity are two of our greatest resources in overcoming technical difficulties and ultimately sway public policy.
In a press release on this topic, the Stanford scientists were cautiously optimistic despite the proximity of the groundwater to a potentially hazardous oil and gas operation. But they noted that the contamination risks are great enough that we should be paying attention. We might need to use this water in a decade, so it's definitely worth protecting. Find further reading on this important finding here and here.
I believe science will move us forward in the long run and I remain hopeful that technology will yield a sustainable solution. But for now, I’m relying on good old fashioned conservation. My wish list includes more normal rainfall, ideally from Thanksgiving through February and preferably at night, like Camelot.
Last day of harvest 2016 for Sparkling at Iron Horse. Photo: Laurence Sterling
Harvest has begun at Iron Horse, early once again, and just as promising as ever. Like the old saying goes, we keep making new friends (and new vintages!) and treasure the old. And in that spirit, we’re excited to share our annual blog-homage to many long-time Iron Horse friends recently honored by key wine industry publications.
Behind the scenes (or blog!) efforts involved fanning out across the country to catch up with some of the award winners now receiving 2016 accolades from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast in all different categories of excellence. We’re in the harvest state of mind right now and that colored our perspective as we “hand picked” the interviews. In some ways, we see each sommelier as a “farmer” each working tirelessly to grow their “crop” over the years, applying a signature “blend” of inputs which ultimately contribute to unique success. Their “terroir” includes hometown roots, global travel, renowned mentors, and years of tasting experiences. The resulting award winning program is a “special cuvee ” all its own.
The quality and depth of our conversations with these innovators were as intriguing and pleasurable as a beautifully curated wine list. We hope you enjoy sharing in these moments as much as we did.
Award: Wine Spectator Grand Award for Murray Circle; SAUSALITO, CA
Notable and Quotables from the Judges’ Write Up: Murray Circle was praised for its stellar cellar stocked with 12,000 bottles and more than 2,200 selections, anchored by California classics. Wine Director Jamie Harding told the judges, “It used to be rare when someone came in because of the wine program. Now it’s a few times a week.” The laid-back attitude at the restaurant pairs with vibrant cuisine and a “deep trove of classic wines at a wide range of prices.” And Harding’s Sommelier Selections page offers a curated window into his mind's eye. “I’m not pushing an agenda. If I were running a little restaurant in the Mission District I’d have a completely different list. We have a culture of pleasing the customer. If they want Zinfandel, I’ll give them Zin.”
Somm Reflections on the Honor: “It was our first time winning for this restaurant and for me as its wine director. The award is very satisfying and is the culmination of the work of the Master Somms who came before me. I was prepared very well by people like Dan O’Brien to drive the wine program in the direction I wanted to go, and it has been a goal for us to achieve this since I arrived in 2009 as a staff sommelier.
I’m born and raised in the Bay Area and as much as I love wines of the world, I feel a kinship with California wines. That respect is massively important for someone like me who serves international resort guests, they visit us and they want to try NorCal wines. My desire moving into my role was to build up that California producer list, build up the verticals. Hopefully that had something to do with us getting over the hump (to win!). One of the things Wine Spectator mentioned was our commitment and focus on California, vintage depth and the producers we work with - that’s what moved the judges. I’m committed to smaller, younger winemakers who are defining a style.”
Special Mention: Jamie took an interesting path into his current area of expertise, “I started out in the music business, I wanted to be a rock star.” While he pursued the music world, he always had a bartending job and found himself an unlikely mentee of Jeff Kramer a wine director at Hawthorne Lane. “I tasted things I never tasted before, learned how to pair wines, and that’s where I really got hooked.” Thus the wine rock star was born. As he got deeper into the industry, he found inspiration in meeting the winemakers responsible for the vintages he enjoyed so much. “There’s beauty, quality, and amazing people behind the wines. When you meet winemakers, they’re very down to earth people. They want wine to be inclusive. I try to breathe that attitude into my style and my staff. I want to be approachable even in the fine dining setting. There’s an improv performance art and a sales component to my job - it’s a complex twist!”
Iron Horse Favorite: My wife and I have been up to the Iron Horse Vineyards and tasted everything. The quality top to bottom is phenomenal. The wine on my list always is Wedding Cuvee. It’s probably the best California rose out there. It has a refined beautiful style with enough fruit coming through that you get the strawberry from the Pinot Noir and the crispness from the Chardonnay.
Must Try Summer Pairing for At-Home Chefs: “Our menu changes fairly often for seasonal and local reasons. Chef Justin Everett has a great relationship with local farmers and purveyors, he’s always excited about what’s coming in the backdoor and the new produce in season. It’s fun because I’m always tasting food and pulling corks. Right now there’s a scallop dish on our tasting menu with a heart of palm puree, spring peas, and house cured pancetta. The dish was hard to pair, it’s an example of how a straightforward dish can be challenging and requires out of the box thinking. You could go with a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc or bubbles, depending on what creates that WOW moment for you.
Award: Wine Enthusiast “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants of 2016” Award for Underbelly; HOUSTON, TX
Notable and Quotables from the Judges’ Write Up: Winner for the second year in a row, wine list crafter and Underbelly GM Matthew Pridgen is a stickler on one thing. He told Wine Enthusiast, “If a winery isn’t family owned and operated, it won’t find a home on ‘Wine Herder.’” The edgy drinks list is a purist when it comes to producers but is decidedly avant garde when it comes to its aesthetic. The Underbelly partners are friends with sketch artists and they collaborated on signature menu cartoons which are updated every year. Matt explained, “We wanted it to be visually appealing and fun, we’re all about fine dining in a casual atmosphere and we want the menu to reflect that. Most guests love the list, it’s especially fun to present to a first timer who will read through the entire wine menu and laugh at the comics.”
Somm Reflections on the Honor: “It’s an incredibly huge honor. I’ve been in the wine business for quite some time, and at Underbelly for going on five years that we’ve been open. I was given complete control of the wine list with the parameters that we wanted something different and unique which was a little daunting because there are a lot of incredible wine lists across the country. The premise of the restaurant is locally sourced, everything in the kitchen comes from people we know. It made sense to model our wine list after the philosophy of the restaurant, so we only source wines from people who produce their own wines -- not big corporations or bank owned vineyards. Family owned and operated is our credo.” The Houston native also benefits from the fact that access to good wine in Texas has gotten exponentially better over the past five to ten years.
Special Mention: For Matt, it’s essential to put a face to the wine, “Personality is the thing that’s making the wine and that has a lot to do with the outcome. For example, Joy is the wine she makes, she’s bubbly, festive, fun and friendly which translates to her wines. Having been in the business for a long time you taste wines that are mass produced vs small. Smaller producers aren’t just in it for the money to produce for the masses. It’s a true labor of love and the required passion shows in their product. That weighs heavily on Underbelly’s decision to focus on family owned only. And it shows across the board on our wine list. Every wine is there for a reason, nothing is just there. People who have a passion for their wines - their bottlings tend to be better with food.”
Iron Horse Favorite: “I’ve known Joy for a long time. Iron Horse was one of my firsts visits in Sonoma when I went out there many years ago with a small group and was hosted to a full tour, tasting, and lunch with salmon and veggies out of the garden. She’s an amazing person, and the wines are amazing.” Right now Matt is pouring Wedding Cuvee, “For the weather right now (close to 100 every day!) and the food we’re serving, it’s versatile and fun to drink.”
Must Try Summer Pairing for At-Home Chefs: For this time of summer Matt suggested a cantaloupe and bresaola (beef that has been dry cured and rubbed with spices), served with fresh herbs. He favors a rose to pair with the refreshing dish.
Award: Wine Spectator Grand Award for The Modern; NEW YORK, NY
Notable and Quotables from the Judges’ Write Up: Wine Spectator did not hold back when describing the first time Grand Award Winner as “a culinary treasure in an iconic museum.” As Michael explained, “There was really an ambition to take the restaurant to greater heights. I was like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to show the diversity of the wines I’ve served over the course of my career from California to Australia and beyond. I’m hoping we can offer the best wine program and have the best restaurant in New York. I want to be known in Japan and Europe and elsewhere as a world-class destination for food and wine.”
Somm Reflections on the Honor: “There was an immediate rush of satisfaction. My team and I tripled the selection of wine in my two years at The Modern. A great amount of work was involved in achieving this award. I wanted to bring more of an international vision to the program. My tenure in Sydney exposed me to some of the greatest wines in the world, now The Modern carries hundreds of Australian wines along with legendary producers and vintages. I push to always be tasting more wine and discovering new favorites. I strive to represent the old and the new and the rising stars all on one menu. I want to accommodate any guest who walks in. We are located in NYC at the MOMA, the meeting place of the world, so it’s my responsibility to be able to serve wine whether it’s from California, Europe, or their native land.”
Special Mentions: New York is not known for an excess of space. But Michael has unparalleled access to storage upstairs in the restaurant’s “Wine Wall,” a Eurocave wine cooling unit, and three floors below in former museum space for crates and offices. From physical space to mental space, Michael mentioned that The Modern is closing down for renovations for five weeks at the end of summer. The somm, who was born in France and has lived in England, California, Australia and now NYC, plans to take the the skies for more travel. He loves living in New York and the extraordinary wine community there, but looks forward to travelling and unplugging from email.
Iron Horse Favorite: “I lived in San Francisco and I would travel to Sonoma quite a bit, so I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Iron Horse in person. I think it’s one of the most gorgeous places to start you day. Getting off the main highway and enjoying the outdoor tasting room - the natural beauty is overwhelming.”
Must Try Summer Pairing for At-Home Chefs: Roasted Watermelon with Whipped Crème Fraîche and Caviar with rose, ideally Wedding Cuvee. Another one would be a glass of Meursault served with Roasted Lobster Potage with Pickled Garlic and Potatoes.
Award: Wine Enthusiast “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants of 2016” Award for Liholiho Yacht Club; SAN FRANCISCO, CA
Notable and Quotables from the Judges’ Write Up: The former pop-up restaurant was lauded for “thrilling, modern food with a global, value conscious list.” Wine Director Lulu McAllister separates the wine menu into classic “Old Friends” and emerging, unusual “New Friends.” Described as a star somm by the magazine, Lulu explains she seeks to accommodate all levels of wine lovers, “Some people are curious and don’t know a lot about wine, some people do know a lot about wine but are still curious, so I try to be sensitive to both of those progressions.” She keeps things fresh by constantly tasting new wines, “I’m constantly juggling the space I have and trying to make room for the great things I’m finding. It’s like the best kind of Tetris.”
Somm Reflections on the Honor: “LihoLiho Yacht Club is one of the four restaurants where I oversee the wine. It’s a very distinct menu with a unique flavors, textures, and colors that make pairing exciting. The expanding wine program considers wine from all across the world and is slowing moving into specific regions as I educate myself. The “Old Friends vs New Friends” approach is unique to my palette, but the general intention is to serve up classic styles and well known grape types from well known regions as well as newer options for when you want to depart from what you know and advance to more exotic grapes and styles, new products and concepts. It caters to what people want when they dine, sometimes you want something familiar and sometimes you want to escape and be adventurous. I try to remind the staff that for someone who is not used to tasting wine, any wine can be a new friend.”
Special Mention: “I was surprised when we got a full page spread in the magazine. I was excited! And glad I didn’t look like a total dork!” (Pictured with Chef Ravi Kapur) For Lulu, the honor hasn’t really sunk in yet. “I actually recently got married, and I’m finding it’s important to enjoy your milestones and accomplishments. But I’m also still pushing forward, I hope to continue to do things that people think are exciting and relevant.”
Iron Horse Favorite: Lulu has many Iron Horse memories that she treasures. One of her first trips while studying at CIA was to Iron Horse Vineyards and she recalls enjoying lunch with Joy and her parents. Lulu told us she has hosted Joy for Magnum Monday as well - sounds like a perfect start to the week!
Must Try Summer Pairing for At-Home Chefs: Right now Lulu is loving roasted octopus. “It’s easy to pair. For myself, I would probably choose a Sicilian rose. But the dish is friendly to a lot of styles, sparkling aromatic wines would be perfect.”
Award: Wine Spectator Grand Award for Jean-Georges; NEW YORK, NY
Notable and Quotables from the Judges’ Write Up: This was the first time that Jean-Georges was awarded the Grand level mention. The write-up for the Trump Towers flagship was titled “A top dining destination elevates its wine list”. “Historically, Jean-Georges was not really a wine restaurant, says Jean-Georges Restaurants Beverage Director Eric Hastings ” But according to Wine Spectator, the current list of 1,100 selection is “perfectly attuned to the needs of the menu and the desires of the customers.” They also note that “Hastings has engineered a portion of the list to be more eclectic and affordable - think boutique producers quietly putting out superb character wines, within the confines of certain regions.” Cheers to that!
Somm Reflections on the Honor: I am very excited and proud of what we’ve accomplished as a wine team and a restaurant. We have won three Michelin stars, and four stars from New York Times, but it was thrilling to be able to add one more wine-specific feather to the Jean-Georges cap. This award is a collaboration amongst a lot of people, past and present, but it wasn’t something we were seeking out. Our organization’s goal is to be the best restaurant we can possibly be. We know Chef Jean-Georges puts out the best food and it is our mission to rise to the occasion of service and atmosphere. When I got the call from Wine Spectator’s Ben O’Donnell, I was honestly a little surprised.
The Grand Award winners have traditionally boasted massive wine lists. But I had been working consciously over the past year and a half to build depth in vertical selections. I wanted to make sure I could get the best wine to people at the best price. The styles that tend to work best with Chef Jean-Georges are the Old World selections, so I tried to expand on that.
Special Mention: Eric explained that they’re working with a deficit in the storage category telling us “Sometimes great wines don’t make the list simply because I don’t have anywhere to put them!” But you take the good with the bad in terms of location. He explained that being in NYC is one of his greatest assets, “It’s the people around me and the availability of wine that you just can’t get anywhere else on any level.” He’s also inspired by the increasingly educated nature of his guests. Eric explained that there are more educated wine consumers than they were 20 years ago, “They are talking about malolactic fermentation and minerality. People are branching out into wine regions that never would have year ago. It’s a lot of fun and it gives us the opportunity to be more engaged which is important”
Iron Horse Favorite: Eric and Joy met at the awards dinner of the first Top Somm Final in 2010. “Afterwards, she gifted me with a wonderful magnum of 2006 vintage bubbly. Today, we serve the Iron Horse Pinot Noir and the Wedding Cuvee. And it’s on the wine list at the hotel in every room. The Pinot specifically is delicious because of its Green Valley roots, a location which is becoming more universally heralded as a top region.”
Must Try Summer Pairing for At-Home Chefs: One of Chef’s great new dishes is nougatine hake with summer peas and ginger, it pairs beautifully with Grüner Veltliner.
Award: Wine Enthusiast “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants of 2016” Award for Sepia; CHICAGO, IL
Notable and Quotables from the Judges’ Write Up: Specifically recognized by Wine Enthusiast for their excellent by-the-glass program, Sepia’s deep and detailed list is the creation of Arthur Hon. They extoll Arthur for his “knowledge, enthusiasm, and experimentation which continues to have national impact.”
Somm Reflections on the Honor: “The award was not planned in any way. It’s such an honor and very special. This is our fourth year in a row as one of the best programs in the US. It started off very organically with a more creative and artistic perspective, but I had to make it more practical, acknowledging I’m working with someone else’s money.
Overall, I believe the beverage list needs to match the culinary aspect of the restaurant. Chef Andrew has been here for over seven years and his instincts are very global, true “contemporary American”. I spent my first few years getting to know his cooking style and understanding so many different flavors and components, which can be tricky with wines. Ultimately, I decided to match the breadth of the restaurant’s direction and take the wine menu VERY global. My list represents 90% of the wine growing regions in the world. Within each country, there’s a fairly good representation.”
Arthur is also deeply connected to the restaurant’s Chicago roots, “We’re in the Mid-West and that has given me a sense of freedom. There are no regional wine favorites here, but we can get everything and have a much more balanced distribution of influences from East Coast, to West Coast, and European wines. It’s also a top tier city that still offers more affordable living options. The budding food scene is supported by a vibrant urban population and all of these components serve as a solid foundation for a vibrant city with a younger crowd seeking adventurous dining experiences.”
Special Mention: Arthur commented on his wine list price strategy, “Every successful wine program has to have a varied price point. You’re running a business for someone else. You have the glamorous wine side of the business, but the other side is the numbers and my job is to combine the creative part and the financial aspect. Cost is very important. You can be very creative, and become too subjective and you forget about the patrons.”
Iron Horse Favorite: “I’ve always been fascinated by the Wedding Cuvee. You can feel that it’s coming from the New World genre, a playful interpretation of a California Sparkling made in the Blanc de Noirs style. It’s unique and approachable with a soft texture. The name itself is very festive and Pinot Noir dominant. When I look back at the older vintages, say five years ago, they were actually “blanc” with very little color. And I’ve watched them grow into becoming rose. I’m also very impressed by Joy’s willingness to hold back and age vintages until absolutely ready for release. To put perfection above earning is commendable. I admire Joy’s efforts and wish all wineries could do the same!”
Must Try Summer Pairing for At-Home Chefs: “Summer means it’s corn season in the Mid-West, which is very exciting. My favorite dish right now is a poached cod with grilled corn, pan roasted shishito peppers, corn puree and pickled veggies paired with a crisp, citrusy white wine.” Sounds like Iron Horse Chardonnay, don’t you think?
Never missing a reason to celebrate, today I raise a glass to International Women’s Day. #IWD2016. The theme this year is parity: 50-50 by 2030, which inspired internet sleuthing to ascertain how the wine world (and agriculture generally) is fairing vis a vis parity.
we've come a long way baby!
Most visible are the women whose names are on the bottle: Gina Gallo, Delia Viader, Merry Edwards, Kathleen Heitz Myers, Marimar Torres (Marimar Estate), Katherine Hall, Beth Nichols (Far Niente), Beth Novak Milliken (Spottswood), yours truly (Iron Horse), Cristina Mariani-May (Castello Banfi), and most famous of all, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (biography of the Veuve Clicquot is a must read).
A recent Women Winemakers of California study called “How Many Women” shows that 29% of the lead winemakers in Napa are women, but statewide, the average is just 9.8%. There’s clearly room for growth.
Barrie Sterling in the vineyards - Vintage 2014
We can point to some key pioneers who may help the global community reach a glorious tipping point of parity. For example, the most powerful wine buyer on the planet is a woman. Annette Alvarez-Peters is responsible for more than $1 billion worth in wine sales every year in over 300 Costco stores across the country. Costco is the sixth largest retailer in the US and number seven in the world.
We are fabulously wealthy in women wine writers and influencers - Esther Mobley of San Francisco Chronicle, Virginie Boone of Wine Enthusiast, Peg Melnick and Michelle Anna Jordan of The Press Democrat, radio personality Ziggy Eschliman, TV star Leslie Sbrocco, Karen MacNeil author of the Wine Bible, Sarah Schneider of Sunset Magazine, Adrienne Shubin, The Rich Life (On a Budget) blogger, Jo Diaz and Twitter stars Amy Lieberfarb, #SonomaChat, Nannette Eaton, @Wine Harlots and our very own social media maven Shana Ray Bull ... to name just a few locally based here in Northern California.
The growing stature of women in wine is a no brainer for many reasons. Selling wine is a natural fit as it is fundamentally a relationship business. There is a long and marvelous history of women at the forefront, like the aforementioned Veuve Clicquot. An additional advantage is that women naturally are better tasters because we are generally endowed with more taste buds then men. Can’t argue with the science. (http://www.nataliemaclean.com/blog/women-wine-tasting/)
One area where we are weak is at the upper echelon of the major wine and spirits distribution companies. As big as they are, they are also family businesses, which puts an interesting slant on the question of why there isn’t a woman of my generation running any one of them. Where are the daughters and the granddaughters? I guess they don’t want to, which perhaps says something about the distribution end of the business.
Vineyard and cellar work are physically demanding, but no harder than being a firefighter. In the vineyards, 25% of the workers are women. My parents recall that many of the harvest crews they hired in the ‘70s included women, often young mothers who brought their little children to work. In fact, my mother set up an ad-hoc daycare, hiring our foreman’s teenage daughter to watch over the children and read to them in English.
Today’s vineyard workers are a different generation. Rightly so, the pay scale is rising and will continue to rise to ensure we have qualified, highly trained teams to bring our products literally to fruition. The demanding nature of this work in no way discriminates against women, especially in the judgement and professionalism required to bring in the best grapes.
My personal experience is atypical in that I am without doubt the luckiest person walking. Just read my bio. I have had every conceivable advantage. As I always say, the first smartest thing I ever did was pick my parents. But I feel very strongly that the wine and food world along with agriculture in general ARE and SHOULD BE very attractive for women.
My advice to young women entering the wine world is to start in a winery tasting room, wine retail store, or a country club, golf club or yacht club. Constantly put yourself in a position to be tasting new, exciting and diverse wines. Join or create a tasting group. I strongly support the Sommelier Guild primarily because of their commitment to mentorship.
For additional perspective, we reflected on this day with three women I admire: Karen Ross, California State Secretary of Agriculture, Helene Dillard, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, Anita Cook Motard, who (full disclosure) heads Strategic Account Sales for our Texas distributor, Glazer’s Wholesale Co and serves on the advisory board for Women of the Vine, each recently interviewed by our ace blogger Tarin Teno. These women are leaders who have accomplished great success. Their end goals are diverse, but the common theme in each interview is the importance of a network.
Three Cheers for our Three Interviewees!
Karen Ross, California State Secretary of Agriculture
Tell us a bit about your professional path to this point: I grew up on a farm in Nebraska and spent my early years fighting my place in agribusiness. But as an adult, each job I took brought me back closer to that world (Note: prior to Secretary Ross’ appointment to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, she was chief of staff for US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and also served as President of the California Association of Winegrape Growers from 1996-2009). It all came full circle when I was able to buy out my dad’s share of our farm. There’s a connectivity to nature that you can’t deny, it reflects the seasons of our lives and the lessons of hard work.
Who is your role model?: My dad was the most influential force in my life. He was all about positive thinking and instilled the belief that you can achieve anything you want. He was raised by a strong female, my grandmother, who ran the business on the farm in his childhood years.
Give us a snapshot of where we are in the parity struggle from where you sit: Today, the vast majority of people working on agricultural matters in Sacramento are women. I surmise that this over 50% skew has to do with women deftly grasping the issues and having strong communication skills. But while there has been a large transformation in the group working as advocates in the capital, the legislative body has changed more slowly. The elected bodies are still not 50-50 despite the fact that Governor Brown’s governing body is quite diverse.
What is your proudest accomplishment to date?: The creation of the California Sustainable Wine Growing Program. We brought the wine community together and set the tone for other farming communities like the almond growers. I’m also proud to have been part of children's wellness initiatives, particularly the Let’s Move partnership with the First Lady.
What woman (in any field, in history or thriving today) do you most admire?: It would be really easy for me to say Mother Theresa because of the compassion with which she lived.. I believe in a principle which drove her - if we don’t take care of the weakest link in our chain, we will have nothing.
What advice do you have for young women who are interested in food, wine and agriculture?: I get to spend a lot of time with young people n high school and college across the state. I see so many women getting involved, there is definitely a renaissance of interest at the intersection of agriculture, food, and the environment. I encourage this injection of energy, which is at our foundation. Agriculture has always been innovative; the wine industry is a great example of that. This new generation, of women and men, have a passion for a larger mission of being connected to our natural resources and producing what humanity needs as our populations expand. I tell them to explore their interests; You just have to be willing to work hard.
Helene Dillard, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis
Tell us a bit about your professional path to this point: I grew up in California, born and raised in San Francisco. At an early age - I knew I wanted to be a biologist but wasn’t able to pinpoint what I wanted to do within that. So I went to UC Berkeley as an undergrad and majored in biology of natural resources where I gravitated towards agriculture. It was in a Ph.D. program at UC Davis that I found my passion in soil and plant pathology (and a Ph.D. to add to her M.S. degree in soil science). I was fortunate to land a professorial job at Cornell. I had a 50% research and 50% extension assignment and kept very busy with the plant diseases in the North East for 30 years. I was chosen for many leadership positions during my time there and before I knew it, I was recruited for the position of Dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis in January 2014.
Who is your role model?: I owe my success to my parents who identified my childhood interest in science. I received things like chemistry sets at Christmas. Though my parents weren’t traditionally wealthy, they were rich in understanding and they pushed to foster my early proclivities. I remember looking through that first microscope at onion skins and being captivated.
Give us a snapshot of where we are in the parity struggle from where you sit: UC Davis is a premier branch of the California State University System. The average grade for incoming freshman last fall was 4.0. There are four undergraduate colleges. The College of Agriculture has an enrollment of 7,000 students - 69% are female … and we are growing. The trend is quite interesting and I often wonder what was the tipping point.. It’s something that we’re looking to evaluate with more data points. As educators, we’re also interested in maintaining a balance as is important in any ecosystem. We want to make sure that we’re nurturing young men as well as low income, first generation, and minority students. I’m proud to say we’re doing well with that last contingent. 50% of UC Davis students receive financial aid.
What advice do you have for young women who are interested in food, wine and agriculture?: Today at UC Davis, the competitive pressure is intense. As Dean, one of the things I do at orientation is encourage kids to enjoy their education and learn about what experiences to prioritize. It’s more important to get to the finish line and be able to contribute to the world than submitting to an A+ obsession. (We tell their parents the same thing!)
Anita Cook Motard, Strategic Accounts, Glazer’s Wholesale Co., Women of the Vine Advisory Board, Founder CHEERS
Tell us a bit about your professional path to this point: I started with Glazers as a spirits sales rep but quickly moved to wine which I deemed to be more “safe” for a woman and required fewer late nights. After four years in that role, I was promoted to sales team manager which created mixed emotions for me. Few women had occupied that position and I was nervous about overseeing friends. I took the job but had no one to guide me. I was on my own, working my way up through management.
Who is your role model?: I sadly can’t point to an influential woman who impacted my career. There are some men, bosses who directed me professionally, but women in high up roles just didn't exist.
Give us a snapshot of where we are in the parity struggle from where you sit: I feel very strongly about the importance of mentorship in early career moments, and have taken a leadership role for women’s causes internally at Glazer’s. I spoke with our Senior Vice President of Human Resources about starting a women’s group with a mission to champion diversity and inclusion. And from that conversation, CHEERS was founded. CHEERS joins a number of business resource groups within the company and is focused on connecting hardworking women while empowering them to educate, respect, and support each other. We host panel discussions with major influencers and are looking to formalize the mentoring program by this time next year. It’s our top priority.
What advice do you have for young women who are interested in food, wine and agriculture?: The industry was in a different place when I was building my career. I encourage women to connect and support each other through informal check-ins whether it involves lunch dates or bubbles. As a woman in a leadership role, it’s my responsibility to fill the void and encourage women who have the will to work their way through the ranks.
And so, a toast on this International Women’s Day, March 8, 2016 - ideally with Iron Horse 2011 Brut X (for the X chromosome!), honoring the pioneering spirit of the women who have made significant inroads for future generations, celebrating progress and cheering the continued momentum to achieve parity. It’s our responsibility, and joy, to be part of the movement.
“Many wine terms that are thrown around in the industry do cause some significant consternation.” This was how my discussion began with wine industry expert Andrew McNamara, The Director of Fine Wine / Master Sommelier at Breakthru Beverage Florida. That seems to be an understatement after reviewing a flood of recent to not-so-recent articles about the failed mainstream command of industry verbiage.
If prose doesn’t crystalize the “winespeak” issue for you, there are a host of somm cartoonists who have created visual satires. We’ll share a few of Maryse Chevriere’s most popular works in this blog via her inspired instagram account: @freshcutgardenhose.
The growing conflict is driven by the fact that the wine experience has become more casual, but at the same time the related language has failed to evolve along with it. With the consumer at the intersection of this disconnect, we dove into the roots of the seemingly impossible with some Iron Horse friends and experts.
When you conduct a quick search, you’ll find wine publications and mainstream periodicals alike reporting on a language breakdown along with countless “insider guides” trying to bring clarity. For example, The Drinks Business conducted a survey at the end of last year which revealed the top ten wine terms that customers are least likely to misunderstand when deciding which wines to buy. One in three don’t understand what “tart” means as a descriptor. Just 23% of people polled understood the term “terrior” and only 20% of drinkers could define “legs.”
The result is that 25% of wine drinkers found shopping for wine to be intimidating; a nightmare for the wine business. Andrew told me, “Niche terms certainly make wine less approachable than it should be. So the role of the wine expert is to make things as simple as possible.” But he also noted that it helps for consumers to get themselves into the right learning environment. It’s key to be able to pair learning about the term while actually tasting a wine with those specific characteristics.
In The Drink’s Business article “Top Misunderstood Wine Terms Revealed” their expert explains, “People want to learn more about wine and discover new tastes without being confused or awkward when buying it or talking about it with their friends.” However in order to do this, we are saddled with a limited (and some argue antiquated) lexicon including words like “herbaceous, unctuous, and quaffable” (source). Master Sommelier, Lindsey Whipple, shared real word instances where customers grasped for their own termss to describe a sensory experience. She had one man try to describe “dry”by employing the word “wet” -- justifying his choice by describing a wine that made his mouth sweat.
In an effort to decode the “jargon”, Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague recently published “An Insider’s Guide to Weird Wine Words.” Her mission was to help bridge the gap between oenophiles and non-pros. Her guide includes words like creamy, dumb, foxy, lifted, reduced, and volatile. For now, it seems that quite a bit of effort is directed at translating rather than socializing new descriptors with greater mass appeal.
In addition to leveraging these existing language guides, expert Andrew McNamara pointed out that blossoming wine lovers should be patient. “We spend decades going through school, but how many classes did we take on how to taste or smell. We didn’t pay any attention to it! So to go into wine and expect to understand it intuitively is naive. Understanding your senses takes time and practice.” Of course, with wine, the practice part is fun!
It seems that times may be a-changing. In fact, Lindsey Whipple regularly experiences signs of consumers pushing back on tradition and coming up with their own verbiage. Working in Las Vegas, an international dining hub, she’s in a unique position to engage with new lingo auditioning for the mainstream. She hears people refer to wine as “slutty”, when a drink is very open and out there, showing itself as a heavy hitter. Or she is told to bring a “baller wine” which conveys a desire for an instagram worthy showstopper. “Guests are definitely not using brash terms like ‘Magnum Night’ in San Francisco or New York, so there is also a regional component to this,” said Lindsey. But who’s to say they are not as or more helpful than words like hollow or vegetal?
It should be noted that both Andrew and Lindsey voted the term “legs” off the wine island.. Both citing the fact that few know (or think they know) what this refers to, so the meaning has become universally diluted. And Lindsey herself offered up a word to the “common core” - to be quickly rejected. At a blind tasting with “old guard” master somms, she referred to gewurztraminer as “hooker perfume”, which based on the reactions of her colleagues might have to wait for the next generation….