Iron Horse Blog
It’s a week filled with promise and forward momentum at Iron Horse. The harvest has arrived. But just as we look ahead to an exciting new vintage, we want to take a moment to acknowledge many long-time friends recently honored by two key wine publications, just now receiving their plaques and certificates.
Wine Enthusiast’s “Top 100 American Wine Restaurants” and Wine Spectator’s “World’s Greatest Wine Lists” have triggered industry-wide applause and we are happy to join in the chorus of congratulations to all of the winners. These wine list masters are recognized for stellar wine curation that is quite often the result of years of playful experimentation, daily tastings, dedicated travel, and team input.
Wine Enthusiast chooses restaurants where wine is as “integral as the celebrated fare.” Resisting the urge to be distracted by the “longest, deepest, or trendiest lists,” they celebrate the movement away from overly formal dining, more towards unique wine & food experiences. Their carefully selected list of 100 is illustrated by an interactive map, with an impressively even spread across different states, though, not surprisingly, heavily weighted in California and New York.
Wine Spectator looks at the world, assessing the breadth of quality wine producers featured on the wine list, along with a thematic match to the food menu in price and style. The Spectator Awards have three tiers:
1) Award of Excellence - 90+ well chosen selections
2) Best of Award of Excellence - 400+ selections (some more than 1000+) which display vintage depth, vertical offerings of several top producers from major regions, excellence breadth spread over several winegrowing regions
3) Grand Award - 1500+ selections with serious breadth of top producers, outstanding depth of mature vintages, selection of large format bottles, harmony with the menu in flavors, organization & presentation (81 winners this year).
Star sommeliers work with the chefs to create perfectly paired moments and in so doing are changing the way we eat and drink as a country. We are lucky to call many of them our friends and long-time supporters … and luckier still to be able to call a few of the nation’s top honorees to discuss their award season glory. As you’ll see, every region is rich in character and influenced by local factors in specific ecosystems, but you’ll also find time honored philosophies at work as well. Read along as we talk to influencers located in different areas of the country.
“California Calling” - Iron Horse West Coast Anchors
Shelley Lindgren - A16 in San Francisco
Background: Shelley was awarded for Outstanding Wine Program in American from the James A Beard Foundation in May. She was recently honored in 7X7 Magazine as a San Francisco Reader’s Choice for “Most Intoxicating Wine List”. And this month her restaurant is featured on Wine Enthusiast list of “America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants 2015.” She’s most proud of her efforts to create an award-winning wine menu at a neighborhood restaurant, elevating itself against bigger operations with deeper pockets. A fun fact is that Shelley has family ties to the Sterlings through her husband going back several generations. She says she is constantly inspired by the Sterling family’s commitment to the local community and has followed in Iron Horse’s philanthropic footsteps with her own efforts through Slide Ranch, an organization that connects children with nature to foster new generations of environmental stewards in California.
Iron Horse Favorite: Her menu always offers three to four Sparkling Wines by the glass. One Prosecco, one rose, and right now, we are proud to say, Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut “which has a beautiful vibrant acidity and richness that’s a perfect celebratory glass of wine.” Her focus is Italian with many California options.
Reaction to News of the Honor: “Restaurants rely on a team effort and A16 continues to be more of a team effort than ever. My husband Greg comes to mind first because of his restaurant building experience and vision for the space itself, including designing the wine “cage.” My business partner, Victoria Libin, supports and shares the philosophy of quality, organic and love of food and wine together with service. This amazing support and honor helps us remember what a great gift it is to be ambassadors of so many wines we love and tell their stories daily."
Tips For Iron Horse Readers Striving to Achieve Wine Award Worthy Excellence at Home: “We've followed the approach of 'if it grows together, it goes together'. We consider factors like the season's bounty, weather, if it is a daily wine or a celebratory wine. We find that more and more customers are appreciating Sparkling Wines than ever before and always feel rose is incredibly versatile. I recommend trying new wines, new grapes and buying favorites. Wine is an always evolving art. Ask your wine shop owner, restaurant server or sommelier to recommend a style of wine you are in the mood to drink. I always find that it is so much fun to discover exciting new wines, this makes a meal a great pleasure.”
The Great City of Chicago - Iron Horse Central Region Anchor
Rachael Lowe - Spiaggia
Background: The Wine Enthusiast “cover girl” was elevated to Wine Enthusiast’s Hall of Fame for her Windy CIty excellence. She shares a full page Q&A on page 52 of the magazine’s hardcopy with her colleague Chef Tony Mantuano. They discuss the importance of freshness at their iconic restaurant which has been open for 31 years, as well as the youthful and global infusion that Rachael contributed to the program. She is particularly excited about her newly concepted International Pairing that embodies a “flight around the world” with wines from exotic destinations like Croatia and Hungary. She’s also spearheading an initiative at their reopened cafe which will shine a light on women winemakers - a list that will prominently feature Iron Horse!
Iron Horse Favorite: Rachael has always loved the Classic Vintage Brut. She explains it’s “a perfect blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, expressive, with aromas of green apple, lemon curd, marzipan and a touch of toast. Always great for any occasion and it pairs beautifully with most any food.”
Reaction to News of the Honor: “We were thrilled! Tony and I had gone and done this really fun photo shoot knowing that we were going to be included in the article but NOT having a clue that we would be featured on the cover! A friend of mine had an online subscription to the magazine and sent me an email; we didn’t believe it until we physically saw it. It really is such an honor.”
Tips For Iron Horse Readers Striving to Achieve Wine Award Worthy Excellence at Home: “I would suggest exploring up-and-coming regions, and expanding from there. One doesn’t always need to spend a ton of money to find quality wines; getting to know bottles from Cotes du Rhone, Sicily, Montsant, alternative Sparklings are an amazing way to educate oneself! Versatility is important as well. It is always great to have a vast assortment of wines from which to choose; who knows what one will feel like or what food might be on the table on any given night! And set the tone with your setting! At Spiaggia, we display our wine artfully in a wine foyer that’s lit and temperature controlled, don’t be afraid to use your bottles as art.”
The Big Apple - Iron Horse East Coast Anchors
Anna Cabrales - Morrell Wine Bar in Rockefeller Plaza
Background: Anna Cabrales has been with the pioneering Roberta Morrell’s company for three years, and it marks her first position as the lead sommelier. Her wine program was honored by Wine Spectator with the “Best of Award of Excellence” this year and she is working towards building up the list for the Grand Award category next year. She will do this with her five tastings a day regimen, access to truly amazing deep verticals,, and guidance from the prestigious Morrell & Co. retail arm. Anna’s enthusiasm for creating a family like experience makes this spot an oasis nestled into the chaotic New York scene. Her most treasured skill is the ability to listen to guests, creating a pleasurable moment when the guest is connected properly with the right food and wine for the perfect bite.
Iron Horse Favorite: Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blanc 2009.
Reaction to News of the Honor: “I feel very grateful to Roberta Morrell for giving me a home. She gives me an energy that I didn’t know I had in me and inspires me with stories of being one of the few women in wine in NYC in the early days of her career.”
Tips For Iron Horse Readers Striving to Achieve Wine Award Worthy Excellence at Home: “When it comes to entertaining and dining, it has to be very thoughtful. It’s about going the extra step to think about what might make guests smile with little added elements like glassware, temperature, and always having something out on the table. Consider transitions, how you’ll progress into the next dish and the next wine. Similar to how I operate at the restaurant, it’s ultimately about being open, warm and connecting people through well paired food & wine experiences. And whenever possible, make it rain champagne!”
Andre Compeyre - The Regency Bar & Grill on the Upper East Side
Background: The 20 year veteran in the wine industry was awarded by Wine Spectator as a new winner of the “Best of Award of Excellence.”
Iron Horse Favorite: Since the opening, Andre has been proud to serve the UnOaked Chardonnay. The reaction from guests has continually elicited positive feedback. He also rotates other Iron Horse favorites. He’s currently pouring the 2012 Estate Pinot Noir, and has on the list the Estate Chardonnay, and three Sparklings: Wedding Cuvee, Classic Vintage Brut, and Ocean Reserve. He especially likes the Pinot because of the balance - not overly fruity, with good minerality, and earthiness.
Reaction to News of the Honor: “It truly is a great honor for someone who has been in the business for over 20 years. The owners of the restaurant trusted me to build the wine program from scratch, marking an amazing opportunity to build with just a budget and a little direction. I forwarded the news to the owners right away so they could see what their investment had reaped. We opened in January 2014 and being in New York, I sought to have an international wine list with a moderate pricing approach, a goal that look me a year of work to fully realize. I waited a full year to submit to Wine Spectator and I appreciate that my peers have noted these efforts. I also forwarded the news to the team working on the floor with me. I shared this win with my team in the front and back of the house who are just as proud as I am of what we’re sending out.”
Tips For Iron Horse Readers Striving to Achieve Wine Award Worthy Excellence at Home: “Find someone that you trust, whether it’s a restaurant somm or a retailer. The world of wine directors has changed drastically over the past 20 years, and professionals are more willing than ever to share their passion. If guests come in and mention they’re going to have a cocktail party, I’m more than happy to give them a suggestion about what to serve or as an invited guest, what bottle to bring for the hosts. The industry has moved from trying to upsell to being rooted in sharing the passion for wine. Everyone has their own taste, but you can define quickly whose personality goes with what taste. Provide options based on country, single estate, and vintage.”
Southern Charm - Iron Horse South Region Anchors
Dan Davis - Commander’s Palace in New Orleans
Background: Dan, or @CPWineGuy as he’s known in the digital world, holds a Hall of Fame position in the Wine Enthusiast list of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants 2015 which is occupied by only 76 restaurants worldwide. This honor marks their fourth year on the list, and Dan’s sixth year running the program. The 135 year old Big Easy institution continues to stay at the forefront at the industry because of Dan’s commitment to expanding the already substantial wine program. Wine Enthusiast notes that the “wine guy” has added offsite storage for future pours, introducing wines to the list when they are perfectly ready from a maturity standpoint.
Iron Horse Favorite: Dan explained that Iron Horse has been the signature house Sparkling Wine at Commander’s Palace for 20 years. They have special bottlings, double magnums & magnums of their custom-made special cuvee. He believes that Iron Horse is one of the definitive American Sparkling Wines and that it goes amazingly well with the food served at the restaurant. He feels the house cuvee’s distinctive qualities originate from the Iron Horse terroir and cold micro-climate of Green Valley.“ It’s the right terroir for great bubbles.”
Reaction to News of the Honor: “My first thought was thank goodness! It’s a nerve racking waiting period. I feel rewarded for our commitment to offering reasonable price points. Of our 2600 wines on the menu, 60 wines are under $60 so anyone can join us for a drink and we encourage sampling with our offering of half glasses. This award is also especially meaningful since we’re coming up on 10th anniversary of Katrina. After Katrina, the restaurant leadership got back in here to rebuild. Current managing partners all sat down and said - we don’t know if business is coming back so let’s just shoot for the moon. It’s also a great feeling to be able to continue our restaurant’s legacy which goes back to Ella Brennan, who development the first award winning wine cellar in New Orleans, which was grounded in European and Californian wines.”
For Iron Horse Readers Striving to Achieve Wine Award Worthy Excellence at Home: “We believe that a great meal begins with great company. At Commander’s Palace, we love wine and it’s a big part of our culture, but so are cocktails and food. I recommend starting your evening with cocktails and then moving into great wines. We don’t believe in limits- the more the better. And great friends are great seasoning.”
Molly Wismeir - R’evolution in New Orleans
Background: Another longtime friend of our CEO Joy Sterling, Molly has an impressive professional pedigree including sommelier roles at the venerable Charlie Trotter’s, Cru Cafe, and Epic in Chicago. Today, the Wine and Spirits Director at Restaurant R’evolution is basking in the glow of the Wine Spectator “Best of Award of Excellence” for her 1500 bottle selection that pairs with contemporary Creole fare.
Iron Horse Favorite: Molly has partnered with Iron Horse many times in the past, she remembers days of tastings with Joy at both Cru Cafe and Charlie Trotters and brought her affinity for the Iron Horse signature flavors to R’evolution. She believes the Iron Horse UnOaked Chardonnay is a benchmark in the category and notes that the Pinots, Sparklings, and Chardonnays are a core brand for her that are hard to keep in stock. Personally, the former Russian history scholar loves the Russian Cuvee as well as the Wedding Cuvee. The UnOaked Chardonnay is a “great expression of Green Valley and Russian River. Iron Horse stays true to their soil and what they do. The approachability and genuine nature of the brand is all in that bottle.”
Reaction to News of the Honor: “We’re in a group of stellar peers and I’m proud to be recognized for the work of our whole team. I started working on the wine list in 2010 and started by focusing on the seven nations of the Creole Cuisine as well as other European classics. I had to get a better understanding of New Orleans and what kinds of guests we’d have so that I could strategize how to blow them away.”
Tips For Iron Horse Readers Striving to Achieve Wine Award Worthy Excellence at Home: “There’s no right or wrong. You have to know what kind of food you’re serving, make sure you’ve cooked it before and you’ve tasted it. Ask yourself ‘what is it about that food that made you select it?’ Then consider that what grows together, goes together. If you can wrap your arms around those concepts, you’ll be stepping in the right direction. It’s also important to think about what’s in season and use what wine is being released right now. There’s usually a sentimentality behind what food you’re serving and the same should be true of the wine. The Sparkling from Iron Horse is a great way to set the tone with an approachable style. Remember that your objective is to make people happy; hosts who keep that in mind can’t fail.”
Sean Beck - Backstreet Cafe in Houston, Texas
Background: Dubbed by Wine Spectator’s Charles Dalton as the “Dean of Houston Sommeliers,” the 19 year veteran of the wine industry is a true ambassador of wine. He’s changing how Texans are thinking about wine by exploring previously untapped wine regions with his dynamic wine programs. Sean approaches his career with an academic perspective, acknowledging that he’s been fortunate to learn from industry greats, who have inspired him to adopt the philosophy that his work is never done. He is also proud of his inexpensive designation by the Spectator. He explains that people fall in love with great wine at all different points in their lives. It’s important for the “unofficial wine ambassador” that he not dismiss a lover of wine by solely operating above a certain price point. “It builds people’s confidence when they can have a great bottles at $30 to $40. Then they can evolve from there.”
Iron Horse Favorite: At the moment, Sean is pouring our Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blanc 2009. He not only enjoys the bubbly but the message ties into his organization’s thoughts on seafood and their emphasis on the importance of our oceans. Just like he pursues partnerships with ethically responsible fishermen and local products, he’s strongly aligned with the Iron Horse Vineyards ethos that fundamentally champions respect of land. He’s also a fan of our Chardonnays and Classic Vintage Brut.
Reaction to News of the Honor: “It was nice to hear and adds to the momentum of the Houston fine dining scene. But there’s never that ah-ha moment for me. I’m always in perpetual motion. While you can have some underlying themes, the wine program is always so reflective of what you’re doing food wise and who you’re serving it to. This award is more of a sign of the times, reflecting things like seasons, environmental concerns, changing clientele, and the changing nature of this city.”
Tips For Iron Horse Readers Striving to Achieve Wine Award Worthy Excellence at Home: “Setting drives everything, it’s important to put together a feeling or mindset to drink wine. I’ve had more great bottles of wine ruined by setting and bad company. Also, knowing who you’re having and the meaning behind the gathering dictates what you should serve. The more festive the occasion, the more simple you can go, since the energy is already there. Selecting wines should be done the same way you’d think about a guest list -- you have certain friends whom you love but can’t have them in certain environments. Same thing with wine.”
Harvest has begun, starting with Chardonnay for Sparkling at the foot of the estate, right by my house. This is my 30th vintage at Iron Horse and I still get goosebumps watching the first grapes go into the press.
Our ceremony involves winemaker David Munksgard pouring a bottle of bubbly in with the grapes while we all raise a glass to the vintage.
This was our earliest start ever - four days before last year. But unique environmental conditions triggered both an early and extended timeline for the whole growing season, a reality that could yield more complex flavors in the resulting wine. Just like a tomato, the grapes accumulate more flavor the longer they hang on the vine.
We are anticipating a smaller crop as we pruned for drought, a tactic employed to protect the vines from carrying too much fruit in such dry conditions. So far, all of our other crops - the berries, peaches, early Gravenstein apples, hydrangeas, zinnias, lilies, lettuces, cherry tomatoes and right now an abunance of squash blossoms are so gorgeous. There is every reason to think the grapes will follow suit.
This summer has brought many new accolades. I am extremely proud that Iron Horse was included on the Daily Meal's new list of the 101 Best Wineries in America. It is a very interesting, and in many cases an unexpected compilation of wineries from across the country - not exclusively California and the Pacific Northwest. I thank the tastemakers who put it together, including Chef Daniel Boulud, Chicago restauranteur Cathy Matuano and of course the Editorial Director Coleman Andrews.
I am also very excited to announce that we are updating our wine labels, which you will first see on our 2013 Single Vineyard wines to be released this fall. I have always thought of Iron Horse as a work in progress. Each harvest we ask ourselves, how can we take our quality up another notch? In that spirit, the packaging also has to evolve. The last update was ten years ago. Our label designer Mark Berry did a fabulous job - the bottle is wider, the label bigger and less cluttered, the logo more prominent, the background is black and the foil embossing is copper. I think it’s gorgeous.
Recently a dear friend changed and really upgraded my thinking, saying Iron Horse is more than a work in progress … it is a dream in progress. This is now my new mantra.
I hope you will come visit in the next few weeks. First to taste the grapes before they go into the press … and then the juice. We will make you our specialty bubbly cocktail, which you can only have at Iron Horse and only this time of year. We call it a Sterlini (like a Bellini) – Brut X with a tiny splash of fresh free run juice directly out of the press.
Please wish us luck with vintage 2015.