Iron Horse Blog
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.
Thanksgiving dinner is traditionally fraught and seems especially so this year coming on the heels of an historically bitter election. A story in The New York Times last Wednesday suggests the all out war between the presidential candidates may also lead to war at the family table. I pray this doesn’t happen to you. But hosts and guests alike can stave off holiday strife by heeding some very easy to follow advice: make sure there’s plenty of really delicious wine on the table, especially wines you yourself will love to drink. Thanksgiving is all about indulgence and sharing. So, why not?
Wine can be the great equalizer at the Thanksgiving table, bringing us together at a pivotal moment in American history. I encourage you to leverage this unique, conciliatory quality of wine to navigate potential landmines at your holiday celebrations.
Wine has a long and storied history of providing common ground. It’s a convener. It draws everyone in. To shore up this thesis, I solicited supporting evidence from our vineyard based team and here’s what they shared:
Wine is a perfectly safe topic.
It’s fun! It does contain alcohol.
It’s empirically proven that you always make friends when you bring the wine.
And, if you enjoy wine, you probably will probably enjoy talking about it … especially as a respite from talking politics.
A delicious wine can bridge all divides.
We traditionally start our holiday meal with a toast, which automatically brings in everyone at the table with the clinking of glasses. After a couple of sips, the social lubricant does its magic. Everyone starts to relax and communicate. The din in the room starts to rise. Laughter follows.
Each of us experiences wine in a different way. It is one of the few things where everyone is right. You taste raspberries in a Pinot … and I taste smoke and spice. It’s like sitting on the bench at the winery and looking out at the clouds. I see a bear and you see a ship in full sail. We’re both right. What’s exciting is the sharing. It’s a way to get to know someone.
Wine has intersected with politics dating back to the time of pharaohs and continues today as part of a strategy of “soft power” being deployed at the White House and State Department where the menu, the wines, the table setting are all carefully considered (see NY Times article here).
I believe one reason Iron Horse was chosen for the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings in 1985 is because of our proximity to the Russian River and that we pertain to the town of Sebastopol. Our geographic roots supplied an instant connection and something mutually agreeable to talk about. At the time, we were told that every member of cabinet signed off on the selection.
As we prepare for a memorable Thanksgiving, I want to leave you with some unifying words that you might be able to carry into a potentially challenging holiday season. Rudyard Kipling said, “Words, of course, are the most powerful drug used by mankind.” Use them wisely, and kindly. With a glass of wine ever in hand.
“Good company, good wine, good welcome, can make good people.” – William Shakespeare
“Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody." - Samuel Pepys,17th Century England
“An iconic American Thanksgiving meal prepared by an iconic American chef (Mom, Dad, Grandma) calls for iconic American wines … “ Dave McIntyre, Washington Post
Historic Thanksgiving Day Facts:
1621: The year of the first Thanksgiving, a three-day feast in Plymouth.
The holiday was originally dedicated to giving thanks for a bountiful autumn harvest.
The Pilgrims probably drank beer or even more likely hard cider.
Thanksgiving became an annual affair only in the late 1660s.
The first truly national Thanksgiving holiday was observed in 1863. President Abraham Lincoln established the annual Thanksgiving date in a bid to promote unity between the Northern and Southern states.
Every president since Harry Truman has pardoned a turkey for Thanksgiving.
Finally, for the giving in Thanksgiving, please consider our 2012 Ocean Reserve. $4 per bottle goes to National Geographic’s ocean initiative, helping establish marine protected areas and support sustainable fishing around the globe.
Sending my very best wishes to you and yours for a wonderful, peaceable Thanksgiving filled with love, laughter and delicious wine.
October, besides being just a gorgeous month at home, also happens to be a prime selling month. This takes me out into the market to present Iron Horse wines ahead of the holidays. It’s an annual ritual I cherish as I get to personally call on some of the country’s leading sommeliers and wine buyers and hear first hand what they’re thinking. This year, the word on everyone’s lips seems to be “dosage.” As in, “What is your dosage”?
So that got me to thinking, what’s driving the interest in dosage and, as VinePair posited, “Is Dosage a Dirty Word?”
2015 Cuvee's Line-Up
The answer is obviously yes. Globally speaking, the trend in sparkling wines is skewing drier and drier. But at Iron Horse, we are taking this highly rarified aspect of sparkling wine making to a whole new level having actually very little to do with sugar.
Dosage (aka liqueur d’expedition or lex) is the finishing touch to a bottle of bubbles – a simple syrup of wine and sugar, the final step in méthode champenoise, the last addition before inserting the cork.
Dosage represents about 1% of the contents of a 750ml bottle and at its most basic, determines the degree of dryness to sweetness of the wine.
The spectrum runs from:
no dosage, which goes by various names: brut zero, brut nature, non dosé, bone dry
extra brut (defined as under .5% residual sugar)
brut level dry (.5% to 1.5% rs) the most classic and pervasive
sec, which ironically means dry in French, but denotes medium sweet, sometimes confusingly called extra dry, but is to my taste downright saccharine. The discontinued Moet White Star was a particularly popular Extra Dry style, at one time the most popular in the United States.
doux, 5% sugar.
Over the last two centuries, there has been a tendency to drink champagne with less and less added sugar. In the 19th century, champagne was drunk very heavily sweetened, with residual sugar levels varying between 5 and 10% or even more.
Today, there very few “doux” and “demi-sec” champagnes. And as a general trend in my observation even the bruts are becoming drier in recent years. Why?
For insight we contacted Rajat Parr, Partner/Proprietor Domaine de la Cote. I first met Raj as the wine director for Michael Mina’s Wine Program and we first had the pleasure of working with him on crafting the inaugural Michael Mina Cuvee 20 years ago and counting.
Raj told us, “Champagnes in the 20s, 30s, 40s up until the 80s were slightly off dry. Now in the last 10 years, Champagne has gone drier and drier, it’s a trend of the world. Sweeter drinks are now seen as simple or not as complex. Non-dosage sparkling wines are a la mode. “
“My pallet is all about fresh and higher acid wines. For Michael Mina, I wanted dry because I knew Michael Mina’s cuisine. I was looking to make wine that was more accessible with the food. I was thinking about the guests at the restaurant and trying to profile their preferences.”
To achieve this, we brought Raj in-house to participate in the process we use in creating dosage. It starts with David assembling a series of dosage trials.
Signature David Munksgard Dosage Trial -- the scientist assessing Wedding Cuvee
The dosage trials involve sitting in front of eight or so flutes. Each is filled with the same base wine, same vintage, everything being equal, except for the dosage. You may think we are talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but the stylistic differences are jaw dropping.
Says Raj, “Being involved in the blind tasting with David to taste so many different combinations and permutations of dosage, was an amazing experience … and then we celebrated at lunch with the family.“
So, by our “disruptive” thinking, more important than the amount of sugar (or lack there of) is the composition of the dosage.
As David puts it “A lot of what we do has nothing to do with the addition of sugar. I’m actually adding in aromatics and flavor. Sugar has no flavor; it simply tastes sweet. What Iron Horse is doing at the very end - what dosage is about for us is a final “spicing” of the wine. This sets the style of the wine.” This approach is something that not many other houses are doing -- and it’s why we have come to call it Disruptive Dosage (Dosage 3.0).
Here’s how David explains it:
“An easy visual to explain our process is to think about a cold glass of ice tea. To perfect it with our flavor goals in mind, we crush more raspberries or Parisien lime juice into it. In essence, we’re building on the flavors that are already there to bend the wine in one direction or another.
For example, we sometimes like to add an older still wine to the dosage …. instead of sugar. Older wines have a high level of aldehydes , which are like sherry. Most of the time, when you taste sherry you would swear the wine was sweet, but actually there’s no residual sugar; you are tasting aldehydes. So, instead of adding sugar, I sometimes I reach into the Iron Horse library for older wines, in bottle, aging on the cork.
Experience and enthusiasm yielding disruptive dosage excellence
If I want to make it even more fun, I can add a bit of a red wine - not enough to make it pink but maybe copper, which could add ‘patina’ to the wine, if that’s what we’re looking for.
An all-chardonnay dosage can bring brightness and a perception of youth. The most important ingredient is creative thinking.
We are adding other things at the end that have nothing to do with sugar. In that regard, we’re doing something, to my knowlege, that really no one else is doing."
Here is a mini-version of a dosage tasting that you can try at home:
Compare our 2012 Brut X, 2012 Classic Vintage Brut and 2012 Russian Cuvee – three variations on the same base wine, each with a different dosage. We feel all three are of equal quality, making this a purely hedonistic experience. The point is to spotlight the influence of dosage.
NB For a straight up comparison, go with the same vintage across the board.
Brut X is the driest, so start there... The first two vintages were called Ultra Brut, a name I loved, until we received a very polite letter from the attorneys for the Laurent Perrier Champagne House asking us to cease and desist.
Some vintages like X is absolutely bone dry i.e. no residual sugar, which was a learning for me. I thought ultra or extra brut meant by definition no dosage, but we found that adding a few milliliters of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave the bubbly added refinement and polish.
Our Classic Vintage Brut is as the name implies our standard bearer in the sense that it sits at the same table with the finest bubblies made anywhere in the world, but showcasing the gorgeous fruit flavors that are unmistakably California, Sonoma County, Russian River, Green Valley and most specifically Iron Horse.
Russian Cuvée is the richest of our bubblies, but still technically a brut at 1.5% residual sugar. This has been (since 1985) and hopefully will continue to be (for all time) the cuvée favored by the White House. The tradition has been to serve it as the toasting wine at State Dinners, at the end of the meal, with dessert and prior to the evening’s entertainment.
This tasting of the three bubblies - X, Classic and Russian, should be purely hedonistic. We feel they are of equal quality. It’s fine to pick a favorite or love all three. The game, I mean "educational exercise," is intended to give you mental space to understand your own perspective on the dosage discourse dominating the industry.
As David will tell you, “Don’t just think about the dryness. 'That’s so yesterday'. We’ve considered the standard post-disgorgment practice and we’ve taken it to a whole new, exciting level.”
State Department Dinner at the Kennedy Center: Our Ocean, One Future Event Hosted by Secretary Kerry
We are extremely honored that Iron Horse Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs was the toasting wine at last night’s State Department International Ocean Conference - Our Ocean, One Future. The conference hosted by John Kerry brought foreign ministers, NGO leaders, and philanthropists to Washington D.C.
The occasion celebrated President Obama’s a new measure just enacted yesterday, designating the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. The act will protect fragile deep-sea ecosystems off the coast of New England as the “Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.”
Secretary Kerry had much to toast with our bubbles in hand. He also acknowledged an earlier milestone - President Obama’s creation of the world’s largest marine protected area off the coast of Hawaii, creating a safe zone for tuna, sea turtles and thousands of other species in an underwater national park twice the size of Texas.
"Over the past several decades, the nation has made great strides in its stewardship of the ocean, but the ocean faces new threats from varied uses, climate change, and related impacts. Through exploration, we continue to make new discoveries and improve our understanding of ocean ecosystems. In these waters, the Atlantic Ocean meets the continental shelf in a region of great abundance and diversity as well as stark geological relief. The waters are home to many species of deep-sea corals, fish, whales and other marine mammals." - President Obama
With so much history making policy, there was clearly increased pressure to celebrate in kind. Chief of Protocol Peter Selfridge and State Department Chef Jason Larkin (see our past Chef Spotlight here) combined their finely honed diplomatic and culinary skills to create an impactful experience addressing significant global issues through food and wine. The renowned American chef selected to concept the menu was none other than Rick Moonen, who describes himself as a “godfather” of the sustainable seas movement. The four course meal was paired with all Iron Horse wines, featuring Ocean Reserve at the start.
We had the opportunity to speak to Chef Moonen about his starring role and he told us how thrilled he was to be selected as the lead for such an important event and how excited he was to continue making a difference after 40 years of championing the ocean, “My goal was to showcase our resources which need to be protected, creating a menu that reinforces the message … and represents the best of our seafood.”
When developing the progression of the culinary experience, his first instinct was to leverage the fruits of our vineyards, naturally gravitating to to our 2012 Oceans Reserve Blanc de Blancs for everything it strives to accomplish in the mission of saving our seas … and for it’s refreshing zest and creamy, rich finish.
2012 Ocean Reserve was paired with Chef Moonen’s Thai Green Papaya Salad with Toasted Peanuts to open up the dinner. From there, he selected our 2013 Rued Clone Chardonnay, to go with Alaskan Sable Fish and Chesapeake Oyster Chowder. For the entree,our 2013 Q Pinot Noir was served with True North Salmon with Olive Oil Crushed Potatoes and Garlic Caper Sauce. Chef Moonen determined the red wine’s firm and dry finish was the ideal way to round out the meal.
The menu also gave Iron Horse some additional, unexpected recognition, with a short history of the winery. This is the first time Iron Horse has been acknowledged in print on the menu like this, highlighting that our wines have been served by five consecutive US Presidential Administrations. The blurb went on to describe us as “one of the finest family-owned wine properties in the country and the top American-owned, sparkling wine producer in Sonoma County, ” touting our 260 acre reserve in the Green Valley AVA of the Russian River Valley and celebrating our limited edition Ocean Reserve which dedicates a percentage of sales to help establish marine protected areas and global sustainable fishing practices.
The acknowledgement was deeply appreciated by all of us in the Iron Horse family. We are so proud of the coveted role we get to play in such historic events. It is something we think about with each vintage and look forward forward to continuing this relationship, and representing our country with the fruits of our labors! So today we’re raising a glass to the Obama Administration, innovative Chef Moonen, Chef Jason Larkin and the ocean. Cheers!
Find a complete recap of the evening with streaming event video and an overview of the recent eco-responsible governing HERE.
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
Audrey & Barry Sterling are full partners in everything they do. Iron Horse is their vision.
They first saw Iron Horse in a driving rainstorm in 1976 with the vineyard development only partially completed. There was no winery.
Image Above: Winery Then
Image Above: Winery Now
And the 19th century carpenter gothic house was dramatically listing to one side.
Image Above: Victorian Then
Image Above: Victorian Now
Nevertheless, after a taste of wines made from Iron Horse grapes, they knew their search had ended and a dream begun.
This is Barry with his first tractor
And Audrey, ever the gracious chatelaine
It is hard to remember how pioneering it was to put down roots in western Sonoma County in the mid-70s. Even the UC Davis Agricultural Extension advised against investing in an area prone to frost. But the Sterlings knew the quality of cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from living in France in the 1960s and Audrey was familiar with the area from childhood summers on the Russian River.
They heard about Iron Horse at a dinner party and while few had identified the region as ideal for wine growing, went on an immediate tour, and in Audrey’s words “That was it.” Here is how they remember the day in a brief video clip.
That was the moment that a vision took flight, marrying founders to the land and triggering the foundational labor which truly great wine demands - building a 54 acre foot reservoir for frost protection, rehabilitating the vineyards and restoring their new home. The first vintage of Estate Chardonnay was produced in 1978. 1979 marked the first vintage of Estate Pinot Noir and the official opening of the winery. The first Sparkling Wines were vintage 1980.
In 1983, the name on the application for federal recognition of Green Valley as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) was Audrey Sterling with her attorney of record, Barry H. Sterling. Here’s a second clip of them reflecting on the significance of Green Valley.
These were out of the box thinkers driven by a belief in their future as vintners and informed by their time in France. “We were among the first to do that (define our area precisely), doing any AVA was something very new for California. It was rather an exciting time. I think we forget about how unusual that was because of how ordinary it is today.” Barry explains further, “Everyone knows the exact detailed lines that are drawn in France, so we knew that was an important step forward.” In bringing this procedure to Green Valley, they were setting their roots down in an unshakable way that has become status quo throughout the state.
The pioneering spirit of Iron Horse continues to permeate every decision going forward. The family has gone on to develop several industry leading partnerships. The richness of their wines take on added meaning as so many of the bottlings are specially developed to commemorate major moments in family, national and world history.
Iron Horse has been served at the White House for 30 years, beginning with the historic Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings ending the Cold War, and most recently at the White House LGTB reception June 9, 2016.
The winery produces a very special, limited production vintage Blanc de Blancs, called Ocean Reserve. This began with an equally special friendship which Audrey Sterling originally developed with National Geographic Chairman Emeritus Gil Grosvenor. Iron Horse contributes $4 bottle to National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative to help establish marine protected area and reduce over fishing.
As we celebrate their 40th vintage, we honor all the micro moments that led the Sterlings to this place. Iron Horse has elevated their sparklings and still wines to live at the intersection of history and politics and family lore. Something so good and so rare must be celebrated. Stay tuned for our next blog on our July 3rd summer soiree to mark the important milestone.
The nature of our business is completely dependent on, well, nature! And though we’re just now approaching summer, the vines are already filled out and we have blocks with completed set – cues points to yet another very early harvest, which amazingly will be our 40th vintage.
Our winemaker David Munksgard shocked me this morning, advising we could possibly start picking August 1. But he cautioned that’s just a time frame, not an exact date. “Some of what I do here is science. Most is what I call practicing my craft. The rest is instinct, good hunches, what my gut tells me.” And being ready, come what may.
Our start date for harvest has been inching ahead for the past several vintages:
2015, August 4
2014, August 8
2013, August 21
2012, August 30
So far, the set looks very good. “Set” refers to how the fruit sets behind the blossoms. A good set means we have a shot at a healthy sized crop which is extremely welcome news – our livelihood depends on it. Of course a lot can happen between the lip and the sip, but the ideal would be a nice steady even summer, i.e. cool, foggy mornings with the sun finally poking out at about 11am – not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Keeping up with Mother Nature is a full time job. Shoot thinning is a perfect example. Laurence Sterling has acquired a hedger tool to assist in letting just the right amount of filtered sunlight to get to the grapes. He calls this a “Goldilocks solution” to a higher quality outcome.
Meanwhile, David has started flying his drone looking for variation in shoot density. Some blocks are beautifully consistent; others have uneven pockets. When you walk a vineyard, you walk so slowly that you simply do not see the gradual change in canopy density. If you could just jump up 200 feet and look down you'd see the difference. Now we can!
Our heroic drone helped detect unwanted gaps in the vineyard canopy in a Chardonnay block up on the highest most westerly part of the estate. A seasoned winemaker’s hunch pointed to a likely culprit, but that experienced guess was substantiated by drone shots, showing a signature pattern associated with a vineyard fungus called Eutypa. This is a common disease, which delays shoot emergence in spring, affected shoots that eventually do grow have dwarfed, chlorotic leaves.
The drone shot clearly shows missing vines neatly aligned “within the row” suggesting something was being spread vine to vine. If it was a root pest or flying bug, the disturbance in the vines would not be as “neat and inline.” Once properly diagnosed, the vineyard crew descended upon the cause to cure it and Laurence has ordered replacement vines to fill in those gaps in the Thomas Road Vineyard.
Today our bird’s eye views show a healthy and strong vineyard.
Even after 40 years, this is a completely new view for us. And the pictures, besides being informative, are just plain cool.
Speaking of cool, we are experiencing our signature summer cool, foggy weather with the sun just beginning to poke through at 11am, validating Mark Twain’s famous quote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” A word to wise when coming to taste with us is definitely dress in layers.
As summer beckons, our thoughts naturally turn to love. This is high season for Wedding Cuvee aka Love Potion, a sure fire way to help newlyweds live deliciously ever after.
We recommend taking our bottles of Wedding Cuvee into the big day in a big way. Jeroboams of our most romantic bubbly can be engraved with the names of the bride and groom and the wedding date. Have the bridal party sign the bottle with a metallic pen, then send us the empty and we’ll re-cork and re-foil it (note: not re-fill) to make a beautiful keepsake.
Rainbow Cuvee adds another level of meaning as we celebrate the nuptials of every American and marriage equality. This year marks the one year anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court “love wins” ruling and we are extremely honored that the Obama Administration served Iron Horse at the White House LGBT reception June 9.
My new favorite word is florilegium.
flor·i·le·gi·um (flôr′ə-lē′jē-əm) n. pl. flor·i·le·gi·a (-jē-ə) [New Latin flōrilegium, flower-gathering (translation of Greek anthologion, flower-gathering, anthology), from Latinflōrilegus, gathering flowers : flōs, flōr-, flower; see flower + legere, to gather; see leg- in Indo-European roots.]
A collection of botanical drawings and paintings depicting the plants of an area, focusing on their beauty. The artful science of florilegia flourished from the 17th century to the late 19th century, portraying special selections of rare and exotic plants from far afield. The modern florilegium seeks to record the plants from within a particular garden or place.
My friend Maralee Beck, visiting from Los Angeles, recommended we start compiling an Iron Horse florilegium after going on a garden tour with my father and being enthralled by his stories. “He knows the provenance of every flower and tree and when each was planted.” she said. “It will be a wonderful record.”
So, today the project gets underway. The beginning may be a little haphazard, but it will evolve and it seems most auspicious to begin on the eve of May’s Full Moon which happens to be called the Flower Moon because so many plants are peaking right now. In the end, I hope to have an inventory of what’s in bloom as well as a catalogue of the various plants whose lives are rich with history here.
The early results follow …
First the vines. Iron Horse is a series of gentle, rolling hills covered in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The official start of the wine growing season is bud break … then we have bloom. This year’s bloom started the first week of May, about the same time as last year. The flowers are tiny, off-white and have a very subtle scent individually, but cumulatively contribute to a faint sweetness in the breeze. The grapes set behind the flowers.
Most spectacular right now are the roses along the road leading up to the winery. My mother’s favorite, the Cecile Brunners, are like giant fountains of pale pink. These have been propagated by my father from one bush he planted 40 years ago in front of an old potting shed. Now they crown the fence along the Chardonnay vineyards. I count 70 of these beauties in a quarter mile.
Interspersed are white JFKs, tall red Mister Lincolns and Peace Roses, the most popular rose in the world which, commemorating the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. (My mother attended the ceremonies at the War Memorial Opera House as a highschooler and sat in the last seat in the last row. I was honored to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations last year at the Fairmont Hotel, where the charter was drafted, and at City Hall, where I met Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl awardd the Nobel Peace Prize for standing up the Taliban and defending her right to education.
My mind (and legs!) climb the hill to the colonnades of alternating palm and olive trees that lead to the winery, which my brother dubbed Palmolive Drive.
The olives trees along the drive are in bloom. These are Mission Olives, planted 40 years ago. We make our own olive oil, just enough for personal consumption.
Sauntering along this road I soak in the statuesque beauty of my surroundings. The entrance is still awe inspiring no matter how many times I’ve pass through it. And it’s a respect I share with our many guests who walk or drive along this corridor. We hosted a sit down dinner for 500 people at one continuous table a quarter mile long down this drive for the Sonoma County Barrel Auction in 1987. There were six chefs, three on each side, each with their own cooking station and wait staff to prepare and serve the meal for 83 guests. Obviously you couldn’t cross sides, so the servers walked out single file and turned like cadets to set down the plates for each course. There were rolling toasts that started at one end and traveled down the entire length of the table like a wave.
The palms now stand 50 feet tall and like stately pillars are the defining architecture of our place. But they were completely laughable the first spring (circa 1977) when the daffodils were taller than the trees. Most of them are Washingtonians. They can reach an awesome 100 feet. They were very popular in Victorian times (when my parents’ home was built) as an exotic and a sign of establishment.
In 2010, when then Chairman of the National Geographic Society Gil Grosvenor spoke at our annual Earth Day event, Palmolive Drive became an outdoor gallery with poster size National Geographic magazine covers lining the way … and a small fleet of bamboo bicycles people could test ride up and down the drive.
There are a number of other palms around the property … some we can’t identify. Back in the 1970s and 80s people would advertise in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that they had mature palms for the taking, if you could provide the labor to pull them out of the ground and transport them. So, my father would go to those homes with a couple of guys from the vineyard crew and pick them up. My parents are incurable collectors and we are now extremely wealthy in palms. My informal inventory puts us at about 100 and counting. A recent addition is a beautiful Lady Palm that my parents purchased for their 63rd wedding anniversary, now flourishing amid the dahlias near their home.
A second, perpendicular row of palms lead to my parents home. There you see Smoke Trees showing off their puffy, billowy, pink smoke-like flowers ...
interspersed with pomegranates also in bloom. Just as it says in the Songs of Solomon: “Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom— there I will give you my love.” I think of the pomegranate as my father’s fruit, because we get them in October for his birthday.
While the palms and the roses tend to steal the show, there are many more co-stars that deserve recognition. Around the winery, some of the stand-out specimens include:
Red Hot Pokers aka “Torch Lilies” - drought tolerant, grow on their own without much care, thrive in our Gold Ridge soil and, best of all, are very alluring to hummingbirds. My father loves them. “They are delightful” he says, “Like beacons of light. That’s why you put them at entrances because they are welcoming.”
Lavandin – not true lavender, it’s a hybrid. The smell is very different - woody, spicy-green, more pungent than sweet. It has larger leaves, longer stems, and larger, more vibrantly colored flowers, pointed at the tip. More of a landscaping plant in cool regions, great attraction for bees and butterflies.
Daisies: The origin of the word Daisy is the Anglo Saxon for day’s eye because they open at dawn. It symbolizes new beginnings and in the “language of flowers means loyal love and “I will never tell”. They are also skillful in attracting butterflies.
They will be done blooming very shortly and replaced with yellow marigolds and then in August with zinnias, grown from seed in the hothouse.
I hope you enjoyed meandering with me. The busy ecosystem at Iron Horse doubles as our home. Three generations live on the estate. The walk from my house to the winery is the best in the country. And while I love all seasons here, there’s something magical about the vivacity of spring striving for our affection under May’s moon. I hope you’re inspired to visit and experience the natural beauty for yourself.
Next month brings a whole new crop of blooms … and another moon to toast. In the meantime, cheers to the Full Flower Moon.
Happy 85th Birthday and Happy Mother’s Day to Iron Horse Co-founder Audrey Sterling
My plan was to interview my mother for this blog, but she succinctly declined. So, I decided I would create my own narrative of her storied personal and professional life. Audrey Sterling’s varied talents and experiences have built a strong model worthy of exploration (Note - I may not be the most objective of biographers. Find my many declarations of love & admiration for my mother in past Iron Horse blogs here and in a Wine.com feature here, to name a few). So when I take a look at her greatest accomplishments and courageously attempt to celebrate a woman who epitomizes elegance, I find inspiration and lessons learned from life’s many crossroads. Take a walk with me down memory lane as I strive to adequately celebrate Audrey Sterling’s 85th Birthday ahead of Mother’s Day this Sunday.
Naturally, I would love to think that I am her greatest accomplishment. However, I know better. I think her greatest accomplishment is a life beautifully lived - arguably the most coveted goal known to mankind touted by great thinkers and doers from Aristotle to Eleanor Roosevelt (read my mother’s bio below).
She looks so regal, but do not be fooled, She is wickedly funny and fun to be with.
The most important turning point in her life gave her an amazing command of strength. She was in a terrible car accident when she was a teenager, injuring her leg to the extent the surgeons didn’t think she would walk again. Her tenacity powered her recovery and she overcame, but she has lived with constant pain ever since – not that she ever lets anyone see it.
Her most significant act of rebellion was marrying my father.
My parents epitomize the wisdom that two are better than one. I have seen their relationship dynamics shift back and forth over the years. Sometimes, my father is the stronger of the two; other times, my mother takes the lead. From my observation, that fluid balance is the key to their 64 years of marriage.
Our family lived in France for many years. My mother is the only person I know who has studied each and every gallery in the Louvre, room by room, floor by floor. Her appreciation for great art as well as the art of Mother Nature has formed the core of her personal inspiration as co-founder of our brand.
Iron Horse is famed for my mother’s gracious hospitality. I have watched her attention to detail create magical and unforgettable experiences for countless visitors to the vineyard. Her signature style goes beyond the physical, imprinting on the hearts of minds of people as they reflect on a single afternoon with her decades later. Some of her key entertaining tips are:
1. Everyone who comes into our home is an honored guest.
2. Our welcome drink is a glass of bubbly.
3. She always sets a beautiful and engaging table, with the most gorgeous linens and china, collected over decades traveling the world, glimmering wine glasses (of course), fresh flowers, and candles - the whole nine yards. Sometimes it’s formal; other times whimsical, but invariably thoughtful to make every occasion special.
4. She never lets couples sit next to other, unless they are newlyweds, so everyone had a chance to meet new people. Her cunning is to mix it up a bit.
For me, it’s a point of considerable pride that my mother is a fourth generation Californian and a native San Franciscan. She went to Lowell High School, Mills College and then transferred to Stanford.
My mother is unequivocally a feminist. When she was Fair Employment Practices Commissioner for the State of California (see bio below), there was an issue before the board about the safety of the workers on the Golden Gate Bridge. My mother was the only woman on the board and when she challenged the Bridge Authority, the managers thought she would back down if they asked her to see the conditions for herself, so of course she accepted the dare, went to the top of the bridge - some 750 feet in the air above the traffic, and it was they who backed down.
Our Iron Horse heroine is also an adventurer. There are so many tales to recount - safaris in Africa, Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, sailing the Nile, taking a midnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg in the early 70s, touring the ruins of Allepo. She never missed a chance to see the exotic contradiction of countries like India which offered both glamor and squalor during her travels in the 1980s. She tells of a “sunset cruise” in a police boat off the coast of Viet Nam and driving to a remote “gem of a temple” outside Angor Wat located inconveniently in a mine field in what was clearly rebel territory in the 90s. Another escapade that jumps to mind, though close to home, is the day we sailed under the Golden Gate on the USS Potomac, FDR’s yacht, fighting the wind to get to the bow. I was worried she was going to blow over, but look at the expression on her face!
My mother’s birthday is today - Cinco de Mayo. So we always tease her that the entire country of Mexico is having a fiesta for her. Mother’s Day is right around the corner, though this is not my mother’s favorite holiday. She feels every day is Mother’s Day.
Every day I look in the mirror and pray that I will become more like my mother. I love you Mommy. Happy Birthday and Happy Mother’s Day … today and every day!
Audrey Sterling Biography:
Audrey Sterling is the grande dame, warm hostess and soothing presence who makes everything naturally elegant at Iron Horse. She is a native-born San Franciscan. After meeting at Stanford University, she married Barry Sterling. Soon a daughter, Joy, and son, Laurence, were born.
In 1963 she accepted an appointment by Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown to serve as a California Fair Employment Practice Commissioner. She spent almost four years working to eliminate discrimination in employment and housing.
The family moved to France in 1967, which sparked the idea of someday living on a vineyard, growing grapes and making wine. The vision was always a “Chateau” model with all estate grown fruit, producing 30,000 cases of wine.
They first saw Iron Horse in a driving rainstorm in 1976. The vineyard development was only partially completed, there was no winery and the 19th century carpenter gothic house was listing dramatically. Nevertheless, after a taste of wines made from Iron Horse grapes, they knew the search was over and a dream began.
Audrey developed and ran Iron Horse while Barry, joining her on long weekends, continued his Southern California law practice for the next 10 years until he completely retired from the law. In those early years, Audrey called Barry her "cash crop" - something every winery needs! Never an idle observer, Audrey did whatever was needed at the bare-bones operation. The Iron Horse vineyard was restored, the winery built, offices established, and a strategic travel offensive for wine promotion launched.
She was an early member of the board of the Sonoma County Wineries Association, chairing the annual Sonoma Showcase for several years. She also served on the boards of the Sonoma-Marin Fair, the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, the Advisory Council for the Sonoma State School of Wine Business and the Advisory Council for the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. She and Barry were among the founding members of the American Institute of Wine & Food along with Julia Child. When Green Valley became a federally recognized AVA in December 1983 (simultaneously with Russian River Valley becoming an AVA), the name on the application was Audrey M. Sterling. Her attorney of record, Barry H. Sterling.
The vineyards look gorgeous. It is raining pink petals at my house from wild climbing roses some 30 feet high, giving new meaning to April showers.
The poppies around the Tasting Room hold special meaning. I remember casting wild flower seeds on walks with my father that first spring after my parents purchased Iron Horse in 1976.
There is no doubt in my mind that the beauty of the estate is very much part of our terroir. In fact, better than words or pictures, the wines capture it best.
I am very proud that our 2013 crop of Pinots received 94 to 90 point reviews in Wine Enthusiast:
94 Points - 2013 Deer Gate
94 Points - 2013 Winery Block
93 Points - 2013 Home Block
93 Points - 2013 Thomas Road
92 Points - 2013 Estate Pinot Noir
90 Points - 2013 “Q”
Thinking ever so slightly ahead, I hope you are properly provisioned for April 22, which promises to be the most celebrated day on the planet. It is Earth Day, the first night of Passover, a full moon AND a Friday. The day miraculously spans an amazing range of subjects we care about deeply.
Earth Day is an international holiday with billions of participants, and one of my favorite celebrations. For newbies to green Iron Horse festivities, see coverage of past celebrations here.
Earth Day 2016 will be one to remember on a global scale. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have agreed to sign the Paris Climate Accord at an official ceremony at the United Nations in New York on April 22.
How fitting to toast with our vintage Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs. The special edition Sparkling was created in partnership with National Geographic to help establish marine protected areas and support sustainable fishing. $4 per bottle sold goes to National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative.
Turning to Passover, we acknowledge the central role wine plays throughout the evening where it is required four times during the Seder. For those of you who still think Manischewitz is de rigeur, my family traditionally serves Pinot Noir. The blessing over the “fruit of the vine” is one we all know by heart. There’s a chalice for the prophet Elijah, plus the 10 teaspoons of wine we each spill out of our glasses into a saucer as a sacrifice to ward off the 10 biblical plagues that God inflicted on Egypt to secure the release of the Israelites from slavery as explained in the Book of Exodus.
I think we can all agree these are calamities ... though we did pray for flooding during the harshest points of the California drought :
The Nile turning to blood
Infestation of frogs
Death of livestock
Thunder & hail
Smiting of the first born
Pharaoh capitulated after the tenth plague, and then changed his mind, portrayed to the utmost of your imagination in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses in one of the greatest moments in movie history.
This is my third year hosting Passover at my house. I will borrow my father’s annotated Haggadah, a silver chalice from my grandmother that we fill with wine for Elijah, and a blue velvet matzo cover embroidered by my great grandmother when she was eight years old, shortly after sailing to America from Odessa.
In a break with tradition, I am planning on serving Russian Cuvee. Bubbles will pair beautifully with classic Passover dishes like smoked salmon, matzo ball soup, potato latkes with crème fraiche and apple sauce, fried artichokes … even brisket. After all, Passover is a celebration – a celebration of freedom against oppression. And I feel Elijah will enjoy bubbly for a change.
The night will not conclude before celebrating the full moon – the pink moon, to be exact. Nothing befits a full moon like bubbles. And a “pink moon” naturally calls for a gorgeous pale rosé like our Wedding Cuvée. This is the most romantic of our Sparklings, the one we are best known for. I describe it as dangerously easy to drink.
I am a major advocate of toasting the full moon. It unites us.
So, to recap, we will be raising a glass for Earth Day, at least four for Passover, culminating with a late night toast to the full moon.
With so much to celebrate, I just hope none of us will have to wake up too early on the 23rd.