Iron Horse Blog
Dear Friends & Family,
I often say that we could legitimately change the name of our Wedding Cuvee and call it Love Potion … No. 10. Now that seems all the more appropriate given the #10 ranking in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines of the Year.
Much to my surprise, I have been named Winery CEO of the Year by the North Bay Business Journal, which covers Marin, Sonoma and Napa. Of course it takes a village. I call it Village Iron Horse and I am very proud to be a member of such an extraordinary group of people.
I rarely talk about the business of wine, but I thought the questionnaire they sent was interesting. For example, question #3: How have you and your business affected the wine industry?
I am very proud that we have gained growing recognition for the Green Valley AVA within the Russian River Valley and appreciation for top caliber American Sparkling Wines that sit at the same table as the finest Champagnes.
Just as France has Champagne, California has certain areas – the Central Coast, Carneros, Russian River (most specifically Green Valley) and Mendocino – that are ideal for growing the best grapes for bubbly. I really enjoy showing visitors how we make Sparklings – how labor intensive it is, how long we age our bubbles, the significance of making vintage vs. non-vintage, the beauty of being estate bottled (like small grower champagnes). The methodology is identical; the sole difference is that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in Eperney taste different than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown in Sebastopol.
And this one: How healthy is the wine business, from what you see in your operations?
California’s wine business is staged to grow on the world market primarily thanks to three straight excellent vintages in a row – 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Sparkling Wine sales are increasing on a level that we haven’t seen since the turn of the Millennium, thanks in large part to Prosecco, which as a stepping stone I believe has led more people to think of bubbles as an everyday pleasure and not just for special occasions.
Pinot Noir is also very exciting. We practically dropped out of the Pinot world for about five years while my brother oversaw the replanting of our vineyards. We are very lucky to get back in when the vines are in their seventh leaf, with a great vintage and at a time of dynamic growth for the category.
Finally, What are the opportunities and challenges facing your business, and what have you been doing to take advantage of or mitigate them?
One of the greatest challenges facing the entire North Bay (and all Californians) is drought. We will prune with drought in mind again this winter to keep the crop level low, so the vines, if the worst comes to pass, will have the best chance of success.
A great opportunity is the power of Social Media. We have yet to conquer the Internet. Growing our on-lines sales is a major objective. It’s an area I enjoy. I love being in personal contact with our customers.
We also benefit from the terrific increase in tourism to Sonoma County, bringing a greater influx of wine lovers to our Tasting Room. We continue to upgrade the experience here at our home place to capitalize on the increased traffic.
It is to our advantage that Pinot Noir is the fastest growing red wine varietal in American with the younger generation. Green Valley is considered the heart of Pinot country in Sonoma County and thanks to our re-plant we started producing a number of small production, single vineyard block Pinots that are our rising stars.
I will be very proud to accept this award next month on behalf of the entire Iron Horse family, whose passion and dedication shine through in our wines.
I am also very excited to report that we are getting some rain and to remind you that according to wine tasting pros this is the best time to come visit. There are fewer people and ours is a view for all seasons.
Please come taste with us and we will roll out the gingko leaf carpet for you.
With all best wishes for a wonderful Thanksgiving,
Dear Friends & Family,
Vintage 2014 is in barrel and the fermentations underway. The year will be noted for drought, earthquake and wild fires. And yet, the grapes that went into the press were wonderfully delicious.
My brother Laurence wisely pruned to the drought, specifically to reduce how much leaf canopy and grapes each vine had to grow and mature. This was a gut call made last December … before we knew that this would be another severe drought year.
It was an early harvest. Everything started early. It’s as though we bracketed the growing season and moved it ahead three weeks, beginning with bud break. Even now the theme is following through with camellias in boom at my parents’ house that normally don’t come out until Thanksgiving.
Usually, during harvest, there is a fairly predictable order of when each block and variety will get picked, based on our history of 38 years at Iron Horse. This year, that orderliness flew out the window. This meant more sampling, more rows to walk, and the need for turn on a dime flexibility in moving around the vineyard crews. This is a vintage when being estate bottled made all the difference.
Drought years can produce grapes that require extra care with fermentations and that seems to be holding true. Fortunately, our winemaker’s strong suit is coaxing “grumpy” yeast to cooperate.
So, how are the wines? It is still too early for a definitive answer as the fermentations aren’t done, but I am optimistic this will stand with 2012 and 2013 as our third straight excellent vintage in a row.
Right now, my current new personal favorite of our Chardonnays is our 2012 Native Yeast. Wine Enthusiast has given it a 93 point rating. Total production of this single vineyard Chardonnay is 250 cases. I love it with anything to do with fresh fall corn – corn chowder, corn bread, and succotash.
My family joins me in wishing you and yours our very best. Please pray for rain for us ... gentle, easy, light, but steady rain ... preferably at night, like Camelot.
This quintessential Tuscan dish is said to have originated in Etruscan times when fowl was cooked over an open hearth while being flattened with a heavy stone to insure even cooking. The result is a crispy yet succulent chicken fragrant with the aromatic herbs rosemary and sage. Serve with Iron Horse 2012 Estate Chardonnay or our 2012 Native Yeast Chardonnay.
This recipe is courtesy pf Deborah Dal Fovo and Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg.
Both the Iron Horse Estate Chardonnay and the Iron Horse Native Yeast have been awarded a 93 point rating in Wine Enthusiast. Chardonnay’s lemony character makes it a perfect pairing with this dish.
2 terracotta or red clay bricks washed and air dried, wrapped in 2 layers of heavy aluminum foil
1 young frying chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, preferably free-range
¾ cup quality extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
¼ cup fresh rosemary needles
¼ cup fresh sage leaves
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Ask the butcher to remove the backbone of the chicken, trim and cut it in half. Then, chop off the knuckle from each drumstick and the tip of each wing and lightly pound each partially boned chicken half with a flat disk meat pounder or the flat blade of a chef’s knife to flatten.
At home, rinse the chicken halves under cold running water and dry well with a kitchen towel.
Place the chicken in the olive oil marinade for 2 to 4 hours for best flavor, turning occasionally.
Prepare a charcoal grill with hot coals. Remove the chicken halves from marinade and generously season with salt and pepper on both sides. Place the chicken halves on the hot grill and cover each with a foil-covered brick to weigh them down. Cook for about 25 minutes until golden brown and crispy. Use a kitchen mitt to remove the bricks. Turn the chicken halves on the grill and replace the bricks on top. Cook for about 25 more minutes or until juices run clear when the upper chicken leg is pierced with a sharp knife.
Transfer to a serving platter, lightly tent with foil and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Quarter the bird and serve with the Iron Horse Chardonnay.
I was honored to be one of 100 delegates on Governor Brown's Trade and Investment Mission to Mexico. I was invited in my new role as a member of the California Board of Food and Agriculture. As luck would have it, I was on the same flight as the Governor leaving SanFrancisco.
I was very proud that our Classic Vintage Brut was the tpasting wine at the Delegation Dinner ... after the margaritas.
The agriculture contingent include California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross and State Assemblymember Susan Eggman, who chairs the Assembly Agriculture Committee.
We were briefed by the USDA attache in Mexico, met with the Minister of Agriculture to discuss border isues and toured food markets where there are California cantaloupes for sale in Mexico City.
Some of the learbings were disturbing. For example, paperwork can hold up prduce at the border - in both directions, for 11 hours while it rots in the trucks in part because we are behind Mexico in getting the required documentation on-line, so just a transposed number can cause extreme delays.
Another was the perception of California wine in Mexico as quality, but expensive. The market veers more comfortably to South American wine and for special occasions they look to ... not France, but Spain. The best Mexican wines come from Baja California, in the Valle de Guadalupe.
One of the most memorable moments of the trip was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between California and Mexico to combat climate change, which I found fascinating as a state to country agreement.
The next day, the Governor and the Archbishop of Los Angeles convened religious and diplomatic leaders from Mexico and Central America to discuss immigration reform and the influx of unaccompanied children coming to the United States. Mexico is now grappling with a very different and demanding border experience to its south along with the issues we share between Tijuana and San Diego.
It was truly an honor to represent the extended Iron Horse family on this trip. It meant so much to our vineyard crew and cellar team.
July is always full of anticipation. We are bottling the wines from 2013 and gearing up for harvest. The early betting is on a good-sized crop and on an early crush. It's exciting to think that this could be our third excellent vintage in a row.
As usual we are later than most, which is a good thing, in that we hope to have a nice, long growing season. So far so great, though a lot can happen between the lip and the sip. Please wish us luck!
In the meantime, the lavender harvest is truly excellent.
And the blackberries perfectly delicious. I love dropping two or three or five in a glass of bubbly.
As you know, we have always carried the flag for Green Valley, our special growing area, which lies entirely within the Russian River Valley. The name on the application for recognition as an AVA (American Viticultural Area) was my mother, Audrey M. Sterling and her attorney of record was my father Barry H. Sterling. They had such great vision. This was 1983, simultaneous with Russian River filing for AVA status.
I feel extremely proud that the Russian River winegrowers are now starting to define themselves as a group of four "neighborhoods" - Sebastopol Hills, Green Valley, Laguna Ridge and the Middle Reach. Only Green Valley has set federally recognized boundaries. The others are loosely defined to not step on anyone's toes. As you might imagine, trying to delineate the Laguna Ridge from the Middle Reach can get neighbors to arguing. But I am fascinated with the results of comparing and contrasting soil types, how the fogs moves, harvest dates, and flavor profiles.
Here's a link to an excellent article on the wines "way out west" including Iron Horse that is well worth reading: http://bit.ly/1jZOjX8.
I hope your calendar is full of many upcoming opportunities to celebrate. We have a Super Moon on August 10, which is reason enough to pop a cork!
With all my best wishes,
I wish everyone could have been here for our Earth Day event on Sunday. It was our best ever.
I felt privileged to hear Sandra Day O'Connor speak about the meaning of Earth Day, her memories of growing up on an arid Arizona ranch and the value of water, which deeply resonates in a drought year. And, I learned a new word - petrichor, which is the scent of rain on dry earth, or the scent of dust after rain.
Of course I loved that she said, "'Wine is the best celebration of the earth." But my favorite part of her talk was about her friendship with my parents since their days at Stanford.
Head Chef Douglas Keene outdid himself with the food. The Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from our friends and neighbors are so delicious. I love when Green Valley comes together as a community. And the pies!
We had art, heard a great rendition of Bésame Mucho by the gorgeous and talented Trio Ellas, and learned about the application of drones for agriculture.
I cannot imagine what we will do next year!
I am very proud to announce the release of a new, limited edition, vintage Sparkling Wine called Rainbow Cuvée, available at the winery and on our website.
It's meant for everyone who believes in love, justice and equality … and, nothing says marriage quite like a gorgeous bottle of bubbles.
The wine is vintage 2009 Blanc de Blancs - 100% estate Chardonnay, aged three-plus years en tirage. The dosage, or finishing element, makes it unique. Only 250 cases were produced.
Dosage is the final ingredient to go in the bottle before the cork. It is syrup made of wine and sugar. How much is added to the bottle sets the degree of sweetness to dryness of the Sparkling. The composition of the dosage sets the style, like a spice or seasoning.
It never ceases to amaze me how a few milliliters can change the color, bouquet, weight, flavors and finish. Rainbow Cuvée is certainly one of the most delicious we have ever produced.
The release date coincides with rainbow season in the vineyards. We are told Iron Horse has more rainbows per square inch than anywhere else.
Stylistically, "Rainbow" is bright and exciting, dry, surprisingly rich, made for celebration.
The label design is by Mark Berry of Akins Berry Communications. The winery retail price is $58/bottle, available at the Iron Horse Tasting Room and on-line.
Governor Brown's State of the State and the President's State of the Union have inspired me to write a state of the winery report. The traditional format is an enumeration of accomplishments from the past year, followed by a vision for the year ahead.
Iron Horse has much to be proud of:
Our newly replanted vineyards are now in their "seventh leaf" and yielding the rewards of the extraordinary investment we have made in the vineyards, replanting 80 of 160 acres since 2005. That's almost the entire original vineyard planted in 1970 and 71. My brother Laurence Sterling, our winemaker David Munksgard and viticulturalist Daniel Roberts are doing a fantastic job.
Naturally, the heightened viticultural knowledge we have today has raised the quality of our wines exponentially, making the accolades of 2013 all the more gratifying.
Our ratings were higher and more consistent, especially on the bubbles. Not that we live or die by scores, but we feel the effect of going up two or three notches. We sold the entire 2009 vintage of Wedding Cuvee in six months and have started shipping 2010, maybe because of the 93 point rating in Wine Spectator with Tim Fish's comment that it was "built for a party." Robert Parker awarded our 2007 Brut Rose 93 points. Wine Enthusiast rated 2004 Brut LD 94 points and named it one of the Top 100 Wines of the Year. Wine & Spirits named Iron Horse one of the Top 100 Wineries of the Year.
The photograph they ran in their December issue speaks volumes. I salute the vineyard team and the winemaking crew and thank our media friends.
We were honored that Iron Horse was served at the dinner hosted by President Obama for China's President Xi Jinping in Southern California last June, continuing a tradition of the White House choosing Iron Horse for five consecutive Presidential Administrations beginning with the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings. Amazingly, we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of that milestone in November 2015.
Perhaps most exciting is the evolution of my niece Barrie Sterling's role at Iron Horse. I think she is doing everything right - spending time in the vineyards and out in the market selling wine. She hosts V.I.P tours of the winery, does the chalk board art for the Tasting Room and is working with her grandfather and name sake Barry Sterling on the vegetable garden. Several years ago, my New Year Resolution was to figure out how to be in two places at once. And now I have.
My forecast for 2014 is for some very exciting highs as well as some very tough challenges.
First is the release of our 2012 Estate Pinot Noir. This is the first time in five years that we have had any Pinot Noir to really sell, after a massive replant of the original vineyards (due to old age).
In many ways, this can be seen as a new launch. We are so lucky to get back in with such a spectacular vintage. The category is vibrant. Green Valley is the most sought after area of the Russian River for Pinot Noir today. We finally have ample supply, which will be the new norm for Iron Horse.
I can't wait for you to taste it. It has a beautiful bouquet. The mouth-feel is ripe and opulent. It changes by the minute in the glass. It is young, of course, but it is like a genie that jumps out of the bottle saying, "I am 2012. Drink me!"
Now, when you come taste with us at the winery, we have an entire flight devoted to Pinot Noir for you to try.
The biggest challenge is drought. This is a problem we share with all Californians. We are all in this together.
Fortunately, our reservoir is two-thirds full, thanks to my parents' foresight to build the reservoir in 1976 and thanks to my brother's contract for re-cycled water from Forestville, which he initiated in 1990.
We are anticipating an early spring. We have Daphne in bloom, quince, star magnolia in full flower, even daffodils starting to open up. It will hit 72 degrees today. Strangely the drier it is, the colder the lows. We have frost almost every morning.
Laurence is trying to time the pruning in the vineyards accordingly and we are saving every drop of water we can for frost protection.
Come what may, the Iron Horse family is working very hard and doing some really great work. How perfect that Chinese New Year January 31 starts the Year of the Horse. We plan on celebrating all year long and hope you will join us in toasting every opportunity.