Iron Horse Blog
I had the pleasure of meeting with U.S. Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, and his wife, Melodee Hanes while they were visiting Napa Valley last Friday. Over a sinfully delicious pizza lunch, I joined fellow industry leaders to brainstorm ways to increase California wine exports to China.
Wine Institute sponsored this roundtable luncheon with exporting vintners active in the China market. I participated as a representative of both Iron Horse Vineyard & Sonoma County and I joined colleagues including Michael Parr representing Wente Family Vineyards and Richard Grey from E&J Gallo. The event was hosted by Delicato Family Vineyards CEO Chris Indelicato, at Black Stallion Winery in Napa.
Our challenge was simple - to rechart a course towards a successful exporting relationship with China after austerity campaigns led to a 7% decline in California wine exports in 2014. With China representing the world’s largest red wine drinking nation, the mission is certainly worthy.
Four next steps emerged from the roundtable discussion:
Build partnerships with tourism boards, i.e. Visit California and Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, to bring more Chinese tourists to wine country.
Pitch strategic partnerships with Disney about featuring California wines when Shanghai Disneyland opens in 2016.
Ambassador Baucus and his wife graciously offered to host a dinner in Beijing featuring California wine and agricultural products in the Fall.
Optimize Wine Institute’s education program in China to build awareness of California as home to premium wines.
As a California wine ambassador and family vineyard owner, I am thrilled to be part of restarting these great business relationships. We have extensive experience exporting to China since we launched our trade with the country in 2011 via a special Chinese “Year of the Dragon” Cuvee. The wine was a major hit with buyers and was notably served at a 2012 State Department luncheon honoring then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping hosted by Hillary Clinton & Joe Biden. We continue to develop special cuvee offerings for our Chinese audience and look forward to increased collaboration with our global Iron Horse Family.
For more information, find the fill Wine Institute press release on 2014 California wine exports here: http://bit.ly/1HstTg9
Today marks the official start of Spring. A major milestone for my Iron Horse family. The date has been marked in my calendar for many reasons. First, we’ll experience the first total solar eclipse since November 3, 2013. This eclipse always bring a new moon so we’ll also be channeling the spirit of renewal that comes with the season. I take this opportunity to celebrate the new beginning with meditation, yoga, a hike through the vineyard, and a conscious effort to not over schedule my days.
Second, the seasonal change marks a significant change in our activity out in the vineyards. Though I mentioned before that “season creep” has brought unusually warm temperatures earlier, the consistently warmer temps will now wake vines from their winter naps in a phenomenon we call “budbreak.” We carefully monitor these sensitive, young buds to ensure evening frosts don’t damage them. As flowering begins, Iron Horse growers manually train vines to grow optimally. With our guiding hand, grape clusters will get just the right amount of sunlight and air and we’ll have conquered an important growing milestone.
Have a wonderful Spring Equinox and total solar eclipse. I look forward to seeing your bright faces in our Tasting Room to usher in this new season.
Spring, why are you so early? Gorgeous, clear, blue skies, sweet smelling plum blossoms filling the air, masses of daffodils, happy songbirds, asparagus and artichokes in the markets … spring is here and has been for quite a while. It has been a guilty pleasure; we need the rain, but it is hard to complain when two-thirds of the country is freezing.
We had our first smattering of bud break in the vineyards on February 7. That’s three weeks earlier than last year, which was two weeks earlier than the year before.
Some scientists call this “season creep”, when spring comes earlier and earlier. The term is like “mission creep” when military action inexorably escalates into war. Or, “bracket creep”, which our wholesale distributors use to describe gradual wine price increases.
Watch the roses. They are the sentinels at the end of the rows of the vines. It’s concerning to see them pushing out leaves in February.
We simply have to accept that the phenology clock has started and we are going to have to keep up with Mother Nature.
Early bud break means our highly trained vineyard team is working like crazy to get the pruning done. It is much harder work when the vines start pushing because you have to be all the more careful not to knock off the buds.
Another danger of early bud break is a very long frost season. We are subject to frost as late as June 1 here in Green Valley.
Right now it is nice and cool, but much depends on the temperatures going forward. We could conceivably be picking for sparkling wine in July and for still wine in August.
Our extraordinarily premature and warm temperatures may be providing us with a rehearsal for future “normal” conditions. When is spring, anyway? Our calendar is just a construct. In the traditional lunar calendar, Chinese New Year is a spring festival.
As farmers, we need to adapt and each of us has to do what we can to lessen our collective negative impact on our atmosphere to slow and hopefully halt our drift toward an excessively erratic world.
As for vintage 2015, we’re focusing on the vines (instead of looking at the date on the calendar) and giving them what they need on their schedule, not ours. Whenever it falls, spring is a time for optimism. And, there is no reason to assume that the unknown will turn out poorly, which is yet another good reason to drink bubbly - the drink of optimists.
Happy Groundhog Day! We are happy that we can see the shadow from our flutes on the Iron Horse Tasting Bar meaning there is more winter on the way … hopefully rain.
So far, 2015 is off to such a great start, beginning with the honor of having our 2010 Classic Vintage Brut served at the private reception for about 200 in the Governor’s Office, celebrating Jerry Brown’s inauguration to an unprecedented 4th term. This was at 11 o’clock in the morning, so the Brut was featured both “neat” and in mimosas with California OJ.
I am also thrilled to share with you these exciting photos of Iron Horse Ocean Reserve at the summit celebration for Santa Rosa, Sonoma County native Kevin Jorgenson and his climbing partner Tommy Caldwell after scaling the Dawn Wall of El Capitan - a feat that has earned them admiration and cheers from all over the world.
This is how we hope everyone feels when toasting with our bubbly ... on top of the world!
With all my very best,
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,