Iron Horse Blog
April 13, 2015 | Joy Sterling
For those who have been to Iron Horse Vineyards, you know our Green Valley enterprise is a family affair. I run the front of the house, my brother is in charge of operations in the vineyards, and my parents set the standards. We all pitch in where extra hands are needed, but there is one role where exclusive credit is due. And that’s the role of Vegetable Garden CEO.
For years, my father has presided over a massive, roving vegetable garden with help from First Lieutenant Jose Puga who has assisted from the beginning. The garden has “gone viral” and now boasts over 300 varieties of tomatoes alone. The living exhibit of deliciousness rotates to different locations on the property, and this year the open field behind my house is playing host. Because of my proximity to the project, I will be regularly tracking growth on the blog!
Everything is started from seed but won't go into the ground until we are past frost season. Normally we worry about frost as late June 1st. But this year, everything is three weeks ahead, so the planting date is approaching.
Here are some of my dad’s top tips for starting a successful garden:
Q: First, explain the origins of your passion for gardening.
A: Living in France in the '60s was a real eye opener for me. In those days, in California, we didn’t have access to the variety of fresh vegetables and fruits that we encountered in Europe. For example, we had mainly two types of lettuce - iceburg and romaine, and we thought that was advanced. I remember the luncheon at the Savoy Hotel in London where I first had a mache salad.
We took the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the old world, which was new to us. We got very used to having fresh produce from the local markets every morning which generated an early “farm-to-table” menu. It was very exciting. When we moved back home from Europe, we couldn’t find the things that we’d grown accustomed to. So we simply decided to grow them!
To that end, on return visits to France, we made a point of shopping for seeds to continue growing the diversity in our Sonoma garden. Across from Notre Dame, there were two blocks of stalls along the river devoted to seeds. We could also find them in the South of France, near the flower market in Nice.
Q: What is the size and scope of the garden this year?
A: The vegetable garden will be about two acres. I need a lot of room! The size is necessary for the diversity that I’m committed to.
Q: What’s new and exciting this season’s garden?
A: There are always some new things to try. I have a special enthusiasm for my tomatoes, but in order to save space for new things, I limit myself to 300 types of tomatoes. And I’m constantly refining my collection to allow for new varieites to enter the garden’s repertoire.
Charentais melons have always been one of my specialities, a product indigenous to Provence. I’m also starting fresh with new artichokes this spring. For me, the “excitement factor” is delivered by innovations in produce color, flavor, and shape. It’s the ever evolving variety that keeps me passionate and engaged. Any one vegetable can have a number of different textures, colors, and styles. Years ago, most items had one color - like white cauliflower, green beans and red beets. Now you get a gorgeous range of colors for some if the classics. One of our favorites last year was beautiful golden cauliflower.We now make the most delicious beet chips, sweeter than potatoe chips, made from white beets.
Food really is more exciting now than ever.
Q: What environmental considerations do you keep in mind on the estate?
A: It’s important to rotate crops so you don’t play out your land. We rotate our garden on the property every couple of years.
I have farming in my blood passed down from several generations. One set of grandparents were homsteaders in Alberta, Canada. My mother's family grew walnuts in San Juan Capistrano. My father grew grapefuit and dates in the Coachella Valley, so I have always had ties to the land, a love of the land, and we work towards a better understanding of sustainable farming principles. No chemicals. We weed with old fashioned, long handled hoes and irrigate with recycled water using drip hoses.
Q: How has the vegetable garden added to the overall richness of the Iron Horse estate?
A: Variety is the spice of life. Nothing tastes quite like our home grown tomatoes. We firmly believe the fruits and vegetables we grow here naturally pair beautifully with our wines - terroir and terroir. The enthusiasm has touched every member of my family. My children and grandchildren have all participated in the garden planning and tasks at some point.
Q: What are your top tips for the at-home grower?
A: As you sketch out the garden and pick your seeds, you can start planting certain items in a hot house to get them going. It’s important to be aware of your climate’s limitation. For us, we can still get frost through the end of spring, so getting a head start is key. I also grow three seedlings for each of 300 types of tomato I will plant and then only plant out the strongest one of each varitety in the ground. Right now, that means I have 900 tomato plants that we are raising. This is to insure we have a succesful crop.
My top tip is to get a hot house. These days you can purchase a self assembling, small hot house. Getting that head start is worth-while.
Q: What are some of your favorite sources of seeds for those who need a little guidance?
A: There are marvellous catalogues and exchanges like “Seed Savers” and “The Territorial Seed Company” and "Totally Tomatoes". Here in Sonoma County, Petaluma has the "Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company"store inside a grand old bank bnuilding, which has a beautiful selection comparable to my old haunts in Paris. Every year, these sources bring a few options that end up as permanent "favorites" in the planting schedule. The hard part is being restricted to just 300 kinds of tomatoes.
April 10, 2015 | Joy Sterling
Everything costs water:
It takes about 30 – 35 gallons of water to make a glass of wine
56 gallons for a latte to go
400 gallons to grow the cotton for a T-shirt
6230 gallons a week to maintain a 100’ x 100’ lawn
Think about the possible tradeoffs. According to one calculation, if you pulled out a thousand square feet of lawn, you could enjoy an additional three bottles of wine a week and come out even in your water footprint.
I have heard several friends complain that they can’t possibly cut back any more than they already have. City dwellers resent the farmers. Some farmers feel they are being pitted against the environmentalists. The fact is, we are all in this together. We each have to do our utmost.
Here is a snapshot of our water use – in the vineyards, the winery and our personal lives. Bear in mind, Iron Horse is our business and it is also our home. We have three generations living on the property (in three homes), plus two of our foremen in separate houses with their families.
We have five wells, which supply the houses and a 45-acre foot reservoir that my parents built when they purchased the vineyard in 1976. The reservoir is fed primarily by rainwater, Green Valley Creek (a tributary of the Russian River), and highly treated waste-water from nearby Forestville.
Our rights to Green Valley Creek are called “licensed” water rights. The main license goes back to 1975. A smaller one goes back to 1948. These are limited rights. We can take no more than 86 acre-feet during the season (November to June) at a rate of less than 5 cubic feet per second (cfs, or 2,245 gal/min), assuming there is enough water in the creek for both us and the fish.
It is a great source of pride that the Department of Fish and Wildlife has spotted Coho salmon in Green Valley Creek for the first time in 20 years.
The reservoir gets recharged with recycled water upon request. Our agreement is to take 20 acre feet, and have an option for 20 more. Last year we received 30 plus acre feet; the year before about 12.
Frost protection and irrigation efforts are powered by the reservoir. These actions benefit 1) the vineyard 2) the orchard and flower garden at my parents’ house and 3) the summer vegetable garden behind my house.
The most significant water usage is associated with frost protection in the vineyard. Last year’s weather spared us from excessive water use, we activated the frost protection system only four times. One of the worst years was 2008 when ice was hanging from the vines.
We use conventional overhead sprinklers for vineyard frost protection. We can’t use wind machines like you see on flatland vineyards in Napa nor smudge pots like citrus growers because our property is a series of rolling hills. Our proximity to the ocean makes us vulnerable to frost as late as June 1. The stakes are high for us; not frost protecting could expose us to losing a third of our crop.
Overhead sprinklers deliver water at a rate of roughly one-quarter to one-third of an inch per hour. So far this season, we have turned on the sprinklers four times - about 13 hours total.
In the winery, our major water usage is for 1) cleaning tanks, barrels, picking bins and the presses during harvest and 2) power washing the floors. We pride ourselves on maintaining an immaculate facility. All of our grey water goes through the storm drains to the reservoir. We do not use detergents.
In our homes, even farmers take Navy showers.
Every vineyard’s water use varies, just like fine wine, with the climate, the soil and the lay of the land. I would rate our water use at 94 points on a 100 point scale. We can always do better.
The point is, we live in a watery world. It takes/costs water to do everything. An economist will tell you that if water was given its real monetary value, we wouldn’t have a problem. The market would even itself out naturally.
Except that water is a right, like air. The state has assigned relief funds for rural communities where the wells have gone dry. Food banks are gearing up for added demand in the summer as land is fallowed, resulting in job loss. In November 2014, California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross launched a campaign to raise 200 million pounds of food for food banks by the end of the year.
As with just about everything, I think we want/need to strike a balance.
For additional information on water and agriculture, I highly recommend the Public Policy Institute of California's "Water for Farms" briefing that just came out and that CDFA posted on their Planting Seeds blog. Their report provides accurate statistics and comes from a well-respected, non-partisan organization.
Find the personal water footprint calculator from National Geographic here.
And consider this final water conservation tip – old wine barrels are great for harvesting rain water.
March 31, 2015 | Joy Sterling
Welcome to the first installment of our Star Chef Blog Series. Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing Q&As with our most special friends who serve custom Iron Horse cuvees in their restaurants. In honor of Easter & Passover, and with the spirit of renewal that comes with Spring, we’ve interviewed Iron Horse's great friend Charlie Palmer for a fresh take on a classic.
Starting with New York City’s Aureole, Charlie now owns 14 restaurants around the country, two hotels in the heart of California’s wine country and The Mystic Hotel in San Francisco. Our friendship with Charlie Palmer is as rich as his culinary creations and shines through in the delicious Aureole Cuvee. The current release is our 20th vintage of making this unique, limited production bubbly.
When we called Charlie up one early Spring day, we challenged him to walk us through a seasonally appropriate food pairing for our sparkling wine and Pinot Noirs. The season is right for the Sonoma County baby lamb or ham and our Pinot Noirs just received stellar ratings by the editors at Wine Enthusiast which will appear in the June 2015 issue. Here’s what we learned...
IRON HORSE INTERVIEW WITH CHARLIE PALMER:
Iron Horse: What drew you to develop a partnership with Iron Horse?
Charlie Palmer: We started with Iron Horse years ago. My team of wine directors and sommeliers aimed to develop a sparkling wine that was both “food friendly” and could be an aperitif. The Aureole Cuvee is just that. We offer restaurant guests a small coup glass as they peruse the cocktail menu. Just 3 ozs of bubbles triggers that feeling of celebration and serves as a palette starter, but you can certainly drink it through the entire meal.
Iron Horse: What flavors make the Aureole Cuvee a menu go-to for you?
Charlie Palmer: It’s about freshness and balance. It was important that the sparkling wine bring good acidity to compliment richer foods with higher fat content.
Iron Horse: Spring has sprung at our vineyards. What celebratory sparkling creations are you preparing for Easter and Passover celebrations at your restaurant?
Charlie Palmer: When you think of Easter and Passover, you think of brunch. Our brunch menus at a few of the restaurants will offer a seasonal sparkling wine cocktail which will include 6 oz of the Aureole Cuvee, a few drops of pomegranate syrup to get a blush pink coloring, pomegranate seeds, and half an ounce of absynth.
Iron Horse: What’s on the menu for the main course?
Charlie Palmer: When I was a kid we always had a big, roast ham for Easter. It brings salty, rich flavors that are perfect for pairing with Iron Horse Pinot Noir. The fatty, smokiness of the cured ham is perfect for balancing the Pinot Noir flavors which bring fruitiness and acidity up front. Lamb dishes would also work wonderfully.
Iron Horse: You mention Pinot Noirs, ours were recently honored with excellent ratings awarded by Wine Enthusiast. What makes this Iron Horse red stand out?
Charlie Palmer: When people think about Iron Horse - they think about sparkling. But the Pinots have some of the most interesting terrior make-ups. Green Valley Pinot is different from other areas because of its indigenous vegetal overtone which makes them more interesting than some of the bigger fruit bombs from Sonoma Coast and Russian River. They have great depth and finesse that are more Burgundian in style than others you see from California.
Iron Horse: Finally, how do you conclude an Easter or Passover meal?
Charlie Palmer: I’m not big on sweet wines or Ports. More than anything else I like the idea of closing the meal with dessert and sparkling wine, especially fruit desserts. I would recommend poached green peaches with deconstructed crumble and Aureole Cuvee. This has good acidity and effervescence from the sparkling wine in the poaching liquid.
For more information about Charlie Palmer’s current projects visit charliepalmer.com. Find shop our full selection of Iron Horse Sparkling Wine on our website.
March 23, 2015 | Joy Sterling
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