Winery Profile: Iron Horse Vineyards

by Chuck Hayward

In preparing JJ Buckley’sChampagne Report, we wrestled with the decision to keep the focus on wines from that famous region, or open it up and include other sparklers, especially those from California. In the end, we decided to restrain ourselves, but not without some measure of protest from long-time friend Joy Sterling, proprietor of one of California’s iconic producers of sparkling wines, Iron Horse Vineyards. So as I wrapped up work on our latest report, I took the opportunity to dig deeper into our local fizz market in order to gain some perspective.

Sparkling wine has a long tradition in California, with Korbel having the distinction of being the first winery to produce bubbly back in the 1880s. And like the wineries that produced still wine in the pre-Prohibition heyday, the state was also blessed with many sparkling wine producers. But the arrival and aftermath of Prohibition along with a federal tax scheme that appraises sparkling wine at three times the rate of still wine left few domestic producers making bubbly between 1930 and 1970.   

However, the contemporary history of California sparkling blossomed at the same time that the state began to get recognition for their still wines. The growth in bubbly producers has followed two paths, which started taking shape some 40 years ago. One group was comprised of wineries that were established through the ownership or partnership with European sparkling wine houses. Taittinger (Domaine Carneros), G.H. Mumm (Mumm Napa), and Gloria Ferrer (Freixenet) are just a few examples where personnel and technical expertise were exported to California to make sparkling wine. Homegrown wineries made up the other group of sparkling wine producers and they focused on making high quality bubblies with any direct input or ownership from Champagne houses. To borrow a phrase from Terry Theise, these wineries represent true California “farmer fizz”, and wineries such as SchramsbergJ VineyardHandley and Iron Horse have been in the forefront of this quality charge.

Located in the very cool Green Valley subregion of the Russian River, Iron Horse released their first wines in 1978 with their first bubblies appearing in 1980. According to Joy Sterling, the decision to enter the sparkling wine market was born of a bountiful harvest which yielded more pinot noir than they had planned for. Rather than bulk it out, Joy’s father decided to try their hand at making some sparkling wine. Today, the winery’s 160 acres of vineyards form the backbone of both their still and sparkling wine programs. It’s interesting to note that individual blocks are not pre-designated for either. Rather, the decision about whether a parcel is directed towards still or sparkling is determined by the quality of the fruit when it is picked.
About Iron Horse

The prevailing style of most California bubblies places an emphasis on a delicate palate presence as well as clean fruit flavors. It is rare to find domestic sparklers with the toasty, yeasty influences that for many, define the profile of Champagne. Iron Horse’s sparklers exemplify the classic California approach perfectly. The portfolio includes a wide array of styles—over a dozen during my last count—with some produced in amounts as small as 200 cases. The “Classic Vintage Brut”, a pinot noir and chardonnay combination generally blended to a 75/25 ratio, represents the foundation of their production. “Our goal is to release all our wines four years after the harvest,” said Joy, and indeed the current release of this wine is 2006, part of a planned effort to keep the wine en tirage as long as possible for the complexity that develops with time.

The small and intimate nature of Iron Horse allows the winery to produce a number of unique cuvees, most of which have taken on an unexpected life of their own. Probably the most famous is the Blanc de Noir ‘Wedding Cuvee’ that was assembled to celebrate Joy’s wedding. The most recent vintage (2008) is composed of 85% pinot noir, displaying a faint copper color and an elegant fruit profile thanks to the addition of chardonnay to the blend. The “Russian Cuvee” is another blend with a compelling story, constructed for a state dinner hosted by Ronald Reagan for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It is slightly sweeter thanks to its dosage and was meant to mimic the style of bubbly preferred by Russians. Both of these blends were so well received that they have become popular lines in the Iron Horse portfolio, and in fact the Russian Cuvee has been served in The White House continuously since the first release.

And while the foundation of Iron Horse’s sparkling wine production remains on their most popular releases, my favorite cuvees have been the more limited production Brut Rose and the tete de cuvee, ‘Joy!’. The finely crafted rose is made by the labor–intensive saignee method which imparts the wine with deep and concentrated flavors and colors. It’s unfortunate that only about 1000 cases are made.  The even scarcer tete de cuvee bottling is a multi-vintage blend of pinot and chardonnay that has been aged on the lees for 10-15 years before it is released. Each year sees about 300-500 magnums released which are selling out more quickly as the cuvee gets better critical reception. While these cuvees showcase Iron Horse’s ability to make powerful and richly flavored wine, the prevailing style at Iron Horse highlights a lighter, more delicate presence. Investigating Iron Horse’s diverse portfolio will be well worth your while.In addition to the winery’s more stylized cuvees, Iron Horse has also created a number of blends to support charity efforts that are important to the family. They started with the one-off ‘Tut Cuvee’ release designed to underwrite admission costs for underprivileged children to attend an exhibit of King Tut. An ‘Ocean Reserve’ bottling sees 800 cases of 100% chardonnay aged over four years on lees, and benefits the National Geographic Society’s efforts to promote sustainable fishing practices.

Check out our in-stock selection of Iron Horse wines and other American sparklers!