Iron Horse Vineyards is the love and labour of Californians Audrey and Barry Sterling. In 1976 they drove along the one lane road just outside of the town of Occidental in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, through the fog and misty rain to find this beautiful vineyard, which they bought, pretty much on the spot. The location is beautiful, often shrouded by the fog that gets held by its rolling hills, and is very remote. Almost 30 years later to the day, we drove along that same road, in similar weather conditions to find their beautiful property and taste their exquisite wines.
To really understand any wine, you have to first understand the place where its grapes are grown. Most of you reading this article will be familiar with, or at least heard of, the Russian River Valley. It sits at the northern reaches of the Sonoma Valley and has in recent years developed a reputation of being home to some of the best cool-climate vineyards in the state of California. Within the Russian River Valley exists one of California’s smallest AVAs, the Green Valley. The Green Valley AVA lies in the Southwestern corner of the Russian River Valley, in-between the towns of Sebastapol, Forestville and Occidental. The Green Valley is defined by the fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, just thirty miles away, through the Petaluma Wind Gap in the Coastal Mountains. Green Valley’s proximity to this gap means it experiences the cooling fog earliest in the morning and it burns off the latest in the afternoon, making it the coolest viticultural area within the Russian River Valley. In addition to cooler temperatures, the fog narrows the diurnal temperature swings which is ideal for growing cool climate varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two grapes grown at Iron Horse.
We made our way up the hill to the winery and there we were warmly greeted by David Munksgard, Iron Horse’ head wine maker of the last 20 years. David’s love affair with wine and California began in 1974, when as a young man he found himself visiting California and being invited to the home of the developer of what is now the Silverado Resort in the Napa Valley. Also invited to the same party was a who’s who of Califonia winemakers of that day: Schramsberg’s Jack Davies, Heitz Cellars’ Joe Heitz, Beaulieu Vineyards’ head winemaker and uber-consultant Andre Tschelichef and Robert Mondavi, among others. Conversations with these greats and a tour of the Stony Hill winery changed the course of his life and led him to a career in winemaking.
David was a seasoned pro by the time the Sterling’s found him and brought him to Iron Horse. He made his first sparkling wine from the 1982 vintage at Chateau St Jean. David immediately exudes a warmth that puts us at ease and let’s know that we are in for a fun day of tasting and adventure. He starts us at their tasting room, a cozy converted redwood barn, with a flute of their 2011 Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blanc Sparkling Wine, a light and deliciously fresh wine where $4 from each bottle sold is donated to National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative to establish marine protected areas and establish sustainable fishing practices around the globe.
From there we walk to the winery as David describes to us the Iron Horse philosophy on making wine. Balance is the key that David strives for, so that the wines allow the beautiful and unique place that they come from to shine through. In fact, David is so interested in that place that he says “Let’s get out of the winery and jump in my truck and go through those vineyards together”.
The next two hours resulted in one of the most fascinating, educational, and just down-right fun vineyard tours that we have ever been on. David’s knowledge of winemaking and vineyard practices is truly extraordinary. And he has a natural gift for teaching: his explanations are clear and refreshingly devoid of wine-speak. As we pull up to one of their vineyards we are talking about leaf removal, the practice of reducing the amount of canopy to allow the right amount of sunlight through. He points out to us that you don’t look at the canopy to tell how much to remove, you look at the ground adjacent to it to see how much sunlight is getting through.
As we drove across the estate, which now has 160 acres under vine, planted exclusively to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, he took us to a beautiful look out where many a man has proposed marriage. David tells how many couples have got engaged right at that spot and toasted the occasion with one of Iron Horse’s Sparkling Wines. Sparkling is the wine of celebrations and weddings and Iron Horse plays host to many such events each year. Their Wedding Cuvee is specially blended to be served at these events.
We spent several wonderful hours with David, learning about the special land, the hands off approach to winemaking and the role of the fog in making both the sparkling and still wines at Iron Horse delicious. David allocates most Mondays to taking customers on tours of the property in his truck. Make sure you sign up early as this is a tour you do not want to miss!
2011 Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs
This special, limited edition Sparkling Wine made from 100% estate grown Chardonnay grapes has a fresh citrus driven palate that gets support from notes of bread dough and a slight saline quality that brings to mind the Pacific Ocean that so influences the wines character. Lively and fresh with a fine persistent bead this is a great starter for any occasion.
Very Good – US $50 at the winery
2008 Brut Rose
The bright pink colour says “special celebration!”. Made from mostly Pinot Noir this is their sparkling wine that tastes like it was made to have with food at the dinner table. A full, rich body coats your palate with strawberries and hints of hazel nuts. The finish is long and dry and would be a perfect accompaniment to any shellfish dish. The seven years of aging shows in the intensity of its flavours. Delicious now but could develop further in the cellar.
Excellent – US $50 at the winery
Bright red fruit aromas match the colour of this wine. Cherry and cranberry get support from a savoury, earthy quality. Medium body, this wine has a nice soft approach, moderately complex, fruit driven profile.
Very good – US $50 at the winery
We finished the tasting with a horizontal tasting of four of their Pinot Noirs. The wines were from the same vintage, same vineyard, same winemaker but from different blocks on their vineyards that were planted to different clones. It was fascinating to taste the differences!
This block is planted with the Louis Martini Clone and sits at the highest elevation on the property. Lovely notes of rose hip and other herbs infuse the red fruits of this elegant, medium body wine. Terrific balance leads to a silky finish. Lithe and slightly tight, already complex, this will likely develop further with a bit of time, and become even more delicious.
Excellent – US $85 at the winery
The Deer Gate block is one of the first blocks you pass as you wined your way up the narrow road to the winery. It is planted with clone 828, a Dijon Clone that hails from Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. The contrast to the Thomas Road was immediately noticeable. Earthy black cherries dominate the aromas. In my tasting notebook I wrote “rubanesque”; this is a full body Pinot with a round and generous mouthfeel that has a long finish punctuated by juicy acidity. This is the muscular gymnast where the Thomas Road is the svelte dancer.
Excellent – US $85 at the winery
2013 Winery Block Pinot Noir
The tasting room where we enjoyed these wines sits right at the edge of the Winery Block. Planted to Pommard 5 clone, this wine shares more in common with the Winery Block than the Thomas Road. It is a bigger wine and very complex. It is an intellectual wine, one that demands you think about it to fully appreciate what it has to offer. The black cherry profile is married well to just the right amount of oak. Cardamom and different baking spices rise and recede and change the taste of the wine just a little bit with each sip.
Excellent – US $85 at the winery
Planted to the Calera Clone, the North Block sits adjacent to the Winery Block. This wine was medium in body, had a lovely sense of balance and proportion and offered an earthy, cherry profile. We picked up notes of plum on the finish, which was bright and juicy.
Very good – US $85 at the winery