Spending my summers in Sonoma County starting at about the age of five, I have soft-focus memories of wine tasting with my grandparents from an early age. Driving around Sonoma in my Grandfather’s Buick was always a treat for me, mostly because of the automatic windows and the particular spot on the glove box that would magically make the horn beep if I hit it just right. I didn’t have much of an eye for the scenery at that age.
Neither did I pay much attention to the wine tasting. The adults would disappear into some big building and I would get a chance to run around on the invariably verdant lawn that so many wineries offered for my pleasure. Occasionally I would wander in to see what the adults were doing, and if I ever asked for a sip, I got it, and almost always wrinkled my nose in displeasure. I didn’t like the way that wine tasted until years later when I discovered wine came in pink varieties.
Many of the wineries that we used to visit are no longer around, neither in name or in edifice. The buildings and grounds I hold in my memories have been knocked down, repurposed, or faded beyond recall for me. Some, however, are not only still clear, but the wineries are still going strong more than twenty years later.
Iron Horse Vineyards is one of only a few California wineries that have not only flourished for the last few decades, but have remained firmly and proudly family owned. They have neither been gobbled up by a large conglomerate nor have they become one. Rather, they have quietly been doing the same thing they have for decades, albeit with increasingly savvy marketing and greater recognition for their efforts.
Iron Horse, like many of the wineries started in the mid 1970’s, began as the improbable dream of a young couple. Audrey and Barry Sterling came to western Sonoma County with the dream of starting a winery, and fell in love with a 300 acre patch of rolling vineyards and fallow farmland in the middle of a February rainstorm. Two weeks later they were the owners of what was then the westernmost vineyard in the county, so deep into the coastal fog belt that the concerned scientists at U.C. Davis warned them they might never produce quality wine for fear of perpetually chilly, unripe grapes. The Sterlings, having visited the rain-soaked chalk landscapes of Champagne and Burgundy, knew better. They were decisive in staking out new territory to grow their favorite grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The Sterling’s somewhat daring foresight is now common sense, and like so many frontiers in history, what was once an isolated outpost now finds itself surrounded on all sides by like-minded newcomers and longstanding neighbors. The original 110 acres of vineyards have grown to 170, and more than fifty have been replanted in the last few years with improved rootstocks and clonal selections. Instead of just being a vineyard in the western climes of Sonoma County, Iron Horse now sits at the heart of the newly approved Green Valley AVA, whose approval and boundaries were defined by being the coolest, most fog-influenced part of the Russian River Valley.
While Audrey and Barry Sterling still live on the property, the operations of the winery are now in the hands of their children Joy and Laurence. Joy is the CEO (which means she does any thing that needs doing, but is heavily involved in marketing, PR, and sales for the brand) while Laurence directs the operations, including the efforts of winemaker David Munksgard who has been with the estate since 1996.
In the 28 years since the first wine was bottled at Iron Horse, this small family winery has woven its way into the fabric of American history. It’s not clear exactly how, but by virtue of being one of only a select few vineyards making sparkling wine in America at a certain point, Iron Horse wines began to be served at the White House, where they still hold pride of place (at least when there’s a non tee totaling president in office). The prestige of this association has carried the brand far and wide, to the point at which it is currently recognized as one of America’s most iconic brands, according to a recent book on iconic American brands published by Random House.
Iron Horse currently produces a dizzying array of wines, enough to make this review of the majority of their current releases a long time in coming — both because it took me a while to taste all the wines, but also because many of the wines are on different release schedules throughout the year. Since its second vintage, the winery has been producing sparkling wines, as well as the original Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines that the Sterlings held so dear. Since its inception, the portfolio has also included both Bordeaux-style and Italian varietal wines grown on vineyards in the Alexander Valley, which have actually been discontinued this year as the winery focuses more on Chardonnay, Pinot, and it’s Sparkling wines.
Despite this expansive portfolio, however, many of the wines are made in small quantities, and all are made with the care that a smaller family-run operation affords. That care also extends to the vineyards which are managed by Laurence using some of the most sophisticated vineyard management technology available, including satellite GPS and detailed computer-analyzed geologic surveys of the property.
For all the bells and whistles in the vineyard, and regardless of how many Presidents have drunk the stuff, Iron Horse continues to prove the strength and vision of family in making quality wine, year after year.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2002 Iron Horse Vineyards Classic Vintage Brut Sparkling Wine Green Valley, Sonoma
Pale gold in color with medium fine bubbles, this wine has a yeasty, papery nose with Asian pear aromas. In the mouth it offers a soft foam of apple and pear flavors mixed with a hint of raw pie dough that angles towards bitterness on the finish as notes of citrus cross the palate. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $27. Where to Buy?
2001 Iron Horse Vineyards Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine Green Valley, Sonoma
Pale blonde with medium-fine bubbles in the glass, this wine has aromas of wet leaves, minerals, and dried cashews on the nose. In the mouth it has a bright flavors of lemon zest and parchment, with a minerality and bread-like aspect that surface in the finish. Score: around8.5. Cost: $30. Where to Buy?
2002 Iron Horse Vineyards Russian Cuvee Sparkling Wine, Green Valley, Sonoma
Light gold with fine bubbles, this wine has a nose of apples and white flowers. In the mouth it has a smooth and silky foam that lifts flavors of apples, pears, and floral aromas into a nice finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $26. Where to Buy?
2004 Iron Horse Vineyards Wedding Cuvee Sparkling Wine, Green Valley, Sonoma
Pale blonde in color with medium-fine bubbles this wine smells of sawdust and Asian pears. In the mouth it is straightforward and pleasant with flavors of Asian pear and other pears, and while dry, has sweet aromas that make the floral finish enjoyable. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $26. Where to Buy?
NV Iron Horse Vineyards “Joy!” Sparkling Wine, Green Valley, Sonoma
Light gold in color, this wine has a stunning nose of wet wood, nut skin, and toasted brioche. In the mouth it is a phenomenal explosion fine bubbles that dance with flavors of lemon zest, cashews, and a wheaty-oaty-yeasty goodness that simply makes me hungry. Made from 10 to 15 year-old late disgorged wine, and offered only in magnum, this is the crown jewel of the Iron Horse portfolio with good reason — it is quite possibly the best California sparkling wine I have ever tasted. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $147. Where to Buy?
2005 Iron Horse Vineyards “Unoaked” Chardonnay, Green Valley, Sonoma
Pale green gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of apples, pears and a light floral aroma. On the palate it is smooth and straightforward with simple flavors of apples and pear and an undercurrent of minerals and hints of citrus. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $22. Where to Buy?
2005 Iron Horse Vineyards Estate Chardonnay, Green Valley, Sonoma
Pale green gold in color, this wine has a nose of cold cream and buttered popcorn. In the mouth it has very a nice acid balance with flavors of mineral and unripe apples. A hint of oak mixes with citrus elements on the finish. Decent, but otherwise unremarkable. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $27. Where to Buy?
2005 Iron Horse Vineyards “Native Yeast” Chardonnay, Green Valley, Sonoma
Light green gold in the glass this wine has a nose that smells like a perfectly buttered English muffin on a Sunday morning. In the mouth it is bouncy with acidity and offers focused flavors of lemon zest and pink grapefruit that trail nicely into a moderate finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. Where to Buy?
2005 Iron Horse Vineyards “Rued Clone” Chardonnay, Green Valley, Sonoma
Light green gold in color, this wine has a floral aspect to its aromas, mixed with apple and butter scents. In the mouth it is smooth, and more viscous than expected on the tongue. The wine has the sense of being slightly lower acid than it should, but resonant flavors of apple, honey, and mixed citrus make up for that in a nice finish tinged with a hint of butter. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38.
2005 Iron Horse Vineyards “Corral Vineyard” Chardonnay, Green Valley, Sonoma
Light green gold in the glass, this wine has a nice nose of butter cream frosting. In the mouth it is a party of summer grapefruit and mixed citrus as nice acidity and a satiny texture liven up the wine as it heads to a clean finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $38. Where to Buy?
2006 Iron Horse Vineyards “T-Bar-T” Viognier Alexander Valley, Sonoma
Pale gold in the glass this wine smells like a peach pie cooling on a windowsill on a summer’s day. In the mouth it has the slightly oily texture that is common to Viognier, and the bright acidity that is all too un-common in so many attempts at this grape in California. This acidity buoys up crisp flavors of peach and fresh apricots that linger in a beautiful finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. Where to Buy?
2006 Iron Horse Vineyards Rose de Pinot Noir, Green Valley, Sonoma
A beautiful rose pink color in the glass, this wine has a nose that you might call strawberry jam surprise. In the mouth it offers much the same, but thankfully with a nice, tart mineral edge and no hint of sweetness. A slight bitterness creeps into the finish that kept this wine from reaching its full potential for pleasure. Score: around 8. Cost: $10. Where to Buy?
2006 Iron Horse Vineyards Rosato di Sangiovese, Alexander Valley, Sonoma
Medium rose pink in color, this wine has a chalky nose of mineral and red berry aromas. On the tongue it has a nice balance of strawberry, mineral, and lightly herbal flavors, making for an intriguing finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $10. Where to Buy?
2005 Iron Horse Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir, Green Valley, Sonoma
Light to medium garnet in color this wine has a nose of cranberry and tart plum aromas. In the mouth it provides a nice purity of cranberry and plum fruit, juicy with acidity. Nicely balanced and poised, this wine is a beautiful expression of fruit, but lacking much tannic structure, it remains somewhat simple as a result. Regardless, it is a pleasure to drink. Score: around 9. Cost: $29. Where to Buy?
2005 Iron Horse Vineyards “Thomas Road Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Green Valley, Sonoma
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a nose of classic cranberry and less usual floral aromas. In the mouth it offers primary flavors of cranberries, underscored by a deeper earthiness that provides a nice complexity in combination with light tannins. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $75. Where to Buy?
2004 Iron Horse Vineyards “Q Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Green Valley, Sonoma
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of herbs, pomegranate, and strawberry aromas. On the palate it is silky and light on the tongue with primary, nicely complex flavors of raspberry and redcurrant that linger into a pleasant finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $75.
2004 Iron Horse Vineyards Thomas Road Vineyard Pinot Noir Green Valley, Sonoma
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a nose of slightly gamey aromas mixed with cranberry and other red fruit aromas. In the mouth it is tart, with briary flavors of cranberry and saddle leather. Light tannins bring a slight greenness of flavor into the finish that stops short of being objectionable, and instead merely resolves into a nice personality for the wine. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $75.
2004 Iron Horse Vineyards “T-Bar-T BDX3” Bordeaux Blend, Alexander Valley, Sonoma
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a fruit driven nose of juicy plum and cassis aromas. In the mouth it offers flavors of cassis and blackberry that lean a bit to far to the candied end of the spectrum for my tastes, despite a nice tart core to the wine and good balance. The wine is missing a depth and complexity that would make it more compelling, though it is decidedly pleasant. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $36.