Just in time for the holidays, our series explores handful of wineries in the Bay Area making great sparkling wines. We stop by for a tour and tasting, dive in for a little history, and hopefully introduce you to some new bottles to stock up for the celebrations.
From the hill where Iron Horse Vineyards is perched, you can watch the gold and red-brown leaves on the pinot noir and chardonnay vines slowly yield to the approaching winter weather. Not quite dormant, but long picked of fruit, the vines in view from the tasting room offer a direct mental connection that what you have in your glass came from those fields.
Started in the late 1970's by Audrey and Barry Sterling, the business is a family affair. Currently four generations of Sterlings work on the property, including Bill & Audrey's children, Joy (CEO) and Laurence (Operations Manager), focused on estate and vintage and sparkling wines.
This in part makes Iron Horse unique: All sparkling wines are made from estate-grown fruit, made from either chardonnay or pinot noir (or both), all vintage, meaning the fruit comes from a single harvest. And, unlike many other sparkling wine producers who process a whole year's lot at once for the sake of efficiency, Iron Horse processes the lots as they get ordered -- a 2007 harvest might not be released until 2013 if the sparkling isn't needed before then.
Allowing the sparkling wines to age as long as possible in the bottle with the yeast not only develops more flavor, it also creates those precious tiny bubbles. When the wine has been ordered, it is riddled, which basically means maneuvering the dead yeast (called lees) into the neck of the bottle by twisting the bottle at a 45 degree angle over several weeks. Then it's frozen into a plug with glycol, the bottle is opened, and the yeast is removed (called disgorging).
A small amount of wine and usually some sugar is added back in, then the bottle is sealed. The degrees of sweetness vary from their "Brut X" which has no added sugar, to "Bruts" which have some. Nothing here will be sweet, but the best way to know, is to taste.
The tasting room is less of a room and barely more than a covered bar, devoid of walls or much of a floor, yet it somehow -- almost by some woodland fairy magic -- is both charming and elegant. The long wooden bars hold buckets of ice filled with various bottles of their sparkling wine, and the crowd huddled around the bar with glass flutes feels more like a casual and impromptu gathering than sales room.
The tour underscores how tiny the family operation is: from the small bottling line and mostly handmade nature of most of what they produce, including hand riddling for some of the larger formats or odd bottles. There are very good chances that you will meet one of the four generations on the tour or tasting room; this is serious business to the Sterlings.
While you can find their sparkling wines at fine stores like K&L, feel free to make even the flimsiest excuse to travel through the country roads of Sebastopol to sip on their wines overlooking Green Valley. Even on a cold day, the bubbles still keep everyone happy.
Location: 9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol
Tours: $20, Monday-Friday at 10am, by appointment only. Fridays at 10am, winemaker David Munksgard personally leads the tours. Schedule by emailing Lisa Macek: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tastings: $15-$20, depending on tasting, refunded on bottle purchases
Approximate number of wines in the tasting: Five to six
Price range for sparkling wines: Most in the $38-$50 range, with limited and special bottlings more
Yearly production (in cases): 12,000-15,000
Picnic tables/food available: Yes, in the back garden. Some food vendors arrive on special occasions and most of the summer
Best for: Small groups looking to get off the beaten path
Don't miss this on the way to visit: Grab a bite at Zazu Kitchen & Farm in the new Barlow complex