Iron Horse Vineyards Sparkling Wines: Effervescent and Irresistible
5th October 2023
With her effervescent nature, Joy Sterling couldn’t be more suited for making sparkling wine. When I asked her what she wanted people to know about their sparkling wines, she called them irresistible.
“Once you’ve tried them,” she said, “you wake up at 3:00 in the morning with an undeniable thirst for Iron Horse and nothing else will do.”
Make no mistake, Joy is serious about sparkling wine. She has poured what she learned from her television news career, with her deep knowledge and amazing network, into Iron Horse. Her dedication and tireless energy have propelled the family business to the pinnacle of California sparkling wine.
The proof: consecutive U.S. Presidential administrations served Iron Horse sparkling wines at State dinners. Even the 1985 Geneva summit between Reagan and Gorbachev served these wines.
Her family’s 47-year quest for continuous quality improvement goes on unabated. Audacious as she is, she’s already planning for the 50th and 100th anniversaries.
Californians Audrey and Barry Sterling arrived in Sonoma County in 1976, the 200th anniversary of the United States. After living in France, they wanted a vineyard property to make the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay they loved. Locals told them to move east and plant Cabernet Sauvignon instead.
Then they tasted a bottle of 1974 Pinot Noir, the first vintage from the original Iron Horse vineyard. Though the vines and the wine were young, the wine was electrifying. They had found their special place on earth and Barry had just turned 50.
Location Location Location
Sonoma pioneer Rodney Strong planted the vineyard in 1971, knowing it was special. And so did the Sterlings. In 1983, they filed and attained American Viticultural Area (AVA) status for Green Valley of the Russian River Valley.
The bowl-shaped vineyard hides in the northern part of the valley. Its soils and climate are unique and deliver wines with consistent and distinct characteristics. Called Gold Ridge, the soils are made of sandy loam over sandstone which adds finesse and minerality to the wines.
Fog from the nearby Pacific Ocean travels into the valley through the Petaluma Gap. This fog layers over the vineyard into the morning and again in the afternoon, shielding vines from harsh sunlight. This allows grapes to hang longer and develop deeper flavors accented with a subtle salinity. The fog also helps keep the acidity that is needed for spectacular sparkling wines.
With such perfect conditions for exceptional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Iron Horse wines are optimally balanced and silky in texture. All the wines are vintage made only from estate fruit.
Because the land is not only their business and livelihood, but their home, three generations of the family live and work in the vineyards and control every aspect, from vineyard to bottle.
Joy’s brother, Laurence, uses ‘precision farming’ techniques for individual blocks and vines to grow expressive grapes of the highest quality.
The search for continuous improvements in farming, technologies, and regenerative and sustainable practices goes on. And this applies not only to the land but to the people and community surrounding it.
The results speak for themselves. These sparkling wines exceed French quality standards and age extremely well, but they are delightful and drinkable upon release. Whether you call them artisan, grower, or family-made, these sparkling wines spark joy with every sip.
The Iron Horse style of sparkling wine blends French restraint with American exuberance. Wines are sophisticated and lively, and so delicious. The enthusiastic winemaking team loves surprising customers with new cuvees (blends.) They currently offer 11 cuvees plus eight available in magnum. A few examples to consider:
- The flagship sparkling: Classic Vintage Brut 2019, combines Champagne elegance with Iron Horse’s vibrant spirit.
- Most popular sparkling: 2019 Wedding Cuvee, a Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir.)
- The White House Go-to sparkling: Russian River 2019 cuvee with a sweeter profile.
- Aged sparkling: Joy! 2006, the latest release of 15-year aged and recently disgorged wine.
- Magic sparkling: Fairy Tale Cuvee 2019, the official sparkling wine of the Magic Kingdom.
Leadership is a Sterling family core value. They are committed stewards of the land, and of their employees, community, and customers. As Joy said, “In our vineyards, winery, gardens, lifestyle, and community life, we strive to give back more than we take out.”
Here are just a few of the many programs they are currently involved with:
- Sonoma County Winegrowers Sustainable and Regenerative certification.
- Salmon habitat restoration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- A pilot program with the California Land Stewardship Institute to study how vineyards using regenerative agricultural practices help moderate the impacts of climate change.
- Supporting rural communities with broadband access, labor and housing needs, and water management.
They also give back through limited edition wines, donating a portion of the proceeds to local organizations. A few of the recent special edition wines are Ocean Reserve 2019 for the Marine Mammal Center, Resilience 2019 for the Sonoma County Resilience Fund, and Gratitude 2019 for the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
The Serendipity of Time
And if all this isn’t enough, the upcoming 50th anniversary of Iron Horse in 2026, will also be Audrey’s 95th birthday, and the 250th for the U.S. Joy, with her grandchildren in mind, is looking ahead to the 100th anniversary of Iron Horse Vineyards in 2076, and the country’s 300th birthday.
It all sounds like a fairy tale, but the family’s vision has always been long term, backed by commitment and hard work. Their legacy of love and sparkling joy goes on!
After a long career as a corporate finance executive, she is now a wine writer and a life/retirement/transformation guide.