Iron Horse Vineyards
Russian River Valley AVA
Truly one of Sonoma’s most prestigious, small, independent, estate, family-owned wineries
In 1976, when founders Barry and Audrey Sterling first visited the property that was to become Iron Horse Vineyards, they were convinced they were lost. It was driving rain when they crested the knoll on Ross Station Road and saw the 350-acres of gently rolling hills and trees. Within two weeks, the couple bought the property and began to create what has become an iconic Russian River winery called Iron Horse Vineyards. Sterling was 50 at the time, and an accomplished lawyer and international lover of food and wine. His career had taken him to both France and England, where he had learned to appreciate the intricacies and correlations of food and wine. Back home in his native Los Angeles, Barry and Audrey dreamed of owning vineyards and land in Northern California.
Iron Horse Vineyards derived it name from an old railroad engine that used to stop at nearby Ross Station. The distinctive label depiction of a rampant horse on a weathervane came from an actual old weathervane that was discovered on the property during one of the renovations Iron Horse has celebrated. The company’s first release of an estate Pinot Noir occurred in 1979, and the winery grew quickly to around 20,000 cases of annual production. For the recent past, Iron Horse has bottled approximately 30,000 cases and expects to remain at that level, “for the foreseeable future,” according to CEO Joy Sterling.
A unique aspect of Iron Horse is the fact that it began producing sparkling wines almost as early (1980) as it has high quality varietals. These wines have been particularly successful for Iron Horse and have been featured by the past four presidents at the White House. Starting with the Regan-Gorbachev meeting in Geneva in 1985, and including the Bush White House birthday dinner for Pope Benedict XVI on his recent visit, Iron Horse’s wines have continually pleased national and world leaders. Even the Clintons welcomed in the new millennium with Iron Horse Vineyards as a toast. The Obama White House recently placed its first order.
Recently, Iron Horse has become completely self sufficient with regard to grape production that allows it to achieve complete ‘estate bottled’ status. That fact is terribly important to Joy Sterling, “as it allows Iron Horse to fulfill our own destiny.” As an explanation, Sterling said that certain goals have been set with regards to quality, and that the winery is in a new phase of internal development that will allow it to reach the upper levels of wine excellence they believe their property capable of producing.
At this time, Iron Horse produces about 80% estate varietals and the other 20% is sparkling wine. The winery expects to continue at that ratio for a number of years in the future. Iron Horse has recently undergone a “massive” replanting, which began in 2005 and, in the words of Joy Sterling, “Iron Horse is actually part of a never ending program of replanting. When you finally get the first vines you have planted to ultimately reach fruition, it seems like you are ready to start all over again. For that reason we try and identify certain sections for replanting so that the overall fruit quality isn’t affected. Luckily, we have a little over 110 acres to work with, so we have a bit of an advantage over the small growers in that regard.” Iron Horse is truly a family affair and it seems the trend will continue into the future. Joy is joined by her younger brother Laurence who is Iron Horse Vineyards’ director of operations, with primary regard for the company’s extensive vineyards. Laurence’s daughter Justine is already involved with Iron Horse’s website and his other daughter Barrie is studying to become a master sommelier.
This iconic winery of northern California’s Russian River Valley has received such stunning accolades as being named one of the Top 100 International Wineries of the Year by Wine & Spirits in addition to being named an “American Icon” in a coffee table reference book published by Random House in July 2007 alongside American Express, Coca Cola, Harley Davidson, Ipod, Harvard University, the New York Yankees, and Tiffany.
Truly one of Sonoma’s most prestigious, small, independent, estate, family-owned wineries with success stories nothing short of inspiring, Iron Horse Vineyards has had an impressive beginning and holds an equally bright looking future.
Map of the area
Iron Horse 2007 Ocean Reserve
Cheers! We are pleased to feature a limited production, highly-rated selection from Sonoma’s highly acclaimed Iron Horse Vineyards. The 2007 Ocean Reserve is a special cuvée created in partnership with National Geographic. For each bottle sold, Iron Horse Vineyards donates $4 to National Geographic’s Ocean Initiative, which establishes marine protected areas and supports sustainable fishing practices around the world. Who knew saving the planet could be so delicious!
About the Vineyard
Depending on who you choose to believe, the Russian River Region of western Sonoma County is arguably the finest growing area in the entire county. According to industry insiders, the Green Valley AVA that encompasses Iron Horse Vineyards is the finest appellation in the entire Russian River Region.
Given appellation status in 1983 (mainly due to the efforts of Iron Horse’s Barry Sterling), the area benefits greatly from its proximity to the nearby Pacific Ocean and its wonderfully cool nights and breezes that revitalize the vines on a daily basis. One of the smallest appellations in Sonoma County, Green Valley is the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Region. The predominant soil type is Goldridge, the most sought-after type in all of Sonoma County that’s especially desirable for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The fruit of Green Valley is managed by over 100 growers and has become prized by numerous wineries, particularly those who produce cool-climate Burgundian varietals.
David Munksgard - Winemaker
Winemaker at Iron Horse since 1996, David Munksgard possesses a BA in Enology from Cal State University Fresno. Munksgard has also worked at nearby Château St. Jean and a stint in the Finger Lakes region of New York where he sharpened his skills as a sparkling wine winemaker, a necessary proficiency for the sparkling-oriented, multi award-winning wines from Iron Horse.
Munksgard is delighted with Iron Horse's emergence as a totally estate-grown facility, a fact he feels will propel the winery to the lofty reaches of the upper wine world.
Joy Sterling - Partner & CEO
For Joy Sterling, her path in life has been quite apparent since she was a young woman.
"We were living in Paris because my father's business was there,” she recently recalled. "To tell the truth, I loved every minute of it and my family was always going out to the wineries to find new wines. It was a wonderful environment in which to grow up.” Joy returned to the United States to attend Yale University where she majored in history and economics. She first took a job in journalism and was Deputy Network Bureau Chief for ABC News in Los Angeles by the time she was 29. Her job had previously placed her in an important position during the 1984 Olympics. But the call of the vineyards was something she couldn't circumvent and in 1985 she joined her parents at Iron Horse Vineyards.
"My job was to try and put us on the world map,” she confided. Her first major accomplishment was to have the Iron Horse sparkling wine served as President Ronald Regan’s toast to peace at the Mikhail Gorbachev summit in Geneva. Joy Sterling and Iron Horse were instantly international celebrities with the world press and the consuming public. Numerous successes have followed throughout the years, and Iron Horse has arguably become one of California"s most recognized labels. Upon the relatively recent retirement of her parents in 2006, Joy Sterling became the Chief Operating Officer of Iron Horse Vineyards.
Her vision for Iron Horse might be considered lateral in some circles, since Sterling doesn't intend to increase production. "But,” she adds emphatically, "increasing our quality is another thing altogether. Being entirely estate-grown essentially defines our wines. And, in my mind, we are nowhere near done in terms of elevating our quality.” Joy Sterling is inclined to let the home grown fruit do the talking for Iron Horse's portfolio of wines. "That way, David (Iron Horse's winemaker) will be able to pull the flavors that we are seeking out of the ground.” Iron Horse's quality rise began soon after Joy took over the helm at Iron Horse. Her sense of dedication has infected everyone around the winery including long time winemaker David Munksgard.
"Joy has told me that we are really raising the bar,” added the winemaker. "And take it from me, she really means business.” Joy Sterling is also very proud of one of her bell weather wines, the Iron Horse Chardonnay. "When you see the veritable sea of Chardonnay that is produced in California,” she explained, ";many people are hard put to explain how a wine in that category can have its own unique style and flair. We have made our Chardonnay into a lovely wine that our customers have raved about, and it is very exciting to me personally to have had a hand in making it happen.”
While her duties involve a great deal of travel on the marketing end of the business, Joy Sterling is most happy when she is at home at the winery. Each member of the Sterling family has their own home on the winery property, including the old 1876 Victorian that was painstakingly restored by her parents Barry and Audrey who still live there. Joy herself has a home near the entrance of the winery proper and younger brother Laurence and his wife Page and their family live in a home they built overlooking the vineyards. Needless to say, the view is extraordinary.
"All this makes Iron Horse a truly family-oriented business,” she concluded. "It is exactly what my mother and father wanted when they started the business more than thirty years ago. It speaks to the idea of togetherness and their concern for family values. And, when you stop and think about it, that's what it's all about in the end.”
There are few in the wine industry that would be apt to disagree with her.