The Barrel Room's Interview with Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards

On March 3 we hosted a dinner with one of our favorite winemakers: Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards. Joy represents the second generation at Iron Horse. She is extraordinarily passionate about her family's legendary wines, and her enthusiasm is contagious. We asked Joy a few questions about her philosophy regarding the wine industry, and a little bit about the history and influence of Iron Horse... check it out below!

What are some of your most memorable wine drinking experiences? 
Among my most memorable wine experience was drinking Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut out of the bottle at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. As you can imagine, the wine gushed all over the place and the combination of the altitude and the excitement of the accomplishment, even just a sip went straight to my head. The first 1,000 feet after leaving the summit down is glacier which we slid down on our backsides and I was so giddy I was singing the “I Feel Pretty” song from Westside Story.

How do you feel the CA wine industry has changed since the inception of Iron Horse? Have these changes affected the style of Iron Horse's wines over the years?
The CA wine world has changed dramatically since my parents found Iron Horse 40 years ago. It’s hard to remember how pioneering it was back then to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir so far west. Even the UC Davis Agricultural Advisors recommended against warning we would loose a third of our crop to frost. Now it is extremely gratifying at the recognition Green Valley has won for making exceptional cool climate wines.

Our wines have changed thanks to a massive replant started in 2005 - a breath taking 10 year  endeavor replacing the original vines planted in 1970 and 1971 that were just too old and under performing. As you can imagine the viticultural knowledge we have today is light years ahead of where it was when Iron Horse was laid out. There was no concept of clonal selection and the vineyard rows were simply tractor width apart.  The result is much, much, much higher quality, greater nuance, complexity and depth of character … and the development of Single Vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, like the Deer Gate Pinot we are having at the dinner, which is my personal favorite.

How do you feel about the wine industry's perception of women in wine? Has this perception changed since you took the reins at Iron Horse?
You know, International Women Day is coming up March 8 and the theme this year is parity: 50-50.  My perception is that women have achieved equity as winemakers, wine buyers, wine writers, growers and winery executives. Over 60 per cent of the students at UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Studies are women. The one area that might still be weak in the upper echelon of the major distribution companies.

Your wine was selected by the White House as the wine to toast to peace at the first summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. How did this come about?
The pillar of our prestige at Iron Horse is that we are now on our fifth consecutive Presidential Administration to serve Iron Horse at the White, beginning with the historic Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings in 1985 that ended the Cold War. Iron Horse was chosen by a Sacramento retailer, David Berkeley, who knew the Reagans from when they were in the Governor’s Mansion. He became their unofficial, unpaid wine advisor. This was very early on for us. Remember, our first vintage of bubbly was 1980. So, this was a real gift. It put us on the map. First and foremost, for the quality and also because of our proximity to the Russian River and that we pertain the town of Sebastopol.

Do you have any advice for new winemakers?
My advice to new winemakers is follow your dreams.

The Barrel Room's Interview with Maynard James Keenan – March 2016

We had the honor of hosting Maynard James Keenan for a Winemaker Dinner focused around his Caduceus Cellars wines from Arizona. Fans of his wine and music were eager to speak with him and he was exceedingly cool and collected, as usual, and made sure to talk with everyone participating. We got the opportunity to ask him some questions for those of you who weren't able to join us. Thanks so much Maynard!

 

What are some of your most memorable wine drinking experiences?
Those experiences can easily be divided into two categories.

First, the moments when you have a focused enlightening experience with a new region, producer, or varietal.

Second, those gatherings where the wine was as important as the company and the dinner.

But truth be told the majority of either flavor of those moments involved an Italian wine.

Soldera Reserva usually makes an appearance.

How has the southwest wine culture changed since you began Caduceus?
It’s changed quite a bit actually. We’ve had a few pioneers reach outside the state. Dos Cabezas and Callaghan have been poured at the White House.

But those were little islands in the middle of a sea of anonymity. We’re slowly changing that. I’ve poured all over the country for 10 years now. As well as through Canada, Europe, and Australia. It’s usually my own wines, but I make sure I tell the whole story of AZ. Otherwise my efforts just seem like a lightning strike. If those i pour for see potential in our region I make sure to let them know that there are easily a dozen winemakers kicking my ass there.

How do you feel about the wine industry's perception of new and upcoming regions? Has this perception changed over the last decade in your opinion?
The world is too damn big and too damn busy for people to be expected to openly accept or even try new things. It’s understandable. But it doesn’t keep us from fighting the good fight. We have potential in AZ. Our state is like a little Italy. So many varieties do so well all over the state. Which works for and against us. Mendoza is Malbec. Easy. We are everything. Not so easy. Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Garnacha, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Mourvedre/Monestrell, Merlot, Aglianico, Petit Verdot all do very well. It’s a good problem to have, but not when it comes to establishing an identity.

What have you found is your biggest challenge making wine in the southwest?
Working together as a state. There are those that still believe you can get away with over cropping. Willamette Valley is a good example of what we are not.

The growers there all agreed from the start that no corners can be cut in the vineyard if you expect to be taken seriously as a region. And they of course all agreed that their wines needed to be 100% Oregon fruit. Otherwise you might as well be manufacturing lunch boxes or baby dolls. That can be done anywhere.

They understood that their wines need to speak of a place. And you can’t expect to do that at 5 tons an acre. Several of the producers are launching a quality control group on March 11th. We’re still working out many of the details, but if you’re interested, check us out at www.ARIZONAVIGNERONSALLIANCE.org

Do you have any advice for new winemakers?
To quote my old extremely practical drunk land lord, "Son. Sell that guitar. Put the money towards some courses in accounting with an eye to the future.”

A friend of mine has a New Zealand wine called "Cash Burn.” You see where I’m going with this? Basically, if you’re going to get into this, know that it won’t be easy. It will be more hardship than romance, but in the end I truly believe it’s worth it.

 

The Barrel Room's Interview with Cathy Corison - January 2016

Our first winemaker dinner of the year was a huge success, thanks largely to Cathy Corison. The reputation her wines carry brought an awesome crowd, and the care she took talking to our guests ensured the evening was one to remember. We are so happy we got the chance to ask a few questions for those who could not attend - thank you Cathy! 

For more on Corison Winery and our winemaker dinner click here. 

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What are some of your most memorable wine drinking experiences? 
Too numerous to count over the 40+ years. But backpacking with a bladder full of Kronos Cabernet is right up there. My husband, William Martin, buys a box of inexpensive wine, drains it and fills it back up with something tasty. If we’re careful, we can make it last for many days. 


How has Napa wine culture changed since you began Corison? 
I started making wine for other people in the 70’s and early 80’s, most notably at Chappellet Vineyard, and then made the first vintage of Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in 1987. It’s hard to believe, but when I arrived in Napa 40 years ago last June, there were 30 wineries in the valley (about 500 now!), the wine industry was still clawing its way out of prohibition, which ended in 1933, and the Napa Valley was economically depressed. Less than a year later the Paris Tasting catapulted Napa on to the world stage and the rest is history.


We love women in wine and The Barrel Room is so impressed by you being the first woman winemaker-proprietor in Napa. What was it like? How do you feel the industry's inclusion of gender has changed or not changed? 
It has been a bumpy road but I have always chosen to focus on doing my best. It’s thrilling to make something that speaks of time and place and makes people happy. Women still make up only 10% of full-control winemakers but they do such a great job that it seems like more. When I did a harvest internship at Freemark Abbey in 1987, I’m pretty sure that was the first year that women had hauled hoses around in a Napa Valley winery (there was another woman in the cellar at Inglenook that harvest). Fast forward to now and women are integrated into all positions in wineries. Pretty exciting.

Do you have any advice for new winemakers? 
If you love wine, just do it.

Memo from The Barrel Room's Winemaker Dinner with Cathy Corison - January 2016

We are impressed by Corison Winery for many reasons. Perhaps most impressive is their dedication to the low alcohol, old world style that was popular in Napa when Corison began in 1987 but has since fallen out of fashion. Many of today's cabernets can be one dimensional and overly fruit-driven, made for marketability and higher American ratings. Cathy's cabernets have made no such sacrifices over the years and remain strikingly herbal and balanced, sometimes provocatively challenging. As a winemaker, Cathy shows the true range of not only cabernet but any varietal she chooses and has created a dedicated following of oenophiles in the process - including us! 

Guest of Honor Cathy Corison pictured in Napa with what are surely some delicious Cabernet grapes! 

Guest of Honor Cathy Corison pictured in Napa with what are surely some delicious Cabernet grapes! 

We are also impressed by the incredible story Corison reveals about a very unique time in Napa and world winemaking history. 

Before starting Corison Cathy had spent many years working for various vineyards throughout the region, notably Freemark Abbey - one of the first US wineries to win at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. When Cathy began her winery 11 years after that momentous year, she became the first ever female winemaker-proprietor winery in the United States.

 Even more extraordinary is the unique vineyards Corison developed. Cathy found a near-abandoned vineyard for very low cost early on in her search, a vineyard thought to be out of commission and in need of replanting due to phylloxera-susceptible vines.  After further independent research near the end of escrow on the land, she found out the cabernet vines were in fact phylloxera resistant - grown on what is called St. George rootstock. This makes the grapes from this vineyard, dubbed "Kronos," some of the oldest, phylloxera-unaffected in Napa.

With this context and poised with such greatness, Corison's incredible contribution to the world of wine is indisputable. 

Barrel Room staff enjoying a tasting at Corison Winery in Napa Fall 2015.

Barrel Room staff enjoying a tasting at Corison Winery in Napa Fall 2015.

In addition to cabernet, Cathy produces handful of other varietals under her Corazon and Helios labels, including gewurztraminer, syrah and cabernet franc, among others. She also makes a rose de cabernet under Corazon in limited quantities which is absolutely spectacular! The cabernets are produced under the Corison label, with special Kronos productions featuring single vineyard grapes prized for the age and quality of the vines. 

Our lineup!

Our lineup!

For our winemaker dinner we opted for five courses designed to highlight what Corison is best known for, and so cabernet was the star of three of our five courses. Not pictured is our Barrel Room Cuvee by Hures Freres selected for the first course. 

The cuisine menu for the night was crafted by Executive Chef Manuel Hewitt with careful consideration of the wines and consultation of Wine Director Sarah Trubnick. Executed on January 21st 2016. For our short interview with Cathy click here. 

We started the night right with a classic champagne pairing of marin miyagi oysters and The Barrel Room Cuvee by Hures Freres - a classic pairing - followed by the 2012 Corazon gewurztraminer paired with a tarte flambee of fromage blanc, figs, lardons, caramelized onions, arugula, currant gastrique and creme fraiche.

Tarte flambee of fromage blanc, figs, lardons, caramelized onions, arugula, currant gastrique and creme fraiche, paired with the 2012 Corazon Gewurztraminer. 

Tarte flambee of fromage blanc, figs, lardons, caramelized onions, arugula, currant gastrique and creme fraiche, paired with the 2012 Corazon Gewurztraminer. 

Though both the tarte and the wine were delicious individually, their pairing ended up being the least favorite of the night. Most who we talked to expressed difficulty with the arugula's bitterness overtaking the delicate structure of the wine.

At the same time many saw the concept, appreciating the figs bringing out fruity expressions in the wine and noting how well the aromatics worked together. Alas, pairing is an art that takes balance and risk...  On to the favorites! 

Seared wild mushrooms served with baby red beets, duxelles, toasted walnuts, beetroot vinaigrette, and parmesan crisp, paired with the 2010 Corison Cabernet.

Seared wild mushrooms served with baby red beets, duxelles, toasted walnuts, beetroot vinaigrette, and parmesan crisp, paired with the 2010 Corison Cabernet.

We paired the 2010 Corison Cabernet - currently featured on our USA focused menu - with seared wild mushrooms served with baby red beets, duxelles, toasted walnuts, beetroot vinaigrette, and parmesan crisp. The wine alone is austere and herbal, lacking any smacking dose of fruit. It was a colder season in 2010 and this worked to enhance the grape's natural pyrazines - the chemical that creates a vegetal flavor - sometimes forgotten yet essential to cabernet.

Stephen Deyton, a Barrel Room Partner, described this pairing best, commenting that "Actually the mushrooms with the 2010 was my favorite pairing... because I didn't like the 2010 alone. The herbal quality was too much but with the microgreens and the sorel it was perfectly balanced, allowing the wine to shine more vibrantly." Some of the best pairings are the ones that make you think twice about a previous judgment, elevating what you first experienced as less than ideal to something you can truly appreciate. 

Next we paired the 2013 Corison Cabernet with rack of lamb served with roasted garlic gremolata, roasted winter vegetables, and honey lamb jus.

Rack of lamb served with roasted garlic gremolata, roasted winter vegetables, and honey lamb jus, paired with the 2013 Corison Cabernet.

Rack of lamb served with roasted garlic gremolata, roasted winter vegetables, and honey lamb jus, paired with the 2013 Corison Cabernet.

The 2013 Corison is definitely more fruit-driven than the 2010, with softer tannins as well, but just as much complexity and acidity we've come to expect from Corison! The tender lamb meat cooked perfectly with just a touch of natural sugar from the vegetables made for a classic symbiotic pairing: the food bringing out the cabernet's herbal undertones and the wine bringing out the dish's delicate sweetness. The 2013 was definitely a favorite on it's own, with 2013 having been said to be one the best years for Napa cabernet. 

The last and house favorite of the night was the red wine braised short rib of prime american wagyu, brown butter mashed potatoes, veal glace and baby carrots, paired with the 2012 Kronos Cabernet.

Red wine braised short rib of prime american wagyu, brown butter mashed potatoes, veal glace and baby carrots, paired with the 2012 Kronos Cabernet.

Red wine braised short rib of prime american wagyu, brown butter mashed potatoes, veal glace and baby carrots, paired with the 2012 Kronos Cabernet.

The wine alone is incredibly balanced, with ripe yet elegant fruit and the rich minerality that comes from mature vines. This wine comes entirely from the Kronos vineyards of St. George rootstock, producing wine from incredibly low yields and some of the oldest cabernet vines in Napa. The tannins and acidity of this particular vintage were just firm enough to be paired with a richer dish and we took full advantage of that. This wine "made the food explode," as one of the dinner's participant's said, with the flavors creating a perfect harmony of savory and sweet. This was certainly the most indulgent pairing of the night.  

Thanks to all who participated and above all to Cathy for rocking the event! If you are interested in our future dinners please check out http://www.barrelroomsf.com/new-events  - we are hosting some truly excellent winemakers this year.