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.