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Monday, February 18, 2013

Luncheon at Iron Horse

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: My penultimate posting from the series of pieces I wrote in 1989 celebrating a cross-country car trip with my wife, Susan. We’d met Joy Sterling, who is now CEO of Iron Horse, at wine events in Albany, and thus won an invitation to lunch at their winery. This was written on September 14, 1989, and published in the Schenectady Gazette three months later.


WHEN YOU’RE INVITED for lunch at the Iron Horse winery, it’s like being asked to Barry and Audrey Sterling’s house. In fact, you eventually are asked to their house for post-prandial coffee on the back porch, which is surrounded by the vines and vegetables that contributed to your meal.

Iron Horse Vineyards | Photo by Andy Katz
But first there’s the assembly on a patio outside the offices. You’re poured champagne – we tasted the 1985 Late Disgorged Brut (more about that later) – and you’re introduced to the other guests.

The Sterlings have created their very own piece of the Champagne region of France. They want their sparkling wines to be the equal of the best French product (they probably want it to be superior of same but are too modest to come right out and say so).

There’s a ch√Ęteau-like ambience about the place, or so I’ve decided. Having never been to France I can’t be dead sure, but those fancy Bordeaux estates had better look like the Sterlings’ property or I’m going to be very disappointed.

The back-porch palaver reveals just how international an assemblage we have. There are guests from Austria, there’s a young man from England touring the country, I’m sure I hear a French accent somewhere – and there are some sunglasses-wearing guys from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the governmental agency that, incredibly, is given the task of regulating U.S. wine production. But, like all the others, these men are here as invited guests and there’s nothing at all officious in their conversation.

We also have a wine expert from Long Island in our midst. Now I, too, brought a suit and tie to California, but I learned at my last winery tour that such garb is discouraged in these neighborhoods. The Expert clings to his long-sleeves-and-necktie look throughout the afternoon. When you think of fine wine, too often an image of this kind of fellow also comes to mind. He’s the type who makes an embarrassing ritual of tasting it, swirling the glass a little too long, studying the legs, the impression left on the edge of the glass by receding fluid, a little too closely. And he rushes to teach the rest of us all about it like some saintly savant.

Barry graciously puts this whole wine thing in perspective as he starts us on a tour. “The first bottle my wife and I ever shared, when we were first dating,” he says, “was a Lancer’s Rose. I thought it was especially good because she could save the bottle.”

His wine education – and hers – became something dauntingly complete. Their idea of a vacation is a trip libating through France, checking to see what the competition is up to.

The payoff? Iron Horse has superb sparkling wines (they’re never so bold as to use champagne on their product because, quite simply, it doesn’t come from the so-named region in France). A product so good that it has been chosen not only for White House consumption but also was served at a recent much-publicized summit meeting.

They’re still in the middle of the harvest, but it’s the tenth anniversary for Iron Horse and the weather is awfully pleasant out here this time of year, so a series of Harvest Lunches is underway, a celebration with food and wine.

Everything moves easily around here, with a simple grace that seems characteristic of northern California. The workers are all friendly, pausing to show us the various steps in the winemaking process. We see grapes on vines, grapes in hoppers, grapes in huge pressing machines. But even the bees, which pick and buzz at the masses of fruit, seem pleasantly eager to share with us. Nobody is bothered by the insects.

This gracefulness, this ease flows in amusing contrast to the wine itself. Sparkling wines are a violent family (you’ve seen the warnings on the cheap stuff), fermented twice to give them that essential sparkle.

All wines require sugar to get things started, but one of the secrets behind the bone-dry character of the good sparklers is the natural sweetness of the grapes. Which feeds the yeast during the first fermentation, in large tanks.

The second fermentation takes place in the bottle, which is what makes sparkling wines so labor-intensive. Racks and racks of these bottles sit floor to ceiling in a temperature-controlled warehouse, all of the bottles angled neck down. Into that neck spills the sediments, the waste from the process. And the bottles must be turned frequently to assure an even process.

This is called riddling. It can be done by machine or by hand, and Barry himself has at times had to make the slow turns, bottle by bottle, that riddling requires. “You think deep thoughts. You solve the world’s problems. And you can be assured that nobody bothers you.”

That plug of sediment is eventually disgorged and the bottled topped off with an identical wine – or one that has been specially seasoned to give a batch its particular character. The hardcore enthusiasts have different preferences among disgorgement dates, many preferring it be as late as possible in the process – hence the name of the brew we sampled on the patio.

It’s lunchtime now, and Terry Anderson is the chef for today. She comes from the California Culinary Association in San Francisco and has the delightful challenge of devising a menu using fresh items from the Sterlings’ garden.

A vegetable salad is one result, a collection of different marrows with a piquant vinegar kick. And there are vegetable-based pastas to choose among. Nestled in another salad are scallops, shrimp and mussels. There’s a basket of fresh-baked bread.

A camera crew from the Today show has arrived to gather some actuality footage of people going up to buffet line for food. I oblige them by returning twice.
– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 23 December 1989

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