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Friday, January 05, 2018

Sparkling Solutions

From the Wine Cellar Dept.: I attended and wrote about the Albany American Wine Festival for several years – here’s one such account – and for its 1998 edition (one of the last), I interviewed Joy Sterling, part of the family that owns and operates Iron Horse, a winery in California’s Sonoma Valley. (Here’s a piece about a visit to the winery in 1989.)


THERE ARE MANY GOOD REASONS for sampling wine at an event like the Desmond’s Twelfth Annual Albany American Wine Festival, which takes place in two weeks. We’ve recently learned that wine is good for the heart and good for the eyes. We’ve long known that it’s good for the sense of well-being. Nothing sets off good food better than good wine. In short, it adds sparkle to life.

Joy Sterling
But add a little sparkle to the wine and you’ve got the makings of a celebration. Champagne is the beverage of the best parties, whether you’re celebrating a wedding with many, an anniversary with another, or the turn of the year with half the world. With the turn of the millennium approaching, champagne consumption is expected to soar. But, in the opinion of Iron Horse Winery’s Joy Sterling, “There won’t be enough.”

She’s talking about the good stuff, vintage wine made from a single year’s harvest and fermented the old-fashioned way, as opposed to cheap plonk that’s more or less carbonated. “Anybody who’s buying non-vintage French champagne is making a mistake,” she says, “when you can buy vintage California sparkling wine for the same price. Being a particular vintage makes a difference – it affects how long the wine is aged on the yeast, and results in a richer, creamier, smoother finish.”

An out-of-the-way railroad stop in Sonoma County was turned into a vineyard by dancer-turned-oenophile Rodney Strong some 30 years ago. Barry and Audrey Sterling had been searching for a winery for several years when they visited the property in the mid-70s; with help from Strong’s former vineyard manager, Forrest Tancer, they began Iron Horse with the ambition of building it into a world-class winery.

“Last October, we were honored by having our 1990 Blanc de Blancs LD served at the China Summit,” says Joy. “We believe that Iron Horse personally ended the cold war – it was served by President Reagan at summits with Gorbachev in Geneva and Washington, D.C., and George Bush chose it for the signing of the START Treaty in Moscow. Iron Horse is U.S. foreign policy.”

Iron Horse has produced special cuvées for several of the country’s leading chefs and restaurateurs, and even produced “Barbra Cuvée” for Barbra Streisand’s 1994 Las Vegas New Year’s Eve Concert.

As for the 1999-2000 New Year’s Eve, “we’re going to see a world-wide shortage of vintage sparkling wine,” Joy says. “The youngest Iron Horse wine we’ll offer will be from 1994. But I think of it as a golden problem. As a California girl, I want to ride this wave perfectly. Even with our limited production, it positions us for what happens in 2000 and beyond. And just think – in 2000, the year alone will make everything you celebrate seem that much more memorable!”

Joy, who joined the business in 1985, is Barry and Audrey’s daughter; she and winemaker Tancer consolidated the family nature of the business by marrying five years later, when Joy’s brother Laurence and his wife Terry also came on board. Along with the sparkling wines that have made the winery famous are a number of still wines, including notable Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “This spring we’re introducing a new one, too,” says Joy, “that’s a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, which Forrest has named Renée, in honor of his mother. It includes his encomium to her on the label, so it’ll score big points with mothers everywhere.

Your best opportunity to sample Iron Horse’s wines – sparkling and still – comes at the Desmond’s festival, which runs Fri.-Sun., Feb. 6-8. And you’ll be able to make your choice of millennium wines by comparing all manner of bubbly from around the country.

Twelve years ago, the notion of an all-American wine festival seemed slightly mad. Despite admirable intrusions onto the palates and into the pocketbooks of wine-lovers, could this country’s wines carry a weekend-long event without help from Europe, never mind Australia and South American? Look at it this way: it’s become a mark of prestige to participate in this festival. Over 120 wineries have signed to do so this year. Following a schedule that has evolved over the past decade, the weekend begins with a Friday trade day tasting; for the general public, there’s a late-night buffet with the wineries.

Seminars on a Saturday or Sunday morning? Sounds unnecessarily academic, yet the seminars – featuring some of the outstanding talents in the industry – are always festival high points. Early each afternoon there’s a microbeer garden lunch; for the rest of the afternoon, visit the Grand Tastings, where winemakers, winery owners, distributors and other wine people personally introduce you to their wares. Friday and Saturday evenings feature wine dinners, both buffet and a more formal event in the Scrimshaw Restaurant each night–but these are selling out, so you’ll want to check right now to see what’s available.

Although complete weekend packages are sold out and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a room for the night, you can reserve tickets for the individual events by calling 464-xxxx. The Desmond is at 660 Albany-Shaker Rd. in Colonie.

Metroland Magazine, 15 January 1998

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