A Love Story: Iron Horse Vineyards

By Craig Camp
Friday, May 23, 2003

BARRY AND Audrey Sterling went to France for the first time in their thirties. They were already in love with each other. Then they fell in love with France. They still love France; the food, the wine and the lifestyle. In fact they still love Europe, having lived and worked in London and Paris and raised their children there. So why are they living on a farm in a sleepy corner of California’s Sonoma County?

The Sterlings searched long and hard to buy a winery in France, but found nothing with the right feeling. They wanted to make great wine, not just wine. After seven years of frustration they returned to their native California in the mid-seventies and on one rainy day were shown a muddy, hilly vineyard by future partner and son-in-law, Forrest Tancer, and discovered what was to become Iron Horse Vineyards.

Iron Horse is a world unto itself. Hidden away on a group of rolling hills, reminiscent of Tuscany, in the cool Green Valley, it is the opposite experience of visiting the tourist ridden Napa Valley. You have to watch carefully to see the sign for Ross Station Road and then you wind up that narrow country road, through the plum orchards. When you cross the small bridge, which often floods over when it rains, you have arrived at Iron Horse.

Life at Iron Horse is a hybrid between the international sophistication of Paris and the down-home country life of rural Sonoma County. This milieu of experiences and tastes have created not only a unique lifestyle for the Sterling family, but a collection of wines that are as elegant and intelligent as Barry and Audrey themselves.

The Iron Horse experience became a magnet for the Sterling family, pulling their daughter, Joy, from a career in television news and then their son, Lawrence, from a career in law into the family wine business. Joy and winemaker and partner, Forrest Tancer, were married in 1990. Lawrence's wife, Terry, has not only continued her law career, but designs most of Iron Horse's labels and graphics. Iron Horse is truly a family affair.

Life at Iron Horse is graceful and elegant. However, what makes Iron Horse stand out in the world of California wine is the single minded dedication of the Sterlings and winemaker Tancer to making wines that are designed to enhance and elevate the experience of dining. To be clear, I am not talking about the insipid wines that many try to rationalize as "food wines" in an unsuccessful attempt to cover-up the over-production in their vineyards. The wines at Iron Horse have nothing to do with those types of wine, as Tancer makes wines with complexity and depth -- they are just not palate burners.

The wines at Iron Horse are a little schizophrenic, but with good reason. They produce wines from two vineyards: the Sterlings' Iron Horse Vineyard in the chilly, foggy Green Valley, and Tancer's T bar T vineyard in the warmer Alexander Valley. The relatively cool climate of the Green Valley produces the ideal fruit for the Iron Horse sparkling wines and for refined chardonnay and pinot noir, while the T bar T vineyard has just enough warmth to slowly ripen cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, and viognier. These distinct vineyard locations are why Iron Horse can produce wines with such multiple personalities making everything from delicate blanc de blanc sparking wines to Benchmark, a rich red produced from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc.

Understandably, most people know Iron Horse for excellent sparking wines. For me, these wines, produced by the classic Champagne method, are among the few sparkling wines produced in the United States that can challenge French Champagne for complexity and texture. The secret of this is simple enough: not only do they have the right vineyards for producing classic sparking wine from chardonnay and pinot noir, but also they give their wines the extended bottle aging required to make truly complex sparking wines.

However, most people are not as familiar with their stylish and balanced still wines. Their chardonnay wines remind one of well made Chablis, with a hint of California fruit at the finish. Tancer's outstanding pinot noir has a Burgundian, almost Volnay-like balance and finish. The sangiovese and viognier are some of the few California examples of these wines that actually have varietal character. The various Iron Horse wines made from the classic Bordeaux varietals are structured, yet the tannins are well integrated into the ripe but not overripe fruit flavors. Tancer has also created his own blend of sauvignon blanc and viognier, called Cuvee R, which marries beautifully the racy flavor of the sauvignon with the exotic tropical flavors of viognier.

Tancer and the Sterlings have committed themselves to making wines with balanced alcohol, acids, and tannins that are not overripe or over-oaked. That means their wines have the 89 Point Disease. Critics tasting these wines without food and in large groups often miss wines like these that do not hammer their palates into submission. Wines like these are often presented in the press with great tasting notes, but with scores in the high eighties -- just under the radar of buyers driven by The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator. But Iron Horse has discovered the vaccine for 89 Point Disease in the dynamic and vivacious Joy, Iron Horse's director of sales and public relations, whose personal energy and belief in their vision can win over the most jaded tasters to their philosophy.

Lunch with Barry and Audrey in their restored Victorian home at Iron Horse is an elegant yet comfortable affair. First, Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs is poured. Soon Forrest and Joy walk up from their house to join. When the food is ready, Audrey graciously ushers each guest into the dining room and places him or her in just the right seat. Conversation is an art at the Sterling's table and topics range from politics to art, and of course to food. The idea of scores and reviews just don't enter your mind or the conversation as you sip on the silky, perfumed pinot noir, which is beautifully matched with roasted salmon. This is what wine is about. Robert Parker who?