You know what's frustrating? When you drive up to a winery that's beautiful and appears super laid back -- with a table and a few old wine barrels in a barn for a tasting area and a gorgeous view of the Green Valley of Sonoma -- and the wines are outstanding but the person serving you is so unbelievably snobby that you wish you'd never come. Add on top of that the fact that he nearly makes another patron cry because he's so nasty, and you've got a really BAD start to the day.
I'll admit that in years past, my perception of Sonoma was generally more positive than Napa -- the people are more laid back, the wineries more casual, and the vibe more farm-like. But my perception has changed significantly, both from some great experiences in Napa (Chateau Montelena, Lava Vine, Chappellet, and Frog's Leap to name a few) and from a few visits to wineries in Sonoma. Sadly, Iron Horse proved that folks in Sonoma can be even worse than the snobbiest Napa winery.
First, let me tell you about Iron Horse and why I was so excited to visit: they make some of the best American sparkling wine available. I'm not the only one on this bandwagon -- for the last 25 years, every chef for the President of the US has served this wine at state dinners, starting in 1986 when the Winery created the "Summit Cuvee" to commemorate the "let's end the Cold War" meeting (I was a Poli Sci major in college, so I'd better know it was really called the Reykjavik Summit) between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Started in 1976 by Audrey and Barry Sterling, the Winery has always specialized in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for their foggy, cool, frost prone vineyards. Named for a train that used to stop at the station nearest their property, the Winery has an iron-clad reputation for amazing sparkling, which they first produced in 1980. All their fruit is grown on the estate and their production is pretty small, so they have a lot of control over quality. I've served their wines at some very nice events before and had heard that the property was stunning and very normal, so even though most of their stuff is only available via direct sales/the Internet it seemed like an ideal place to come.
But alas, sometimes the people make the experience. I can't and won't take away from the fact that the wines are terrific, but the guy who helped us was smug and downright rude -- not just to me (I'm a blogger so some people hate having me around) but to everyone else there too. He did the classic wine snob thing -- dropping names of winemakers he knows, bloggers and critics he has met that far outstrip me in repute, and then he starting spouting off clone names for every wine.
I was already a little queasy and then I saw that the show wasn't just for me. He was shunning people's requests for help in directing their tasting (they had about 15 bottles of wine open, way too many in my opinion -- most people only want to try 4 -5 wines per winery and allowing them that much selection isn't helpful), and refusing to do more than offer a one sentence explanation of any wine (and those explanations were far from helpful, since who really needs to know the clone and rootstock selection for each grape? Most normal people don't need to know why a clone or rootstock matters!).
But his most egregious behavior wasn't towards me. It was when the lovely ladies Lynn and Gloria walked up with a voucher from the Hotel Healdsburg (a VERY beautiful, high-end hotel with the most comfortable beds EVER!) for a free flight. Lynn was smart, modest, and nice -- a totally normal person -- and she didn't know what a flight was (a tasting of 3 or more wines. They should call it samples or tastings, but it's just industry jargon!). She thought the voucher was for 2 glasses of wine. Snobby guy shoved the tasting menu in her face and told her to "pick one." She was confused about what "one" meant and tried to ask him but he walked away. The tasting area wasn't that busy, he just didn't want to bother to explain to Lynn what a flight was.
I was taking notes on the wine when I saw this situation right next to me. I didn't want Lynn to feel worse, so I didn't say anything right away but when she saw me tasting and writing, she asked for some help. I told her what a flight was and we talked about wine and what to look for in the glass and she told me how horrible the guy made her feel. She was visibly shaken by the experience and was relieved to talk to another wine person who wasn't mean spirited. We were fast friends -- she and Gloria were lovely normal wine people but their experience at Iron Horse could have really tainted their perception of wine people, had we not had our chat.
I tell you this story as a tale of caution. If you get attitude like this from a Winery or from a wine person, don't let it shake you. I've been in this business a while and I'm a New Yorker with a tough skin, but this is universally appalling behavior and if it happens to you, know that you're not alone. Either ignore the guy and drink what you want or leave immediately. No need for this kind of attitude.
So with that harrowing tale of "hospitality," although I give Iron Horse the utmost credit for making divine sparkling, I can't recommend visiting (or if you do, don't talk to the staff!).
I had asked to review only the four top wines, but the snob kept on pouring, so I'll do just quick hits on the 8 (yes that's right, and I wasn't thrilled) wines he had me try:
Wine 1: 2006 Ocean Reserve, Sparkling
Grapes: 100% Chardonnay
Quick hit: $4 from every bottle goes to National Geographic's Campaign to preserve and restore the world's oceans. The wine was platinum in color with super small and lasting bubbles. It smelled like green apple and petrol and was über dry. It was lemony, like tart green apples, and very fresh, crisp, and spritzy. The wine was pretty acidic and much more austere than a lot of other sparklers so it would be great with stuff like oysters or chevre cheese (goat). Great bottle.
Wine 2: 2007 Wedding Cuvée, Sparkling
Grapes: 88% Pinot Noir, 12% Chardonnay
Quick hit: This is the largest production of all Iron Horse's wine (nearly 5,000 cases made) and the one you're most likely to find "out there." It's a Rosé sparkler so it was salmon colored (more like lox than grilled salmon), with a very small bead (bubble), which is generally an indication of high quality sparkling. It wasn't very aromatic, but the taste was great. It was like strawberry, raspberry, and pear and punishingly dry -- which I loved. The wine was crisp and a little sharp but really balanced by those fruit flavors. What a refreshing, lovely wine. This is always a winner. A fantastic wine.
Wine 3: 2007 Brut X, Sparkling
Grapes: 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay
Quick hit: This wine is named "X" because it's extra dry. It's very different from the previous two in that the wine was fermented in barrels so even though it's drier, it's also a little more full-tasting and complex in flavor. The wine was more golden than the Ocean Reserve due to the higher percentage of Pinot Noir and oak aging. It smelled spicy and herbal -- like marjoram if you've ever had that or used it in cooking. It reminded me a little bit of the "Clean Cotton" smell from an air freshener -- not in a bad way though. I liked the wine but it was a bit green tasting (like plant stems) and bitter. The acidity seemed very high and even though the alcohol level was the same as all the others, at 13.5%, the wine seemed more alcoholic as well. What made this sing though, was the toasted bread quality of the wine that balanced and "warmed up" the cooler, greener flavors. It's a great wine because of this balance, although I prefer the previous two.
Wine 4: 2003 Brut LD (Late Disgorged)
Grapes: 50% Pinot Noir, 50% Chardonnay
Dork out note on disgorgement: After sparkling wine goes through its secondary fermentation in the bottle, the wine sits on lees (a nice way of saying dead yeast). If you want the sparkling wine to be clear and not cloudy, you've got to get that stuff out of the mix. This is done by slowly rotating the bottle over months so that the neck is facing down (riddling). In this way, the yeast cells wind up just where you want 'em -- near the mouth of the bottle. Sparkling winemakers are smart. When they put the yeast/sugar in for the second fermentation, they stick a cap inside the wine that will catch all the nasty lees. When the bottle is finally upside down, they freeze the cap with the junk in it and ease it out to make sure the minimum amount of liquid is lost and then top the wine off with a little extra still wine (dosage) and a cork. The process of getting out those lees is called disgorgement. This one was done late, which means the wine hung out with the lees a little longer than the other wines.
Quick hit: With age and more contact with lees, wine gets darker. This one was like gold jewelry. I didn't love the smell of this wine -- it was kind of yeasty (but not bread-like) and a little dirty smelling, like unwashed clothes. Like the others it had great acid, but the flavors were more developed and the wine was less spritzy -- typical of an older sparkler. Instead of a tart green apple, the wine tasted more like a golden delicious apple and it was lemony and like a buttermilk biscuit. That said, there was a bitterness to that I didn't love. It was creamy but almost like sour cream instead of soft heavy cream. Of all the wines this was my least favorite. It could just need more age in the bottle, but for now I wasn't in love.
Wine 5: Russian Cuvée (formerly Summit Cuvée -- this is the one Reagan and Gorbachev enjoyed)
Grapes: 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay
Quick hit: This very pale, platinum colored wine is a little bit sweeter than the others and much fruitier. The wine has more than double the sugar of the others and you can tell. It's really pleasant though. The wine smelled very clean and bready, and a little like fresh green herbs. It was like a bubbly Grüner Veltliner, but a little sweeter. There was a tropical fruit note and a little bit of that white pepper/arugula lettuce character that I always find in Grüner. The only difference -- really awesome raspberry and ripe apple notes were prominent. I loved it -- sugar and all.
Quick hit: The wine was pale with a golden rim and super shiny. It smelled like apples, caramel, toasted bread, pineapples, and lemon cookies -- typical of Sonoma Chardonnay, in my experience. To taste, it was a little more like green apples and green herbs, but it had a candied flavor -- like lemon or pineapple candies that I didn't love. It was slightly artificial tasting. Not a bad wine, but I'd rather drink their bubbles.
Wine 7: Native Yeast Chardonnay
Dork out note: This wine is made using just the yeast that occurs naturally on the grape skins, not by motivating fermentation by using lab created stuff. This is an Old World technique and it's risky -- sometimes the yeast can produce uneven fermentation, take longer, and create more "natural" flavors (ie, FUNK) but I usually prefer the taste. It's normally a little dirty.
Quick hit: This straw colored wine had a golden rim, the only indication that it may be oaky (oak darkens white wine). These barrels are bent/shaped using water, not fire, and that's supposed to make the oak influence less jarring. It did...on the palate. But I smelled a nail polish, chemically oak note alongside the green apple in this wine that wasn't really motivating me to pop it in my mouth. That said, it was far better tasting than smelling. It was light, a little herbal, and tasted like green apples and limes -- not the big oak I expected. A nice refreshing wine, but for $48 bucks you could get a Chablis or White Burgundy that would knock the socks off this...(sorry, I have an MBA so I'm always thinking about Opportunity Costs!)
I'm not going to review the 2008 Pinot Noir, which was $50. I don't know whether I was on overload or if it was just not good to me, but my notes are not positive for this one and the final scribble in my book o'wines says "They need to stick with sparkling." That was my takeaway from Iron Horse's wines, so it makes sense!
So to wrap, the gorgeous view and fabulous wines are winners, but I'd stay as clear away from the people serving you the wine as possible -- especially if it's a hipster guy. A place that can nearly make kind people like Lynn cry by being so demeaning and condescending is not a place for normal wine people.
Hotel Healdsburg should probably find another, friendlier place to send its guests for complimentary tastings. That said, if you're shopping at home for an American sparkler, this is an awesome choice.