Iron Horse Vineyards

The first time we ever heard about the sparkling wines of Iron Horse, it was because Ronald Reagan served it to Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House.  It was such a funny name that we wanted to learn more about it, but it took us a while to actually visit the winery.  As to the funny name, it comes from a railroad spur that was erected in the 19th century specifically to serve a nearby winery.  The fact that Iron Horse is located on Ross Station Road in Sebastopol indicates there was once a stop there.

Aside from the wines, which we’ll get to later, there are three reasons to visit Iron Horse.  The first of these is that it is family-owned.  In these days of corporate takeovers, it’s a good idea to support the families who develop, farm and vinify on their own.  Sure, there are software zillionaires who buy wineries as a hobby.  They have families, too, but they’re not real wine people.  We should all help to make sure that these traditions continue.

Tasting at Iron Horse.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

The second is the tasting room.  Or, rather, make that the tasting “room”.  It’s actually an extended shed with a porch outside and an overhanging wooden roof (so that tasting is possible on a rainy day).  On that porch, there are rough-hewn planks suspended between wine barrels.  Here you can sip rather elegant sparkling wines, physically proving that these wines don’t have to be reserved for fancy occasions.

The view from the Iron Horse tasting “room”.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

Finally, if you tear yourself away from looking at the wines and turn around, there is one of the most impressive vineyard views in Sonoma County, or maybe anywhere.  The tasting area (let’s stop calling it a room) is atop a steep hill and the vineyards extend through the valley below.  So when you visit, don’t just stand at the “bar” (there’s something about the Iron Horse experience that just demands quotation marks).  Turn around a look over the rows of vines, or better still take your glass and sit on a bench, soaking in both the wine and the view.

As to those wines, Iron Horse does make some still wines, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  There’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re not the reason to visit.  Iron Horse is famed for its sparklers, and justly so.  They make twelve (!) different sparkling wines, ranging from an ultra-brut to a somewhat sweet wine that they claim is the best choice for a toast.  Their biggest seller (and the one often served at the White House, over five more administrations) is their Wedding Cuvee.  The name is clever marketing for a beverage that often accompanies nuptial celebrations.  They say that it’s their “interpretation” (those danged quote marks again) of a Blanc de Noir, but they use some Chardonnay so it’s not really pure white wine from red grapes.

It seems that Iron Horse hasn’t been served at the White House in the current administration.  So, come on, Joe, get with the program.

We admit to a weakness for any winery that still offers service behind two barrels and a plank, but as noted there are lots of reasons to visit Iron Horse.  It’s a bit of a trek across Sonoma County to the far reaches of Green Valley, but’s it’s worth the trip.

Champagne: Les Petites Maisons

If we asked you to name ten Champagne houses, without giving it any thought, we’d bet your initial choices would include some or all of Moet & Chandon, Mumm’s, Taittinger, Veuve Cliquot, Pommery…and then you’d slow down a bit.  Oh, yes, Perrier-Jouet, Pol Roger…a little more thought and maybe you’d come up with Roederer, Deutz or Piper-Heidsieck, to round out the ten.  Or maybe not.

The point is that for most of us, our knowledge of Champagne is restricted to a handful of the biggest names, the ones that are always available and occupy the most shelf space in our local wine stores.  But there are more than 2,000 producers of real French Champagne, of which approximately 370 are considered the Grandes Marques, the most prestigious of them all.  Now, very few of us have tasted anything close to 370 Champagnes, much less 2,000 of them.  So, if you have the chance to taste a Champagne other than the very few at the top brands in terms of popularity, it will be something new to your taste buds.

We have four categories of Champagnes: the super premiums, the top sellers, the “oh, yeah, I’ve heard of them”, and then the truly small, little known producers.  The super premiums include wines such as Dom Perignon from Moët et Chandon, Krug Crystal and Comtes de Champagne from Taittinger.  These cost a lot and are hardly for routine drinking unless you own a hedge fund or are a Russian oligarch.  More frequently, we buy the wines that we know, the ones on the list of ten we challenged up front, because…well, because we know them.

There are plenty of Champagnes in that third category, which you may have heard about.  These might include Lanson, Nicolas Feuillatte or Philliponat.  They tend to be a bit less expensive than the Big Names (English for Grandes Marques) and some are excellent.  But some are somewhat disappointing.  So if you decide to be a little adventurous and try some Champagne you’ve never tasted before, why not go all the way and get one of the Petites Maisons, or little houses?  We think you’ll be well served doing so.

We’ve written previously about Tribaut Schlosser, a favorite of ours.  Others might include Alfred Gratien, Henriot, Jacquesson and Duval-Leroy.  Whether these fall into category 3 or 4 depends on your familiarity with Champagne wines.  With more than 2,000 more to choose among, there are bound to be more than a few – a lot more – that you’ve never heard of or tasted.

Why try something you don’t know?  For the same reason you try the new restaurant that just opened in your neighborhood or the new flavor of ice cream.  Maybe you’ll love it; maybe you won’t.  But the upside chances outweigh the negatives.  The worst that will happen is you’ll decide not to buy that Champagne again.  It’s very rare that you’ll hate any of them and you’ll broaden your knowledge of what the Champagne region has to offer.

So take a chance at your local store.  Or to reduce the outlay, try a glass at an upscale bar or restaurant.  Or best of all, travel to Champagne.  You won’t have any trouble finding Petites Maisons there.




Champagne is the world capital of sparkling wine and Épernay is, in wine terms, the capital of Champagne.  Épernay has been destroyed in various European wars, particularly the Hundred Years War, and then it was badly damaged in both World Wars of the 20th century. The city as it is today exists because of sparkling wine.  It was only in the early part of the 18th century that the makers of what is now the world’s most famous sparkling wine started settling in attractive city mansions there.

The Avenue de Champagne in Épernay

For the visitor today, there are a few attractions worth seeing, but the reason to be in Épernay is to sample some of the products of many of the most famous Champagne houses…as well quite a few others that are not as well known.  And the best place to get to know them is along the Avenue de Champagne.  Along this one kilometer street that runs from the Place de la République to the Mercier winery with its impressive tower, you can stroll along, tasting as you go.  Beneath your feet are 150 kilometers of caves, carved into the chalk that makes the wines of this region so distinctive, full of bottles of Champagne.

Among the best know names on the Avenue de Champagne are Moët et Chandon, Perrier Jouet and Pol Roger.  As mentioned, there is also Mercier, which definitely ought to be a stop for any visitor to Épernay.  Not familiar to many Americans, Mercier is the most popular Champagne in France.  It certainly offers the best tour in town, with a train ride through the caves.  Its popularity probably stems from its price point; their flagship Blanc de Noirs costs only €33 ($36.50 at current rates).


Some of the architecture along the Avenue de Champagne

As you stroll down the avenue, pay attention to the architecture.  Some buildings, such as the two top names mentioned, are just factories.  But many are grand Belle Epoque mansions, a testament to the wealth that Champagne wines brought to Épernay.


Champagne vs. the Rest of the World

Sparkling wine is made almost everywhere that grapes are grown.  We’ve had sparklers from France (Champagne, the Loire), Napa Valley, Sonoma County, South Africa, Australia, Long Island and Brazil (yes, Brazil).  But only the sparkling wines of the Champagne region in northern France can be called Champagne.  Real Champagne can only be made from three grapes, one of which is white (Chardonnay) and two reds (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).  Any sparkling wine that has pretentions of real Champagne must be made by the méthode champenoise, with still white wine double fermented in the bottle.

So when you’re looking to buy a bottle of bubbles, which one should you choose?

  • Why are you buying it? If it’s to drink by the pool on a hot summer afternoon, there’s no sense spending big money for a great wine.  There are many California sparkling wines that are affordable and quite good, Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros being the best known.  On the other hand, if the purchase is for a romantic dinner or a big celebration, go for the real stuff.  It will cost you more; it’s hard these days to find any Champagne for less than $40, but that’s what romance and celebrations cost.
  • Where are you? If you’re in Italy, drink Prosecco.  In Spain, order the Cava.  In Germany, it’s Sekt.  In other words, do what the locals do.  Note that in California and Long Island, the people there do drink imported Champagne as well as the local sparkling wines.
  • How much do you want to spend? As mentioned, real Champagne doesn’t come cheap.  But there are also many American sparklers that are fairly expensive.  For example, a bottle of Domaine Carneros Le Rêve can set you back up to $125.  And, without mentioning names, there are some wines with bubbles in them that are very cheap but aren’t even worth the ten bucks or less that you’ll pay for them.  So be reasonable, set your price point and then buy accordingly.
  • Have you tried them? Just because a wine comes from Champagne doesn’t guarantee that you’ll like it.  We like most that we’ve had, but there are some that just don’t tickle our palates as much as, say, a Sparkling Pointe from Long Island.  Wine tasting rule #1 is know what you like: If there’s a sparkling wine you particularly like, by all means buy it.  If your intent is to impress your friends with your wine expertise (never a very good idea), you’d better try it first.  There are gems at relatively low prices and there are expensive Champagnes that, to our tastes, just aren’t worth the expense.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to experiment, just to find out which is which.
  • Do you remember what it’s called? That’s wine tasting rule #2.  If, say, you were at a party and the host poured you a glass of something that knocked your socks off, ask what it is so you can buy it yourself.  If you’re not good at remembering names, write it down.  A name like Tribaut Schlosser doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it to the store clerk from memory alone.  (By the way, it’s Tree-boe Shlahs-er.)