We first visited the Sonoma and Napa Valleys in 2006 — we loved Sonoma, but Napa, not so much. Anytime we leave a wine region, we feel like we’ve missed tons of great stuff, or we find a favorite wine after the fact. Happily, we were able to return to Sonoma to visit some new/missed favorites — Korbel Winery and Iron Horse Vineyards.
But first, a digression on wine place-names. Bear with me.
Geographical designations (also known as appellations and in the US as AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas) are like nesting dolls. In California, there are regional designations (like Central Coast or Central Valley or North Coast), then individual AVAs, then sub-AVAs/nesting AVAs. In Sonoma, the major AVAs are Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile, and Russian River Valley (which contains the Green Valley and Chalk Hill sub-appellations).
Other place names can be used, like California (think Two Buck Chuck) or Sonoma County, but these aren’t official AVAs and don’t have to follow any specific rules about where the grapes originated. When a winery labels a wine as coming from a specific AVA, only 85% of the grapes used in the wine must come from that AVA. The other 15% can come from anywhere. But a bottle of Zinfandel made with grapes grown in Lodi can’t just call itself Russian River Valley Zinfandel.
Like these California appellations, Champagne is an appellation for a wine from a specific place in France. Champagne doesn’t have to be a sparkling wine, though it usually is, but it has to be from the geographical place, Champagne, France. Back in the day, California wineries were producing sparkling wine and calling it Champagne, angering the actual Champagne-ers. Think about it – you can’t have a California wine that is actually from Florida. New York State cheddar can’t be made in New Jersey. After some French arm twisting, the US agreed to ban the use of the word “Champagne” going forward, as long as some older wineries were able to retain the right to use the term “champagne” as a descriptor. These wineries call their sparkling wines “California champagne.”
But US sparkling wine producers should come up with their own name for this essential beverage. The Germans have Sekt, the Italians have Prosecco and Asti and Spumante, the Spanish have Cava, the French have Champagne and Cremant d’Alsace. Let’s come up with something a little more imaginative than what we’ve got. I have no suggestions.
OK, enough of that. Let’s get to the wine tasting.
In 2005, Sonoma still had some free tastings, but now they seem to be a thing of the past. There are a few exceptions, like the California champagne/brandy house of Korbel. You know, Korbel, the everyday sparkling wine (Korbel, if you’d like to buy that tagline, let’s talk). Korbel produces at least fifteen varieties of sparkling wine, from the tasty (we liked the Natural) to the sweet (Riesling makes a pretty decent sparkling wine, as the Alsatians already know), to the horrific (the Rouge actually made me choke, after which the server commented that no one there liked it either).
The best part about Korbel, other than the free tasting, was the tasting room staff. When Paul tried one of their non-sparklers, a Sonoma County Zin, the server also poured him an extra sample of our favorite, Natural, with the tongue-in-cheek comment, “Here’s a little more champagne in case the wine is too much.” They brag that Natural was served at Obama’s inaugural luncheon. Korbel offers free tours of their winery operations — which are large. After a few French Champagne houses (think Moet, etc.), Korbel is one of the largest sparkling wine producers in the world.
And then the best, Iron Horse.
After tasting Korbel’s many sparklers, we headed over to Iron Horse (actual tagline: the drink of optimists) to taste their more exclusive and expensive sparkling wines. Iron Horse is the political big brother to Korbel, having been served at everything from a luncheon during the Chinese VP’s recent visit to the White House to the historic Reagan/Gorbachev Summit Meetings, which ended the Cold War. That’s right, Iron Horse wine may have ended the Cold War.
Where Korbel’s tasting room is hot and airless, Iron Horse’s “tasting room” is an airy counter under the sky on a hill above the vineyard. Iron Horse offers a $15 tasting of 5 wines, but the fee is waived if you purchase a (minimum $38, if you want sparkling) bottle of wine from the tasting. Tastings at Iron Horse are often hosted by winery owners and the pride in the quality of the wine is obvious. As it should be…these are perfectly crafted, vintage sparkling wines that easily exceed the quality of some of the large scale, similarly priced non-vintage French champagnes (I’m thinking of Moet’s White Star, for one). Iron Horse wouldn’t be caught dead calling their wine “California Champagne.” All their sparkling wines are vintage dated, and all are aged a minimum of three years before being released. They’re fabulous. We brought ours to a high-elevation campground in Yosemite, where the California soil got to share in our celebration, taking back some of what it had provided.