Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards


it’s like drinking a cloud…….

You get this bath of bubbles down your throat…….

It is absolutely a glass of spring…….

I would call it Love Potion…….

Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma, California was purchased by Barry and Audrey Sterling in 1976, along with it’s Vineyard Manager, Forrest Tancer. The Sterlings and Tancer formed a partnership. When the Sterling’s daughter Joy gave up her career as deputy bureau chief for ABC news in LA, not only did she embrace the winery but she must have embraced Mr. Tancer, because she eventually became Mrs. Tancer. Joy Sterling is about the best ambassador any winery could wish for…she has passion, enthusiasm, unlimited energy, and above all, as one would expect, Joy is full of information about Iron Horse…information which she imparted to me in an interview we recently conducted in Philadelphia.

PS: In your book A Cultivated Life you say it is” ingredient Xâ that sets a wine apart”. What exactly is “Ingredient X” and how does it set Iron Horse Vineyards apart from the rest of the Californian wineries?

JS: Well it can mean many things to many people. The most obvious, quick answer I can give to that is that the vineyard is Ingredient X, that one of the first things we try to literally pull out of the ground is the taste of a particular vineyard. When I see a label that says “Estate Bottled” I know I’m tasting a particular piece of dirt and in the case of Iron Horse, we feel that there are distinctive flavors that tell a unique story about our little piece of heaven (in Sonoma County) and we try to convey that in the wine… so that’s one level of what “Ingredient X” is. I also believe it is definitely the personality of the people behind the wines. One of the great things about visiting wine country is you can go from winery to winery to winery and after a while a barrel’s just a barrel, and a press is just a press but each wine maker has each his or her own incredibly adamant philosophy on how wine should be made. I mean, take something as basic as Chardonnay – no two wine makers will agree on how it should be produced.

PS: There is a sort of magic that takes place as well…after your “baby’s” left home…something mysterious happens in the bottle.

JS: And I think there’s a third level of what Xâ is and…to put it really bluntly, I think it’s sex appeal. I think wines are just like people: either they got it or they don’t…I don’t know how else to describe it but I can taste two exquisitely crafted chardonnays, side by side, recognizing the quality of both of them and still feel that one has a certain pizzazz about it that really speaks to me…and so that’s part of the individuality. There’s no doubt in my mind that Iron Horse makes the sexiest wines.

PS: My kind of wine! Now, you began your career in the very competitive arena of national network news. Did that battlefield prepare you well for the wine world which was, when you entered it, pretty much a male dominated industry?

JS: Oh yes…I was a Marine, I am a Marine. To be on television news you have to be. The wine world is competitive in a totally, totally different way…because it’s a true meritocracy.

PS: I like that word…

JS: It really is. It’s incredible…you compete with yourself. We feel so strongly that we must make every vintage better just to be perceived as consistent. So that’s a different kind of competitiveness whereas in the television world–I worked for ABC– it didn’t take me too long to figure out that the competition was not CBS, NBC and CNN but the guy right next to me. This is a very intense political situation. We used to joke that it’s not so much that the news room was a place where people stabbed you in the back, because they didn’t have time to wait for you to turn around…they just stabbed you in the chest. So these are two different worlds, completely.

PS: And so when you have a particularly brilliant year, you really set yourself a high standard to match it the following year and that is, in a sense, a very competitive challenge.

JS: Oh it’s incredible. Well, think about how much fabulous wine there is in the world today, it’s just incredible, you must make that challenge.

PS: British wine writer, Oz Clark notes that your sparkling wine was initially “an amusing sideline but has since become the tail that wags the dog”, Is that an accurate statement, from your perspective?

JS: Well, I don’t know that it was amusing or a sideline, but it was not our initial focus, so in that sense, yes. When my parents first bought Iron Horse in 1976, the vineyard was 55 acres of Chardonnay and 55 acres of Pinot Noir in an era when Pinot Noir was a very difficult sell. It had the reputation of being the most difficult grape to grow, the hardest wine to make and the most difficult to market. And the situation has now completely turned around. My parents and my husband, Forrest, the wine maker, started making a Blanc de Pinot Noir, a Vin Gris, a very dry, very elegant, fantastic oyster wine but it did not meet the level my parents and my husband wanted to create. They did not want to be Vin Gris producers. Their aspirations were much higher than that and it was the taste, the flavor and elegance of the Vin Gris that made them think they should be making sparkling wine. So, I think historically Oz is right, but I don’t believe it was an amusing sideline; I think it was an accidental, perhaps…evolution, destiny, whatever you want to call it…that led us there. Very often Iron Horse has been confusing to people because they want to know whether we’re a sparkling wine producer or a still wine producer because it’s 50/50 for us in terms of level of production . W e make seven cuvées of sparkling wines, and we make six still wines now. It’s just an incredible array, each one in relatively small amounts. And it’s so fabulous to line them all up and not find a weak sister in the bunch.

PS: Now you are second generation at the winery, and I just wondered if perhaps you could give me a very brief idea of how first-generation Iron Horse evolved.

JS: My parents bought the property in 1976 after living in Europe…off and on for a couple of decades and there is no doubt in my mind that our living in France led to us becoming vintners in California. It all started on my father’s thirtieth birthday. My mother’s present to him was a trip around the world; it was one of those “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” trips…and on that trip–he is a very precocious man, my dad–he’d said ” one day we’re going to live in Europe”. Well, in 1967 we moved from Los Angeles to Paris; I was thirteen and my brother was ten and that time spent in France just changed our lives. It opened the door to all our concepts of food and wine and gracious living. Almost from the day we arrived, we would travel around the various wine regions as a family and increasingly my parents became deluded into feeling they were Chateaux owners…. that they were just to the manor born. They kept looking around saying “We can do this!

PS: Yes, yes, very easy to do I’m sure (a trace of sarcasm dripping from the interviewer’s tongue!)

JS: This is us, this is us through and through!â They came very close to buying a cru bourgeois in Bordeaux and I feel so lucky that that fell through in escrow because I think that what we’re doing–what they have created themselves–is so magical. I view my job as the second-generation to ensure that it’s exciting and that Iron Horse is economically alluring, so that the third generation will just want to keep it going.

PS: And I wish my listeners and readers could see your enthusiasm, it’s quite infectious. Forrest Tancer was vineyard manager when the Sterlings entered the picture and along the way he became their son-in-law. This all sounds to me like the eighties t.v. series “Falcon Crest”. Can you all work together and play together without bringing business home all the time?

JS: We do bring business home all the time. I defy anybody to tell me when I’m working and when I’m not. This is completely seamless. This is not a business, this is a life. My whole family lives on the property. We don’t take days off, we might take hours off. And we do go to movies…listen to music, we talk about other things, we argue about politics…I mean, we’re very normal but—

PS: (rudely interrupting) …Then you’re the only normal people in the wine industry and that’s a breath of fresh air to this wine geek.

JS: All of our produce comes from our own gardens, so even what we eat comes off of this land. We view the vineyards and the produce as all part of one thing. We all live on the property. My parents live at the heart of the vineyard in the original Victorian house built in 1876 which in California is a big thing to us. Forrest and I live at the foot of the vineyard, we’re the gate keepers and we can hear every car go across…and just to show you how life kind of turns around, I can hear my parents drive in late at night and I just now look instinctively at my watch and say “what are they doing out so late…?” and then my brother and sister-in-law and their children live in the far opposite corner and we all have jobs.

PS: Crikey, that’s quite amazing.

JS: Exactly.

PS: You grew up in Paris, have you attempted to sell your wines to the French or does that kind of idea insult that country’s somewhat chauvinistic wine trade?

JS: I was thirteen when we moved to Paris and there was no doubt that that was the period of really growing up. I have absolutely zero interest in selling wine in France. I am a born contrarian; you can see the entire wine world walking one way and one short blond headed in the opposite direction. I am not keen on export…I think it uses up too much time. If you want to sell wine in Paris or London or Tokyo, you have to go work those markets. And two weeks in Paris does not sell as much wine as two weeks in Chicago let alone New York or LA…so it doesn’t make sense to me, that’s number one.

Number two, I feel we have barely scratched the surface even in California which is by far the largest wine-consuming state in the nation. We sell 20% of our wine in California and that’s considered incredibly low for most wineries. Most wineries of our size probably sell about 60% of their wine in the state of California. You have to bear in mind California is a country. It would be the seventh largest economy in the world after Italy.

PS: Now for those one or two listeners or readers, who have been living on another planet and haven’t tasted your wines, I was wondering if we could give them a thumbnail sketch of some of the portfolio.

JS: Well, I am the family bubble head, so I tend to talk mainly about sparkling wines and we have seven different cuvées of sparkling wine which I love because it gives me a different one for everyday of the week and that’s exactly the way I like it. One of the things i enjoy about having seven different cuvées is that it shows that there is no one champagne taste. So we make a blancs de blanc which is absolutely exquisite… the current vintage is 1990 and to me it’s like drinking a cloud–100% Chardonnay, aged seven years on the yeast, so that’s the best sparkling wine we have on the market right now in my opinion. If I were to buy something today to be part of the selection of wines that I will want to drink at twelve midnight on December 31, 1999, this would be it…so that’s number one. In the springtime, we release a very special sparkling wine called Wedding Cuvée which is our blancs de Noir; it’s 100% Pinot Noir so it’s the polar opposite of the blancs de blanc. It is absolutely a glass of spring: fresh, lively, it tastes like strawberries and cream, if it weren’t called Wedding Cuvée it would be called “Love Potion”; it’s infallible. I always accused Forrest of putting that in a trick bottle because it goes so fast, I mean, it’s dangerously easy to drink. In the summertime, I recommend our Brut Rosé; it is my favorite wine with grilled steak. I love it; I even serve it in a big Burgundy-size glass so you get this bath of bubbles down your throat and it makes me feel like I’m Diamond Jim Brady. I mean, it’s just so much fun– so you can take a simple, straight forward American steak and make it into this incredible celebration……

PS: (rudely interrupting yet again, but entranced by the guest) How does a cloud taste?

JS: Airy, light and it feels like it just effervesces away in your mouth.

PS: That’s a great description. Did I interrupt you? (knowing this is a damn fool question – of course he bloody well interrupted her)

JS: No! (the guest has so much more class than the interviewer)

PS: You know, you can tell by listening to your descriptions that you obviously are a very talented writer…which leads me in a brilliant segue to your first book “A Cultivated Life”…. “Vintage Feasting”, by the way, is the current book. But in ” A Cultivated Life” …your demeanor expresses to me one word – in both books and in person – passion – and if I may be forgiven the obvious pun, you have very much a joy in life! What is it that sparks that passion in you and keeps it flickering every single day of your life? Is that a tough question?

JS: No, it’s easy–

PS: Drat! I was looking for a tough one! I’ve got to find something to stump you! (is the interviewer a complete idiot or is he merely acting the part?)

JS: Two things–and they’re totally wound up in one another–first and foremost is my family. The first smartest thing I ever did was pick my parents. The second smartest thing I ever did in my life was pick my husband. The third smartest thing I ever did in my life was join Iron Horse. Every little success with Iron Horse comes back to me a thousand fold because I’m doing something for my family.

PS: With that streak of luck maybe I should pick your lottery numbers (interviewer fawning all over his guest)

JS: I am lucky definitely lucky; there is no doubt!

PS: What is it about Iron Horse that gives it star billing with Streisand, Gorbachev and Yeltsin? Has it something to do with the marketing and PR abilities of Joy Sterling or something known in the Old Country as chutzpah?

JS: Neither! The summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev was a gift from a gentleman by the name of David Berkley. I don’t remember how the Barbara Streisand thing came about but that also was just lucky as I picked up the phone and had the right contacts.

PS: Goodness, it’s just that easy…

JS: Well….no, its not that it’s that easy it’s the accumulation of a twenty year history of wine making that certain people do know and love our wines.

PS: It takes a lot of hard work to make something look easy.

JS: Thank you.

PS: A great part of America has become very sophisticated and demanding in it’s choice of cuisine and libations. Are you surprised at the speed in which the baby-boomers adopted their new-found wining and dining lifestyle and indeed stayed with it, taking it from fad to a way of life?

JS: Well, I’m ecstatic that it happened. I was a little worried at the beginning of the nineties when the whole idea was to throw away the eighties completely. I was ok on getting rid of the conspicuous consumption, the greed all those things but please don’t get rid of the food. The food was great! Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. So I’m pleased that my generation were able to sift the chaff from the wheat, so to speak.

PS: I prefer wine to be considered as a compliment to food rather than an alcoholic beverage. Are we ever going to escape that dark cloud of Prohibition that to this day still blemishes our favorite libation or do you think we’ll be stuck with it forever?

JS: I think it’s part of the American nature…I believe in national characteristics. I really do…It’s more interesting to focus on how we’re all the same but there are differences from country to country and this is one. That Puritan streak is just there. You can attack it on so many different levels; you can say it’s hypocrisy but it’s part of a multi-headed monster that every once in a while has to be bashed back! So we have to be forever vigilant.

PS: From this side of the table, I’m seeing somebody who is having a lot of enjoyment, a lot of satisfaction and has had a lot of success. You’ve got two books under your belt… what lies ahead for Joy Sterling?

JS: First, a website: is now launched which I’m very excited about. It’s got popping corks, it has bubbling glasses of champagne…I don’t know what else you need out of website. (interviewer thinks: how about an English wine interviewer…nah, she wants to attract people not scare them away) My next book – number three- is called “Vineyard”, like “Dynasty”. It’s an art book. It has 65 photographs by an incredibly talented, young American photographer from Colorado who has a great passion for wine; his name is Andy Katz. I wrote about a twenty page essay that goes with the book and where “A Cultivated Life” is about one vintage – 1991, what I learned in “Vintage Feasting” is that you can’t look at any two years apart; they’re intertwined. “Vineyard” is about the future. So that’s very special. Book number four will follow soon after focusing on red wine and written for my friends.

PS: Wonderful…well, I hope everyone listening and reading this on the Internet will pop over to your Internet site..and maybe we’ll link the two! The great thing about doing these interviews is that I’m now going to nip upstairs and have a wonderful lunch with you and enjoy your wines.


** Silverstone note: Reference was made to cuvée, this is a blend of wines which make up a specific Champagne or sparkling wine (Champagne should only be called Champagne if it comes from that specific region of France, otherwise it should be called sparkling wine).


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