Ironstone Wines: California Dreamin’

After Pinot Noir, my next big red crush is the noble Cab Franc (/Chinon/Bourgueil/….). I love a herbaceous, savoury wine that I can chew and really ponder.

When I booked my flight for the Wine Bloggers Conference (#WBC16) in Lodi, I was ready for ripe, round, sun-drenched Central Valley fruit in the form of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon; those big fruity wines that tease and warm the palate and make you want to cozy up in a big chair with a book and a bottle. Needless to say, I was not expecting to taste anything remotely “green” in the land of the golden sun.

“It’s one of the best kept secrets in the region,” says Steve Millier, head winemaker at Ironstone Vineyards. “We’re 2400 feet up in the mountains, and 15 minutes to the Bear Valley snow line. So we’re above fog but below snow.” Mix elevation, a longer growing season, cooler nights, loads of California heat and sunshine and you’ve got phenolic bliss and the recipe for a pretty impressive Cab Franc.

 Epic Ironstone

Just a couple of old fossils hanging around the visitor centre at Ironstone Vineyards

I’m back with the Kautz family for a post-conference excursion. My first visit with this legendary wine family was three days earlier at their Teichert Ranch location in Lodi. This time we’ve travelled to Ironstone Vineyard’s mother lode. The larger-than-life Ironstone winery and visitor centre is located in Murphys, a hip and happenin’ town in the western part of the Sierra Foothills, once the epicentre of the California gold rush (roughly $20 million in gold was discovered in Murphys and the surrounding area). Back in the 1850’s, the Ironstone property was home to the Wells Fargo station with the ranch functioning as a watering hole for pony express and stage-coach horses.

Craig Rous, Steve Millier and Joan Kautz and the vines of Ironstone Vineyards

Our agenda today includes a vineyard tour with Steve Millier, head winemaker at Ironstone and Craig Rous, owner of Rous Vineyards and general manager of Ironstone’s Bear Creek production facility. John Kautz – the visionary behind Ironstone Vineyards and the Kautz Farms dynasty – is our personal guide for the Ironstone facility tour. The scale and breadth of the Ironstone entertainment complex and the Kautz family’s agriculture, viticulture and winery business is described in my first Ironstone post. In this one, I’ll let the photos take you on the tour.

The legend himself, John Kautz in the underground caverns of Ironstone
Ironstone Vineyard’s Gold Rush Museum is home to a 44 pound Crystalline Gold Leaf specimen, the largest in the world
Outdoor Amphitheatre – a 7000 seat venue with a summer line up that includes The Goo Goo Dolls, Chris Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Peter Frampton and ZZ Top


Spectacular gardens and landscaping at Ironstone Vineyards

Ironstone Reserve

 Joan Kautz, John’s daughter and the company’s head of international sales and marketing, has successfully moved our gob-smacked group of wine writers and her charming, story-telling dad, back to the vineyard’s culinary centre (listed on Trip Advisor as the #1 of 22 things to do in Murphys).

We’ve seen the vineyards, undergrounds caverns, cellars, winery and hundreds of porta potties delivered for the Chris Young concert tonight at the Ironstone vineyard amphitheater (hence: gob-smacked). The second part of today’s itinerary has us tasting Ironstone’s finest reserves and celebrating the imminent vintage with a summer harvest dinner.

Harvest dinner by the incredible Eric and Christine at Outer Aisle Foods. Wine by Ironstone Vineyards

Our earlier tour of the vineyards with Steve and Craig helps us better understand the vast range of geography and terroir behind the Ironstone portfolio of wine. The vineyards where we’re standing today, are about as cool climate as you’ll find in California. At 2400 feet (730 m), the 1200 acre Hay Station Ranch vineyards have that killer combo of altitude and iron-rich volcanic soils, promising wines with distinct minerality and fresh acidity. According to Steve Millier, the grape harvest in these Sierra Hills vineyards happens two weeks behind harvest at the Kautz family’s Lodi location (Sloughhouse sub-AVA). Of course, Lodi vineyards have their own unique terroir. The silt and sandy loam soils in the valley are a remnant of the 19th century river-beds that used to cover this land. As a result, these soils are higher in nitrogen and much more vigorous, so the canopy is known to deliver very real “California sprawl”.

Hay Station Ranch vineyards

Here in the Sierra Hills high country, Ironstone produces regular and reserve single varietal Cabernet Franc, making them one of California’s largest growers of this versatile variety. Cab Franc and it’s blending partner, Cab Sauvignon are the last grapes to be harvested each year, with end of October as the target date. According to Steve Millier, the days of hand harvesting these grapes may be coming to an end. Labour shortages are forcing Ironstone to rethink their practices.

California is in its fifth year of drought conditions. The Hay Station Ranch vineyards are drip irrigated, with water sourced from a man-made lake that acts as a reservoir. Ironstone sits over a natural spring vein and all water is recycled so they can stay green despite the drought. When we ask about the Lodi Rules sustainable practices, Steve tells us Ironstone has been practicing sustainable viticulture for over 30 years. “The formal sustainability audit makes it really expensive for large producers like us,” he says. “But whether it’s Lodi Rules, Napa Green, California Sustainable, the Kautz family has always practiced sustainable growing. It’s better for their longevity as a family operation and better for the longevity of the vineyards.”


Almost ready!? Ironstone oak barrels helping a new vintage along

The reserve wines are stored in barrels in massive caverns at the Ironstone property. These spectacular caves were hand blasted by local miners, who were prospecting for gold in the 1800’s. Today, Ironstone uses them for wine-tasting, weddings and other events. The caverns temperature holds at a natural 60 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, which slowly lowers the wine’s alcohol while preserving its concentration of flavour. The temperature stability means less evaporation of wine, an expensive phenomenon usually referred to as the angel’s share.

The fruit source for Ironstone Reserve old vine Zinfandel is the venerated Rous Vineyard in Lodi’s eastern Mokelumne River region. Originally planted in 1909, today it represents about 10 acres of Zin with the old vines offering about 2 – 2 ½ tons per acre. (In vine age terms, 50 – 100 is old and over 100 is considered ancient.) “At that point they’re self-sustaining and know how to crop themselves,” says Craig Rous. “And because of the age and deep loamy sandy soils, these vines offer deep, concentrated fruit with higher natural grape acidity, and a more elegant, better balanced wine with less “fruit bomb” character.” According to Steve Millier, very few new oak barrels are used in the winemaking for either Cab Franc or Zin and the reserves age in a mix of American and French barrels for 18 months with extended bottle aging. “We want to emphasize the fresh character of the grapes,” says Steve, “let the fruit do the talking”.

You could say the Ironstone wine speaks VERY clearly. More about that in the tasting notes below. Meantime, cheers to Ironstone for our good times and lovely wines.

My new blogging pals @VineyardTrail

Tasting Notes

Back in the culinary centre we sit down to a vertical tasting of Ironstone Cab Franc and Zinfandel. I love vertical tastings because – all things being equal – they really isolate vintage and seasonal temperature variations. We tasted 5 Cab Franc (2000, 2005, 2008, 2010, 2013) and 4 Zinfandel reserves (2010, 2012, 2013, 2014). Here are the highlights:

Ironstone Cab Franc vertical tasting

Cab Franc

Sierra Foothills Estate Grown Reserve Cab Franc, 2000

This was the first year for the Cab Franc reserve and once again, I’m reminded age is a beautiful thing. A lovely ruby red, bordering on garnet, this volcanic Sierra Hills wine is blended with 15% Merlot to add body and elegance. The wine offers subtle green pepper and vegetal aromas but on the palate delivers ripe boysenberry and raspberry jam fruit. The tannins have provided solid structure for this 16 year-old wine and are now soft and dusty. Oak spice and sweet vanilla provide a smoky, gentle herbal finish, and mocha notes suggest a warm vintage. This is a beautifully balanced Cab Franc wine and definitely ready to drink.

Sierra Foothills Estate Grown Reserve Cab Franc, 2008

I think the 08 is my preferred vintage and this wine reminds me why I have a soft spot for Cab Franc. There’s a tension in the wine that speaks to a solid structural framework, but with 8 years of cellaring, it’s drinking beautifully. This Cab Franc is bright ruby and beautifully fragrant with a distinctly leafy green aroma that’s reminiscent of a Loire Chinon. It offers medium plus firm tannins, and a bright refreshing acidity. On the palate, the wine features ripe red cherry and raspberry fruit with vanilla flavours. It also has a tart leanness to it that reminds us this is a well balanced single varietal wine – lovely when blended with a big bold cabernet sauvignon – but distinct and smooth enough to delight on its own.


Joan Kautz guiding us through a vertical tasting of Ironstone Zinfandel

2010 Lodi “Rous Vineyard” Reserve Old Vine Zinfandel

 This deep, dark ruby, megawatt Zin is loaded with perfumed violet florals and blue and black fruit aroma. Riper, darker fruit flavours include blueberry jam, black cherry and black currant. There’s a lovely hint of spice and I note a rustic bit of funk….maybe mushroom? A big concentrated full-bodied wine, supported by structure giving tannins and firm acidity. This is why we travel to California.

2013 Lodi “Rous Vineyard” Reserve Old Vine Zinfandel

Just released, the 2013 is brighter than the 2010 with a nice backbone of acidity, contributed in part by it’s youth and the cooler vintage. Big and rich and oh so Central Valley, the nose says ripe black fruit and sweet oak. The palate is all black cherry with delicate tannins and some lovely lingering spice box and cocoa notes on the finish. A beautiful regional expression of Zin.

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