In 1985, Joy Sterling, the famed CEO of Iron Horse Vineyards located in the Green Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), had to choose between heaven and hell. For her, heaven was and still is the 165 acres of estate grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as the stunning views at her family’s Sebastopol winery. Hell, was her job in corporate America.
Joy was a journalist for ten 10 years after graduating from Yale. So, to celebrate her 10 year anniversary, she quit her job in Los Angeles as Deputy Bureau Chief for ABC Network News and joined her mother and father in the family business. Her brother Laurence came into the fold in 1990.
The story behind how they got here and the legacy they’ve created in West County is fascinating, and as pioneers they set the stage for other wineries in the region.
Joy’s parents Audrey and Barry, met at Stanford in 1951 and on one of their first dates Barry arrived, feeling very sophisticated, with a bottle of Mateus Rose, a medium-sweet and frizzy wine produced in Portugal. Audrey was so impressed she brought the bottle back to her dorm room and adorned it with a candle. A year later the two were married.
Joy was born in 1954 and her brother Laurence a few years later. The family settled in Los Angeles with Barry working as an attorney and her beautiful mother as a Fair Employment Practices Commissioner for the State of California under Governor Pat Brown. Active in the Democratic Party, the two thought the world had ended when Ronald Reagan became Governor.
Years before their Democratic dreams were shattered, they were on a whirlwind trip to Europe and while sipping Champagne on the balcony of their hotel room overlooking the iconic roof tops of Paris, Barry got on his knee and said “Audrey, I promise you that one day we will live here.” The arrival of Reagan sent them packing and in 1967 they moved the entire family to an apartment in La Ville de Lumière.
The family spent their time in France visiting wine regions and soon Audrey and Barry became enamored with the thought of being the owners of a wine producing chateau. As Joy says so confidently, “Agriculture is and always will be at the heart of their DNA.”
They started looking to buy property in France, but the challenges of two Americans trying to break into the close-knit French winemaking world sent them back to the states. They first saw the Iron Horse property on a rainy and cold day in February 1976. The two quickly fell in love with the scenically stunning rolling hillsof Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Everyone said they were crazy. The land was in the middle of nowhere, Sebastopol was apple country and in the eyes of the naysayers, the frost-prone area would challenge their crops and not produce the wines they dreamed of creating. The two tuned out the non-believers and with their experiences in France and knowledge that Chardonnay and Pinot love the cool climate they became the proud owners of 110 acres of vineyards. In the words of Audrey, “Fools rush in w here angels fear to tread,” and in they rushed.
The land came with its challenges. The house, built in 1876, was listing on a foundation of 19th century beer cans (it still exists today sans beer cans and houses a prized art collection), there was no winery and zero frost protection. Besides the Dutton family, Audrey and Barry were the only other grape growers in the area.
The first thing they did was put in a reservoir as the all-important water source for the property, which is today replenished with recycled water from the Forestville water authority. The addition of a frost prevention system, refurbishment of the vines and the building of a winery allowed the family to release their first vintage of Chardonnay in 1978 and Pinot Noir in 1979. The first bubbles were vintage 1980. These included a Blanc de Blancs, Brut and the iconic Wedding Cuvee, which was first served at Joy’s nuptials and still served at many weddings the world over.
The impetus for Sparkling was more of an economic solution rather than a plan. People were buying Chardonnay, but there was zero market for California Pinot Noir at the time, which was often referred to as eau de rubber boot. Friends from France came to visit and after tasting a Rose of Pinot Noir they explained to the couple, sitting on 55 acres of tough to market Pinot, that this was the base wine for Champagne. The two set off to France to learn Méthode Champenoise and began working on what would become an iconic wine from the land they purchased.
After quitting her job, Joy came back to her roots in 1985 and began selling the family’s wines from coast to coast. In 2006 she became CEO and now spends her days managing the business. In addition to being a joyous woman all around (pun intended), she has won numerous awards, written several books, serves on the California Food and Agriculture Board and is the Chair of Rural Caucus of the California Democratic Party.
Her leadership doesn’t stop at the winery. Joy is committed to ensuring that every Californian has clean and safe drinking water. She is also focused on getting universal Internet all over the state, especially in rural areas where children can’t even get online to do their homework.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Green Valley becoming a federally recognized AVA (Audrey filed the application with Barry as the representing attorney), Joy speaks confidently about the future of Iron Horse and is committed to making sure that all of the wines they produce are estate bottled. “The key to Iron Horse is the beauty of the place. The amazing scenery and the natural lay of the land is part of the terroir. Our grapes know they are growing in a gorgeous place and wouldn’t even think about making less than stellar wines,” quips Joy. “Our visitors see and feel it too. There is something very special about Iron Horse and that is exactly what we strive to convey in the wines we bottle and pour each and every day.”