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The Quest

[whitespace] David Munksgard: Iron Horse's visionary engineer

By Jonah Raskin

YOU'D EXPECT that great winemakers would be schooled in France. But David Munksgard, the award-winning winemaker at Iron Horse--the tiny Sonoma County winery that consistently makes the best sparkling wines in America, as well as the official cuvée for the White House--has never set foot in a French vineyard, or anywhere else on French soil.

Not in Paris, Provence, or Champagne, the celebrated region that gave birth to the fabled sparkling wine centuries ago and that still stubbornly refuses to allow any other place on earth to call its similar product champagne.

But Munksgard did spend a half dozen years making wine in the harsh climate of the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where he had to hone every skill that he had-- and to craft a host of new ones--all of which he has brought to Sonoma County.

Except for Munksgard, the powers-that-be at Iron Horse are all related by blood or by marriage to Barry and Audrey Sterling, the intrepid couple who started the family-owned winery in the mid 1970s, after living a large chunk of their lives in France. Not surprisingly, the Sterlings assumed that the French knew best when it came to wine. It wasn't a bad assumption, as Munksgard himself points out, and so for years the Sterlings and their partner, Forrest Tancer (now also their son-in-law), imported savvy Frenchmen from Champagne to make brut, blanc de blanc, blanc de noir, as well as their handcrafted cuvées that are served at renowned restaurants from the Lark Creek Inn in Marin to Aureole in Manhattan.

As the first American-born (in 1949 in West Virginia), California-trained winemaker at Iron Horse, Munksgard stands out in much the same way that a Connecticut Yankee might stand out on the Champs Elysée--though, of course, the gracious Sterlings have taken him in as one of their own. Munksgard's arrival at the 150-acre vineyard that's nestled in Sonoma County's spectacular Green Valley serves as Iron Horse's bold enological declaration of independence from French experts, and from French rules about how to make fine wine. And his involvement in almost every aspect of the winery, from harvesting and fermenting to bottling and tasting, is a sign of Iron Horse's commitment to make both sparkling and still wines that are as American as, say, Yosemite and every bit as breathtaking.

Make no mistake about it, when it comes to wine, Munksgard is a highly disciplined revolutionary. Listen to him talk about winemaking and you might suspect you're in the presence of an extremist. "I'm an absolute, crazed fanatic about oxygen," he says with intensity. To monitor the levels of oxygen in his wines, Munksgard uses an oxygen meter, a device you'll rarely find in daily operation at most other wineries. Since small doses of oxygen help some wines during the fermentation process-- and hurt other wines --Munksgard and his crew keep a sharp eye on oxygen levels. At critical junctures, they add oxygen to those wines (cabernet and merlot) that benefit from the boost, and keep it away from others (pinot and sangiovese) that are hurt by exposure to oxygen.

"I'm a control freak," he explains.

As part of his innovative technological regime, Munksgard has introduced a computer database to keep exact records on the relationship between individual barrels and individual blocks of grapes, a system that has paid off with improved quality. And last but not least, he has introduced, for the first time at Iron Horse, a technique known as "cold soaking" that's so new it's not taught in college winemaking courses. For a week or so, the grapes sit in their own juices, without the addition of yeast, a process that delays fermentation, and that has also yielded spectacular results.

FOR ALL HIS PIONEERING, Munksgard accepts the fundamental Iron Horse philosophy that preserving the quality of the fruit is primary. The technology is meant to bring out nature's best. "You have to be careful about how much difference to make all at once," he says.

When he arrived at Iron Horse, almost all of the sparkling wines were well on their way to completion. Munksgard's task was simply to add the finishing touches. One example is the winery's White House millennial cuvée that recently was served at the state dinner President Bill Clinton held for Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. However, Munksgard has just made the Iron Horse wedding cuvée from grapes harvested in 1996. It's his baby and he's proud. "The wedding cuvée is a sexy, showy wine, exuberant and playful," he says.

But like everyone else at Iron Horse, he's not basking in his glory. What he has his sights set on now--along with almost everyone else at the winery--is the making of a magnificent pinot noir.

"It's like the Holy Grail," he says as though ready to embark on a quest.

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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