Cheers with Dino: Sparkling Wine Part 1

A sparkling conversation with the celebrated California champagne and winemaker, David Munksgard of Iron Horse Vineyards.

In this four-part series, I explore sparkling wine through the eyes of winemakers from the US and around the world. My first chat is with David Munksgard of Iron Horse Vineyards, a man with a unique personality who is passionate and dedicated to his craft.

The world of bubbly delivers versatility in every sense of the word: style, quality, budget and, most importantly, the exciting process that makes this unique beverage. Historically, sparkling wine consumption is a leading indicator of the overall global economy. In a healthy economy, consumer's confidence grows and so do the numbers in sales of the premium and ultra-premium category.

Munksgard's fruit of his handy work, Iron Horse Sparkling, is served at national and international events including state dinners at The White House. If it's good enough to serve at The White House, it good enough to serve at my house and share with friends and family.

Q- David, tell me about yourself?

A- I’m a lucky guy who gets to do something very cool for a living. Some would say, “Living a dream." I wear jeans, a work shirt and boots to work. I like to cook. I clean the house and take out the trash. I ride my bike and go to the gym (not enough). Other than spending time with my wife or grown sons, my idea of fun probably starts at a hardware store or lumber yard.

Q-Tell me something special about your work?

A- Well, I start most days with about an hour and a half walk through the vineyards. It's peaceful, beautiful and relaxing; it’s also part of my job. I’m the winemaker for one of the top wineries in the country. We grow our own grapes. I’m part of that process as well. Someone once said that the best fertilizer for a vineyard is the footsteps of the winemaker. I believe that is true.

Q- Where did you grow up?

A- My dad was an oil company engineer. When he got a promotion, we got moved to a different state. My family never drank wine. I first came to California when I went to boot camp in 1968; I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Q- What did you study? Where?

A- On a visit to Napa Valley in 1974, I met Robert Mondavi who spent several hours with my wife Page and me. He told me that if I ever wanted to be a winemaker, I’d need to get a degree in viticulture and enology. For me, he recommended that I got to CSU-Fresno. Three years later that’s where I went to start my studies.

Q- What drew you to wine?

Q- That visit to Napa in 1974 really set it for me. I lacked the courage to make the decision. Married, a small baby, a mortgage and in a career path that I thought looked promising. I came home from work as a land surveyor one day in 1977 and saw a for-sale sign in my front yard. My wife had decided that I needed to be a winemaker. She enrolled me at CSU-Fresno and put the house up for sale. In 3 months we were heading to California with what fit in a small U-Haul trailer behind our Jeep. Wow! Was I ever scared and excited? Mostly scared.

Q- What do you most enjoy about wine and winemaking?

A- I’m creating something. For those of us fortunate enough to be making wine, it is not that we should be winemakers, we simply MUST be winemakers. Nothing else will satisfy that need to craft; to imprint onto and into our wines what we feel and see when we walk the vineyard and dream of what it might be.

Q- What has been a memorable experience?

A- My first year in the wine business was 1980 in a brand new winery. Harvest came about three weeks early, and the construction was behind. Of the new equipment, nothing, and I mean nothing, worked. Everything was breaking down, and we were days behind in our work. We worked 24 hours a day, really. We would go home, shower and change clothes and go back to work. It was sleep where and when you could. No one’s shoes fit anymore because everyone’s feet were so swollen up. We worked in our bedroom slippers. This went on for a month and a half. I lost over 20 pounds. Trial by fire, I loved it. The next year everything was fixed and running well.

Q- Who inspired you growing up in this business industry? 

A- Well, I did not grow up in the business. I met some great people that made me want to do what they were doing, making wine. They took the time to talk with me and share with me what they knew. Folks like Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz, Jack Davies from Schramsberg.

Q- Do you feel this is a turning point in your life?

A- I’ve been making wine now for 37 years. I’m good at what I do, and yet I have more questions today than I did my first year of winemaking. Winemaking is a craft. Yes, most of us have a science degree, but if you are good at winemaking, it is because you are practicing the craft. Any good craftsman gets better with time, like wine.

Q- Do you feel you're turning your dreams into reality?

A- My wife turned my dreams into reality; having me become a winemaker. I find it hard not to think about winemaking. I’m always trying to do it better. I’m living my dream.

Q- Will you turn your knowledge and experience into a business?

A- I work for the owners of Iron Horse. I’m not burdened with concerns of ownership. I practice my craft and represent the winery.

Q- What was the high point of your career?

A- There are so many. We’ve had our wines served in the White House under every administration since Nixon. That never gets old. Kings and Queens, the rich and famous have enjoyed our wines. As cool as all that is, what gets to me the most is hearing that some guy proposed to his wife over a bottle of our wine. Or at their baby's baptism. Or to celebrate every one of their anniversaries, every one. The more personal stuff, I’m a sucker for that.

Q- What's a perfect food and wine match?

A- My wife and I do this fun thing. We pack a bottle of our Ocean Reserve sparkling wine in the ice chest along with two flutes which I load into the truck. Off we head to the coast – Pacific here in Northern California. Along the way, we grab fresh, hot clam chowder and a crab sandwich. From there it's a short drive to a bluff above the ocean where I drive my truck right out to the edge, and there we park. Sitting in the front seat we have the best view of any restaurant. Yep, we eat in the truck and watch whales go by as they migrate up and down the coast. Then we watch the sunset and toast to our good fortune.

Q- What's your take on private labels?

A- Bottling your wine for someone else can be great, if your winery is mentioned on the label. We do this for several prominent restaurants. The customer enjoys the wine and sees that Iron Horse made it; we just made a new customer. It's a win-win.

 Q- If you are not drinking wine, what are you drinking?

A- Craft beer; IPA’s mainly.

Q- Is this the golden age of the wine industry?

A- In that, we are making the best wines anyone has ever drunk, yes. But I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. The dreamers that came before me, they paved the way. They proved we could take on the Europeans and look good or even great. Ask me again in 100 years; we’ll open a bottle and chat.

Q- Do you have a specific plan to cater to the younger demographic? 

A- If making great wine doesn’t do it I’m sunk. We are not going to veer off course and chase this trend or the next. Our tasting room is reservation only on Friday, Saturday, and Sundays filled by those who you speak of. They buy our wine. It may only be one or two bottles at a time. Despite whatever your bank balance might be, quality is always quality. It’s undeniable.  

Q-Tell me about your upcoming projects?

A- Starting a few years ago we started making a special sparkling wine meant for the holidays. We call it Winters Cuvee. Next, we made a Summers Cuvee, meant for easy summer sipping by the pool or deck. We plan on continuing these special small production wines.

Categories: Cheers with Dino, Food & Dining