If You Go by the Book, They're Icons

Ardeo in Cleveland Park pours 2001 Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut, product of a small California winemaker.
Ardeo in Cleveland Park pours 2001 Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut, product of a small California winemaker. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Gallo. Manischewitz. Iron Horse. In some respects, those three names in wine couldn't be more different. Yet they are united as the only wine brands among 250 American icons -- including Cadillac, Coca-Cola and McDonald's -- representing the "best-known and most-beloved" consumer brands in the country in a new coffee table reference book.

Because Gallo is the country's best-selling wine brand, with 62 million cases sold in 2006, it's no shock to see a panel of marketing gurus name it one of the best-known brands in "Icons of the American Marketplace" (American Benchmark Press, 2007). But most beloved? For generations, the winemaker has produced wines more ordinary than extraordinary.

For more than a decade, however, Gallo has been toiling to change that perception. As of its 2006 renaming, the Gallo Family Vineyards line of wines is considered the winery's flagship, with more impressive offerings coming from its Sonoma Reserve, Single Vineyard and Estate (Gallo's self-described "Best of the Best") portfolios. Recently, we enjoyed the refreshingly lemony 2006 Gallo Family Vineyards Sonoma Reserve Pinot Gris ($15) and the big and toasty French oak-aged 2004 Gallo Family Vineyards Laguna Vineyard Chardonnay ($24) -- especially when the former accompanied grilled scallops with a squeeze of lemon, and the latter sauteed scallops over pasta with cream sauce.

Manischewitz, long the best-selling kosher wine in America, with more than 1 million cases sold annually, was once the country's best-known wine brand. Its cloyingly sweet flavor, reminiscent of liquefied grape jelly, precludes our recommending it as anything other than a way for aficionados of offbeat grape varieties to inexpensively (at $4 a bottle!) add Concord grapes, which make up at least 51 percent of the Manischewitz blend, to their life lists.

We found the book's third wine brand choice a surprise, albeit a pleasant one: Iron Horse Vineyards, the small, 170-acre family-owned California winery that has been making our sentimental favorite domestic sparkling wine since 1980. While far less of a household name than the other two, with a production last year of 32,000 cases, Iron Horse has managed to compete impressively against French champagne, winning passionate fans in high places in the process.

In fact, Iron Horse has developed something of a cult following in the hospitality industry. The winery created its first private blend for Disney's Grand Floridian hotel under the moniker Fairy Tale Cuvee. Thereafter, top chefs such as Michael Mina, Bradley Ogden, Charlie Palmer, Norman Van Aken and Roy Yamaguchi have had their own special cuvees produced by Iron Horse.

Even the White House is partial to Iron Horse, pouring its sparkling wines during each of the four most recent presidential administrations. In 1985, Iron Horse created its Russian Cuvee expressly for the summit meetings between the United States and the Soviet Union. Fifteen years later, the official White House millennium celebration had champagne flutes filled with Iron Horse clinking to greet the new century. At the 200th anniversary of the White House on Nov. 1, 2000, Iron Horse was poured for VIP guests who included every living president except the ailing Ronald Reagan.

Iron Horse partner and chief executive Joy Sterling, the daughter of founding partners Audrey and Barry Sterling, characterized Iron Horse's being named one of 250 American icons as "our greatest accolade in 22 years." Her namesake NV Iron Horse Vineyards Joy! ($147 a magnum) is an extraordinary new sparkling cuvee that is aged for 10 to 15 years on the yeast in the bottle and produced only in magnums. We opened a bottle to kick off a dinner party last month and found its elegant juicy, toasty flavors beautiful on their own as an aperitif and with a salad accented with ripe peaches and toasted almonds. According to Iron Horse, the White House is planning to serve Joy! at its formal holiday dinner in December.

Two other Iron Horse cuvees are also ideal for starting off an evening: The 2002 Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut ($31) is a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, and works well with fried or salty foods, even sushi. The 2001 Iron Horse Blanc de Blanc ($37) is 100 percent chardonnay. Its rich toastiness lends it to pairing with opulent foods such as caviar, oysters and smoked salmon; its crisp, lemony acidity refreshes the palate.

Two cuvees stand up beautifully to entrees: The creamy, pinot noir-dominant 2004 Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee ($37) complements chicken and salmon. The 2002 vintage, by the way, was served at the White House to toast newlyweds Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles at a state dinner in their honor in November 2005. We're big fans of ros? sparkling wines because of their versatility with food, and the 2003 Iron Horse Brut Ros? ($50) is no exception. A blend with more than 80 percent pinot noir, it's outstanding with many mushroom, duck, salmon and tuna dishes.

The adaptable 2002 Iron Horse Russian Cuvee ($31), with its soothing whisper of sweetness, can be served with a first course of foie gras and brought out again to accompany fruit- or almond-flavored desserts.

A winery whose sparkling wines can pair with any course in the meal and fuel successful peace talks? Marketing aside, that's our definition of beloved -- and iconic.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page are the award-winning authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat." They can be reached through their Web site,http://www.becomingachef.com, or atfood@washpost.com.


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