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Iron Horse Vineyards 

Happy New Year, you snake

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Overheard: One summer afternoon, at a winery several miles from here, two couples are enjoying wine under a canopy of leaves. One is younger, the other, parental. They're talking about bubbles. "Then there's the 'China bubble,'" the elder man continues, derisively. "Oh, right," the presumed son-in-law snorts knowingly, eagerly. "The China bubble."

In wine as in other business, the world's second largest economy continues to be the object both of big claims and pithy pooh-poohing. Meanwhile, Iron Horse Vineyards have released some China bubbles of their own—whether to hedge their bets, stay in the game or just celebrate the Year of the Snake.

Some facts about snake: the boar is your enemy, the cock and ox are friends. The Chinese Cuvée debuted in the Year of the Horse, natch. Only the third iteration, the current release dates from 2004, around the time we last dropped in here. Back then, the "tasting room" was just a warped slap of oak resting on a couple of barrels; things have changed. There's a shed roof. More barrels. Outdoor heaters. It's gotten so downright comfy that an old farm cat now creeps, squinting and arthritic, out of the vineyard at 3:30pm daily to make herself at home. In other words, it's the same old rustic wine shed, and that is what's so special about it.

That, and top-notch sparkling, no fooling around. The 2004 Chinese Cuvée ($98), discounted throughout February, is a pale 50/50 blend with austere aromas, elegant froth and a crisp finish that says "Brut." Dialed down a bit since the original blend was created for the 1986 showdown of Gipper vs. Gorby, the 2008 Russian Cuvée ($40) has a golden raisin character, the finish being otherwise nearly as brisk as the Reykjavik wind.

Today's crowd-pleaser is the 2008 Winter's Cuvée ($50). Spiked with a half-mil of Pinot Noir brandy in the dosage, it's Squirrel Nutkin-nutty and just slightly on the sweet side. The pale copper-hued 2008 Wedding Cuvée ($38) fills the mouth with a riot of fine bubbles, leaping up as if it can't wait for the toast. But it's the 2007 Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs ($40) for me, with its enchanting, yeasty-floral aroma like God's own fresh-baked shortbread, lean, grapefruit-spritzer of a finish, and 10 percent donation to support sustainable fisheries.

Sparklers like these drive people to boldness. "I've seen people drop on one knee in the driveway," says tasting room manager Lisa Macek, "and propose in front of a crowd." Listen up snake: beware of boar.

Iron Horse Vineyards, 9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol. Open daily, 10am–4:30pm. Tasting fee, $15–$20. 707.887.1507.

  • Happy New Year, you snake

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