When Rodney Strong was a ballet dancer at the Lido in Paris his interest in wine took off seriously. He decided to start a second career as a winemaker in the relatively unknown Sonoma County in 1959. It was the thirteenth winery in Sonoma at the time, with much pioneering work to do. Most neighbours were dairy farmers and fruit growers.
The first Chardonnay vines on Chalk Hill were planted in 1962. Six years later Rodney Strong bought land in the Russian River Valley to plant pinot noir vines in what today are some of the property’s best vineyards.
Rick Sayre, the principal winemaker, studied for seven years under the most influential winemaker in the United States since Prohibition, André Tchelistcheff, and it has obviously affected his way of working. He has also been faithful to Sonoma County throughout its hitherto 36-years long career, including a full 26 years at Rodney Strong Vineyards.
Rick is often out of the vineyard and has, for example, measured the vines growing power in a vineyard by analysing the different shades of green that occur due to the foliage growth. The results of the measurements made them extended the harvest period to a full month, with harvesting in different parts at different times. The different harvests are vinified separately. In order to do that they have many small steel tanks.
Rodney Strong Vineyards is of course both a grape grower and winery. Their own grapes account for 40% of their production. They buy grapes for the remaining 60% of production. Some contracts with grape growers extend up to 30 years. They make approximately 12 million bottles per year, which makes Rodney Strong Vineyards to a slightly above average-sized winery in California. By comparison, their wine production is about as big as Systembolaget’s (the Swedish monopoly) total annual sales of wines from the United States.
Vintage variations are small in Sonoma because the weather is reliable. But you still need to make limited and controlled irrigation. One vintage out of nine can usually be characterized as “inferior”. Then there is a risk of getting too little alcohol in the wine due to late maturity. Otherwise, it is common to have problems with too much alcohol, which is a concern not least because the tax on wine in the United States doubles when the wine is over 14% alcohol.
And what about the wines?
1) Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2013 (~16 euro. All prices based on Swedish retail prices)
Generous and balanced aroma with some oak, tropical fruit, yellow apples and honey. Medium bodied with good acidity, which was unexpected judging from the nose, a fine synthesis of the New World and Burgundy.
2) Rodney Strong Russian River Pinot Noir 2012 (~20 euro)
Fine oak character with strawberries, herbs, vanilla, spice and good acidity in more Burgundy-like style. An elegant wine that is drinkable now or in five years.
3) Rodney Strong Merlot 2012 (~16 euro)
A fairly light merlot with some oak character and less prominent fruitiness. Interesting combination with more tannins and acidity than expected, a cool-climate merlot.
4) Rodney Strong Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (~15 euro)
Generous, typical of the variety and of its origin with good balance of black currant and oak. Still a little closed and undeveloped but if it is aged for two to five years it will be at least as good as the more mature 2010.
5) Rodney Strong Symmetry 2012 (~50 euro)
The wine is a cuvée of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. A powerful wine with a complex aromas and a hearty amount of tannin in good Bordeaux-style, will soften with a few years ageing without losing the fine fruit.
6) Rodney Strong Knotty Vine Estate Zinfandel 2012 (~23 euro)
Wonderfully fruity aroma with lots of dark berries and quite high acidity from the relatively cool climate (cooler than for many other zinfandels from the US). The wine comes from old, gnarled, knotty, vines but Rodney Strong has chosen to focus on the “knottiness” when many others graft shots from old vines on the new vines and call it “Old Vines”.
Rick Sayre is a winemaker who makes his wines in the vineyard and you can feel it when you taste them. All wines are made with care, precision and passion; they make wine lovers happy.
There is more information about both the history and wines from other vintages in a previous article on BKWine Magazine: Bottled Californian Sunshine: A Tasting of Wines from Rodney Strong and Foppiano.
The tasting was organized by Domaine, Rodney Strong’s importer in Sweden.
Mikael Karlin writes för BKWine Magazine on wine tastings and wine events in Sweden.
This post is also available in: Swedish