Last week I was invited to lunch with the Associate Winemaker for Rodney Strong Vineyards, Justin Seidenfeld, and I learned a new appreciation for the 40+ year old winery, both the quality of wine coming from the 300,000 case producer and the passion everyone involved has for their product. This passion stems from the original founder, Rodney Strong, a creative and artistic individual along with being a completely dedicated winemaker. The former professional dancer, who met his wife while performing on Broadway, had traveled to France many times, tasting incredible wine and becoming interested in the process. He felt that the incredible wines he had tasted in France could be made in the U.S. and eventually he and his wife moved to California in the 1950’s to start their label, settling in their Sonoma County estate in the early 1970’s.
Perhaps best known for their introductory line of Sonoma County Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which makes up 80% of their overall production, this still family owned property maintains Rodney Strong’s focus to make a completely Sonoma County wine of the highest quality possible at an approachable price point (each of these under $15 a bottle.)
However, beyond their introductory line the winery creates about a dozen single vineyard, estate and reserve wines, which is where Justin noted he really has fun. Working along side his counterparts, Director of Winemaking Doug McIlroy and Head Winemaker Rick Sayre, who has been with Rodney Strong since 1979, the team constantly creates new blends while using new techniques, often creating wines that will end up only in current owner, Tom Klein’s, secret winery stash, but more often than not, creating the winery reserve, club or tasting room only labels.
All fruit comes from four Sonoma AVAs including Chalk Hill, Russian River, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Coast, mostly from their 13 sustainably farmed estate vineyards, as well as a handful of family vineyards they have maintained long contracts with to purchase their fruit for years. Working sustainably, both in the vineyard and in the winery started in 1994, with the first large winery solar panels installed in 2001, and along the way becoming the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma County.
From Sauvignon Blanc to Pinot Noir to Cabernet Sauvignon, the goal is to display how distinct the grapes that makes up the wines of Sonoma are, and more specifically within each AVA. Their three single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon all come from vineyard sites within Alexander Valley, however each located in a different area of the AVA and each displaying completely different characteristics as the terroir for each site changes as you move through the region. Owner Tom Klein, who purchased the winery in 1989, notes that “place isn’t the only thing, place is the most important thing when it comes to making world-class wine.”
And Rodney Strong Vineyards believes Alexander Valley and their Cabernet Sauvignon does this, to the extent they have created a sort of Cabernet Sauvignon Camp with the Alexander Vallley Winegrowers Association inviting Sommeliers to the region for a 3 day camp to help educate on how special and unique Alexander Valley is for growing high quality Cabernet.
I had a chance to try the Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon, from the middle vineyard of the three in Alexander Valley with elevations ranging from 225-750 feet. Aged 21 months in 43% new French oak the deeply concentrated unfined/unfiltered wine is filled with red stone fruit and ripe black cherry flavors with subtle hints of mocha, licorice and spice. The Rockaway retails for around $75 a bottle.
Cabernet is not all though, their fresh, crisp and nicely rounded Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc shows nice balance between citrus, ripe pear and honeydew melon mixed with a touch of green, grassy notes, and a luscious, well rounded palate which was named after Rodney’s wife Charlotte and the vineyards that surrounded the home the two of them shared on their Estate.
Rodney Strong was the first to plant Chardonnay in 1965 in what is now the Chalk Hill AVA. Today, their 95% barrel fermented and 13 month aged Chalk Hill Chardonnay expresses the region with a chalky, mineral rich base filled with tropical pineapple and banana, lemon curd and creamy vanilla and spice. Both impressive and affordable quality whites wines, each retailing for under $25.