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We Love the Strong Ones

by Sara and Monty Preiser

Preiser’s Reserve: You will have to wait until February to get this one if you can, but you need to plan for it now. Aged in 75% new oak, appearing inky dark, feeling dense on the mid palate, exhibiting layers of great complexity with bright fruit, and spouting hints of chocolate and espresso, the 2003 Pride Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon will in our opinion be acclaimed as one of the great wines of not only its harvest year, but of the decade. It is, however, extremely limited in production, and only available to loyal customers (we don’t think that it is ever too early to become one with a winery of this excellence).



If you knew that over a four year period the wines of one producer had been awarded a minimum of 520 medals (1 Platinum, 3 Double Gold, 113 Gold, 215 Silver, and 188 Bronze), wouldn’t you want to try the wines and learn a little about the team that creates them? We believed you might, and we know we did. So we put in a call to Michelle Prinz, Director of Public Relations at Rodney Strong Vineyards, and set a time to travel to the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains and spend the better part of an afternoon with Michelle, winemaker Rick Sayre, and newly engaged assistant winemaker Gary Patzwald, formerly with Matanzas Creek.

Great companies in any field rarely sit on their laurels, and Rodney Strong is no exception. Led by owner Tom Klein, this winery not only continues to produce wines of distinction, but is now planning an entirely new line of small lot wines that will be produced with state of the art equipment. Yet this is only part of the story. For if there is a burden that Tom had to overcome when he and his family purchased the winery in 1989, it was the perception (not all together wrong) that Rodney Strong produced wines that were only “ordinary.” In one of those ironic turns of life, the winery has become so popular over the last 16 years that case production has gone from 69,000 to over 500,000, and if there is a burden Tom must overcome in 2005, it is the perception (entirely wrong) that a company that produces a half million cases per year cannot make serious wines.

We know (we really do) that usually the history of a business does not make the most enthralling reading, but such is far from the case in this instance. So let us examine how Tom Klein, Rick Sayre, and the Rodney Strong staff overcame burden number one, and why burden number two is an unfair and incorrect assertion. Along the way we will review some wines and talk about what the winery is doing in the way of innovation for the next generation.

In 1959 Rod Strong retired from dancing on Broadway and moved west. After studying the wine industry for years, he concluded that the only way to make quality wine was to grow one’s own premium grapes. In 1968, then, Rod obtained funds to purchase land and plant vines in Sonoma County. By 1970 he was building his winery (which still functions as the tasting room and lower cellar today) and planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That same year Rick Sayre became an assistant at Simi and would work with, and learn from, some of the greats (including the legendary Andre Tchelischeff). In 1979 Rod hired Rick as his winemaker for Rodney Strong Vineyards -- a good move because Rick has not only risen to be a Vice President at the winery, but has been named “Winemaker of the Year” by Wine and Spirits Magazine and Vintage Experiences.


Through the 1980’s, according to the Autumn, 2004 edition of Quarterly Review of Wines, Rod Strong’s goal to make excellent wine was blocked by a lack of financial resources, and though there was the occasional glimpse of good or very good wines, quite a lot of them were “vin ordinaire.” This was the picture faced by the Klein Food family when they decided to get into the wine business and buy the winery in 1989.

Tom Klein was chosen as Chairman, and he immediately worked with Rick Sayre to improve all areas of the business. Over the next decade, they purchased fermentation tanks, state of the art presses, new oak barrels, wood tanks, an on site warehouse, custom service equipment, six rotary fermenters, a new crush pad, a conveyance system to perform whole cluster pressing on white grapes, and a thousand square foot temperature controlled building. Give Rick the tools and he will produce, that’s for sure. Witness the incredible growth and multitude of medals that followed.

Burden number one had been overcome. By 2005, millions of people were enjoying the wines of Rodney Strong. Consumers and wine critics alike had obviously recognized the quality that was being produced.

But things change in the wine industry, and one of the upheavals of the latter part of the 90’s was the emergence of boutique wineries and the perception that only they, because of small production that could be easily controlled, could produce fine and ultra fine wines. And so Tom Klein faced, and still faces to some degree, burden number two: How to convince a sometimes doubting public that his wines can compete with the best?

Well, at least as far as these members of the public are concerned, the wines created at Rodney Strong are indeed competitive in both quality and price to most wines being produced in California today, regardless of production numbers. In fact, what Rick Sayre may do best is to put characteristically correct wine into every bottle, and enable his company to sell the wine at the level being sought. In other words, the winery’s three Chardonnays differ in fruit location, aging techniques, and price, yet each is almost spot on in delivering what is promised. In fact, we believe so many medals are awarded to Rodney Strong because its wines are better than one believes they will be by the price.

But should there still be those who believe only the boutiques can make the best, this year Rodney Strong is embarking on an ambitious program to build a facility which will be devoted to solely small lot production. It seems to us that Tom Klein has met his second burden with ease. All anyone need do is read this or other columns about what is going on at the winery, and the realization that large does not mean mediocre sets in.

Let’s take a look at some of what is currently available.

2003 Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc ($14): Combining the ripe melon and juicy pear of Alexander Valley with the minerality of the Russian River, this is an outstanding buy. 14% was fermented in American Oak and then underwent malolactic fermentation, a style we enjoy as that kiss of oak and vanilla at the finish removes any herbaceousness.

Care about their consumers has led Rodney Strong to become an industry leader in consumer research. The winery routinely employs focus groups and other techniques to allow it to put in the bottle what the public wants at any given time. For example, changes in trends and palates have a resulted in a reduction of oak flavors in the Sauvignon Blanc and Sonoma Chardonnay.

2003 Chardonnay Sonoma Co. ($15), 2003 Chalk Hill Chardonnay ($19), and 2003 Chalk Hill Reserve Chardonnay ($30): The Sonoma County provides another good value with its refreshing acidity up front softened by a regimen of new French and American oak plus 84% malolactic, leaving hints of hazelnuts, apples, and pineapple. Both Chalk Hill Chardonnays are grown in the chalky white soil of the region bearing its name. These soils impart a distinct minerality. Both wines are also created in much the same manner – stirring them on the lees for flavor as they aged in mostly French barrels for 10 months, and encouraging full (or 95% in the non Reserve) malolactic fermentation. Both are creamy wines with apple and tropical fruit overtones, but for the Reserve, each block was fermented and vinified separately so that the best could be segregated and used to make one our favorite wines – the elegant Chalk Hill Reserve with a river rock finish.

The Russian River Valley is now well recognized as a world leader in Pinot Noir. We particularly enjoy the 2002 Jane’s Vineyard Reserve ($35), with its full body, intense fruit, and an elegantly loooooong earthy finish.

Yet another wonderful value is the 2001 Sonoma County Merlot ($19), which typifies the varietal. It is juicy upon mouth entry, coats the tongue, and leaves a taste of blueberries, blackberries, and cassis. 14 months on American Oak makes it toasty.

If you are fortunate enough to be in wine country this summer, you might want to make a stop at the Rodney Strong tasting room to pick up some 2001 Reserve Zinfandel ($30), because that is the only place you can get this superb wine with a kiss of Petite Sirah.

For its Cabernet Sauvignon program, Rodney Strong sources fruit from all over Sonoma County. Not only our favorite R.S. Cab, but one of our favorite wines period, is the 2000 Reserve ($40). It is one of those wines to which you just say “Yum” and enjoy flavors of blackberry and cassis between an aromatic nose (from the addition of Cab Franc) and a persistent finish. The 2001 Alden Vineyards ($30) comes from a mountain location where cooler temperatures limit berry size and affect the skin to juice ratio in positive ways. This wine has intense fruit concentration, and powerful structure. Chocolate and mint are apparent, and the dusty cocoa-like finish is a treat.

We conclude by talking about a wine that, to us, rivals almost any other, and that is the 2000 Symmetry ($55), year in and year out a marvelous Bordeaux style blend. In this vintage the cassis, plums, chocolate, and spice come from a delicate blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot, and 11% Cabernet Franc. This is a wine that helps define elegance, even though power and structure are apparent.

We are always pleased to know we are not alone in our opinions. In April of this year the California Travel Industry Association named Rodney Strong its “Winery of the Year.” According to this group, “What made Rodney Strong stand out in an impressive list of wineries that all make great wine was its commitment to making good decisions related to the environment and its interaction with the local tourism business community.” Evidence backing up this statement can be seen not only in the wines, but at the winery, which relies in great part on solar power and has won a rebate from the power company for millions of dollars. Rodney Strong simply has something for everyone.



Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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