Catching Up with Rodney Strong
by Andrew Chalk
Staying in touch with wineries has become a Zoom experience in the last nine months and I was fortunate to catch Rodney Strong winemaker Justin Seidenfeld and Director of Communications Christopher O’Gorman last week for a run through of some of their new releases.
First, some background. The late Rodney Strong (1928-2006) was a successful New York dancer who pirouetted into winemaking in 1959 with the founding of his eponymous winery in Sonoma County’s town of Healdsburg. That made he and his wife the owners of only the thirteenth bonded winery in the county. In this case thirteen was not an unlucky number as the operation expanded through organic growth, gradually acquiring vineyards and specialising in chardonnay (he discovered Chalk Hill [and anything with Chalk in the name must be good: ed.]), pinot noir (he was the first to plant it in Sonoma - a prescient move given how well it has adapted to the area) and cabernet sauvignon (he was a pioneer in Alexander Valley).
To concatenate what could become a full-length documentary, the winery was purchased by the Klein family, California farmers, in 1989. They have continued on Strong’s trajectory of ever higher quality. This has included expanded vineyard purchases through a policy of judicious buying (they now own 14 vineyards), buying state-of-the-art winery equipment, and keeping pace with modern wine trends (e.g. producing a rosé on cue when sales of that wine style went through the roof).
The wines tasted below are some of the halo wines of the winery. You will probably infer from my notes that I’m a fan, but that does not stop at the wines. The pricing is very sane for these frothy times. Sure, the top-end cabernet sauvignon single vineyard ‘Brothers’ is $75, but that is reasonable when tasted against the new hot Napa producer in its first vintage that produced one bathtub of its cabernet courtesy of a consulting European winemaker who came in for a picosecond and passed judgement.
At the other end of the Bitcoin scale the Chalk Hill Chardonnay is just $22 and one of the best value chardonnays in the county, where it has very stiff competition.
Please excuse the terseness of my notes but my attention was focused on Seidenfeld’s percipient commentary as we tasted through.
• 2018 Rodney Strong Vineyards Chalk Hill, Estate Chardonnay ($22.00)
A shimmering gold hue leads to a nose of confident tropical fruits. Pineapple and mango to the fore with a jacket of French oak vanilla. I could sniff this for hours. On the palate, the fruits envelope the mouth, cut only by a moderate phenolic core. Serious weighty mouthfeel precedes a memorable mango finish.
• 2017 Rodney Strong Vineyards Russian River Valley, Estate Pinot Noir ($25.00)
Contrary to fashion the color saturation on this wine leaves it translucent, but don’t jump to the conclusion that this means it lacks flavor. On the contrary, black raspberry and blackberry flavors are clean and resolved with enough oak to dismiss notions of this wine as ‘fruity’. There is more going on. The nose projects powerfully with those black raspberry aromas.
• 2016 Rodney Strong Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($45.00)
The intense ruby color and opaque core presages power in this fine cabernet. The young cassis fruit in the nose is confirmed in the mouth where it is layered on French oak nuances. The structure is young, woody tannins that make this a fine foil to steak or prime rib now, but likely a worthy ageing wine for a decade.
• 2016 Rodney Strong Vineyards Symmetry, Alexander Valley, Red Meritage ($55.00)
Rodney Strong’s homage to Bordeaux with the cabernet sauvignon trimmed back to 70%, merlot at 9%, malbec and cabernet franc at 8% each, and petit verdot 5%. A blend that does not become a petit-déjeuner pour chien.
It has a purple rim (even at age 4!) and an almost opaque ruby core. The nose has hints of pyrazines (thank you, cabernet franc) that are not so prominent as to be offensive,Dark fruits dominate the nose. Dark fruit (black berries) also dominate the palate. A classy wine that is accessible, due to its velvety tannins, but would likely age well for a decade.
• 2016 Rodney Strong Vineyards Brothers, Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($75.00)
Brother’s (bro’, in the idiom) is a daunting single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon from Sonoma’s home of cabernet fruit, Alexander Valley. It is bursting with cassis fruit, chocolate, mocha, and thyme herbs all wrapped in a complex ball of oenologic pleasure. A keeper, without apology. Buy a case and open a bottle at year 10, and then one each year until finished. I bet you don’t have the self control.
Overall. In the face of pandemic, fires, and other literal and figurative pestilence Justin Seidenfeld, Tom Klein and family are keeping Rodney Strong on track as one of the best wineries in Sonoma County. Long may it continue.