For more than 50 years, this trailblazing producer has been a Sonoma standard bearer.
By Steve Heimoff
The California dream of reinventing yourself was never better exemplified than by Rodney Strong. A ballet dancer by trade, Strong retired in 1959, moved to Sonoma County and launched a winery he dubbed Sonoma Vineyards.
He renamed it Rodney Strong Vineyards in 1980.
Until his death in 2006, Strong was still a sort of winemaker emeritus, even though he’d long since sold the winery.
In 1989, the winery also reinvented itself, when Tom Klein, a Stanford M.B.A. with generational ties to California agriculture, bought the operation from drinks giant Guinness, making it once again family-run.
Klein’s great-grandfather, a San Francisco tailor, lost his wife and business following the 1906 earthquake and fire. His sons relocated to the Central Valley, and turning to farming and land acquisition, restored their fortunes.
Following a stint as a management consultant in the 1980s, Klein also started over, buying Rodney Strong.
“The brand was doing okay, mainly through their mail-order business, Windsor Vineyards,” says Klein.
“We rebuilt everything from the ground up,” Klein says. “The vineyards were tired—we replanted on new rootstocks, with new trellising and new varieties.”
Klein focused on appellation-driven grape sourcing: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Sonoma’s cooler areas, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel from Alexander Valley. Grapes are sourced only from Sonoma County.
When Klein purchased the winery, Rick Sayre, Rodney Strong’s winemaker since 1979, stayed on. Still at the helm, Sayre credits Klein’s financial commitment.
“Since we’ve been family-owned again, we’ve continued to rejuvenate vineyards and invested millions into grape processing, crushing, tanks and barrels,” says Sayre.
Under Klein’s ownership, production has been consolidated at the winery’s headquarters, south of Healdsburg.
The focus is on high-end Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux-style reds from the winery’s Alexander Valley estate vineyards: Cabernets from Alexander’s Crown, Rockaway and Brother’s Ridge; a Meritage called Symmetry; and a Reserve Cabernet.
Included in the high-end range are a Reserve Pinot Noir and a Reserve Chardonnay, both from the Russian River Valley. Production of these elite wines averages 15,000 cases annually.
The winery’s total production is about 830,000 cases, making it the 20th-largest U.S. wine company.
Sayre attributes Rodney Strong’s high quality not only to the pedigree of the grapes, but also to the winery’s Artisan Cellar, a high-end production facility designed to vinify small quantities of grapes.
“These lots come from ‘sweet spots’ in the vineyards,” says Sayre. “That’s why I call Rodney Strong, ‘Northern California’s largest boutique winery.’”
There are many fine wineries in California, but few manage to project such quality across so many price tiers, scoring consistently well in Wine Enthusiast tastings.
For this remarkable track record, Wine Enthusiast is proud to recognize Rodney Strong Vineyards as our 2013 American Winery of the Year.