Rodney Strong Like Bull, And That’s No Bull

There’s strength in numbers, and if they happen to have dollar signs in front of them, Rodney Strong Vineyards is pulling down some weightlifting gold.  Growing at a pace of 14% a year (compared to 2% for the category according to AC Nielsen), the winery, producing  600,000 cases annually, has maintained a consistent portfolio of sumptuous, value-priced wines throughout its fifty year Sonoma journey.

Rodney Strong

There have been several costume changes throughout that history—an apt enough metaphor, since the late Rodney Strong segued into wine only after a career on Broadway, where he was (apparently) a debonair and well-heeled hoofer.  Strong, who in 1994 claimed, “I will go into retirement when I fall into a fermenting tank of cabernet . . . and my departing hope is that they will say the wine has excellent body,” passed away in 2006 in a less theatrical setting—a Healdsburg convalescent center.

Tom Klein

Prior to that, for decades, Strong had been Sonoma County’s elegant elder spokesman, but he sold his vineyard to Guinness in the early 1970’s, who then sold it to Tom Klein, a San Joaquin Valley farmboy.  Private ownership allowed the focus of Klein and winemaker Rick Sayre (who studied under André  Tchelistcheff)  to remain on fine-spun gems which are, in many ways, benchmarks of Sonoma style.

Three that recently fell my way included the newly released 2009 Chalk Hill Chardonnay, 2009 Reserve Chardonnay from Russian River Valley and the ’05 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  All display the label’s characteristic warmth, opulence and affordability.

For $20, the Chalk Hill chardonnay demonstrates the kind of intensity that Sayre can built into his chardonnay in vintages when dry spring (small clusters) leads to cool summers (firm acids).  French oak fermentation and an 86% malolactic follow-up adds crispy cream to the toasty profile; flavors range from Meyer lemon and pineapple to orange zest and honeysuckle.

A theoretical upgrade, at $35, is the ’08 Russian River Valley Reserve.  West of the Chalk Hill property, the Russian River vineyards were hit by early frosts and a mid-May hot spell, which reduced yields; this particular harvest was picked at night, when temperatures were cooler.  Attractive and fleshy, the wine shows cinnamon, allspice, stone fruit, baked apple and butterscotch—the acid remains vibrant throughout.

Rick Sayre

Alexander Valley and at $30, Sayre is offering in his ’08 cabernet a sumptuous and nicely perfumed wine, aromatic with notes of dill, plum and cedar lead into a cocoa foundation with copious boysenberry, blackberry and plum.  Tannins are supple, courtesy of eighteen months on oak and nicely ripened fruit.  Cellar worthy for a half-decade or so?

If I suggested that Tom Klein and company have invested nearly ninety million dollars in Sonoma grapeland, you might think I’d been nipping at the cooking sherry, but in fact, a thousand acres and state-of-the-art production facilities come with a primo California price-tag.   If it’s passed on to the consumer, it’s pretty well buried in quality.

As for winemaker Sayre, with more than thirty vintages under his belt, he’s still going strong.

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