Innovation doesn’t always come easy to family-owned wineries. When you – and not some large corporation – holds the purse strings, there is risk involved in deviating from a proven course, buying more vineyards, or investing in new equipment. When such restraint persists, the death spiral begins and the corporations swoop in to pick the bones. Such is not the case at Rodney Strong, an iconic family-owned operation that is on a path to innovation.
Now 55 years old, the Rodney Strong enterprise was named after a well-known American dancer who left the stage to start a second career in winemaking in Sonoma County. For years it hummed along making traditional wine alongside other traditional, family owned wine producers. Large corporations grabbed up many of those wineries, but Rodney Strong remained family owned despite offers to buy it.
We have followed this winery for decades and felt it was always a reliable producer of decent wine but often wine with little distinction. When it began to concentrate on making some brilliant red wines – especially its single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons – we took notice.
Now comes long Justin Seidenfeld who has been given a lot of liberty to bring innovation to a family operation that is five generations deep. And, wow, is he making a difference, as a recent tasting with him demonstrated.
“This is the first major shift in 40 years,” he said.
Seidenfeld, who supervised several wineries in the extensive Constellation portfolio and then at Robert Mondavi before coming to Rodney Strong in 2010, is now director of winemaking and responsible for every operation. With total support of proprietor Tom Klein, he stays focused on getting the most out of a vineyard and winery.
In the vineyard he has shifted philosophy from measuring yield per acre to yield per vine. The new concept accepts that any vineyard has inconsistencies and changing yield according to the particular vigor of a vine will create optimum results, particularly with color and concentration.
More than 600 acres of estate vineyards are being replanted over seven years.
In the wine-making process, Seidenfeld is concentrating on removing biogenic amines in the fermentation process. We know this sounds like technical gibberish, but it’s those amines and histamines that produce headaches for many people. If you complain of headaches after drinking wine, try Rodney Strong. You won’t be the first to notice the difference.
Seidenfeld is also concentrating on developing consistent and predictable oak barrels that complement the tannins of the grape. A custom-made barrel that he classifies low in tannin, for instance, can be used for grapes that are naturally high in tannin. That combination moderates those bitter tannins that make your mouth pucker. The wines we tasted were definitely lacking those bitter tannins.
The style of the wines began to change not long after he arrived. There is more acidity, for instance, and the wines aren’t buttery or spicy – once popular byproducts of new oak barrels. In fact, the iconic Rodney Strong Chalk Hill chardonnay we tasted was very burgundian – austere, pure and with good acidity.
“Growth will be through innovation,” Seidenfeld said. A rosé and a red blend, for instance, were recently introduced.
More noteworthy, however, is the introduction of Rowen, a separate label owned by Klein. Three premium Bordeaux-like blends are made from grapes grown in elevated vineyards at Cooley Ranch. The label’s intentional separation from Rodney Strong avoids the association of a high-quality upstart with a traditional producer of reasonably priced wines. The competitive field for Rowen will be a challenge for Rodney Strong, but the wines are delicious and well-priced at $55.
“Sonoma County is the best place to grow wine anywhere in the world,” Seidenfeld said. While one region is known for particular grape varieties, Sonoma County does well with a diverse range of grapes, he said.
Here are the red wines we liked a lot:
Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($25). You’ll be hard pressed to find a better pinot noir at this price. It’s not loaded with forward fruit like you would find in many California and Oregon pinot noirs, but it has an austere, Burgundian-like feel, medium body and reasonable tannins. Seidenfeld uses 11 heritage clones in this wine. We’ve seen this as low as $18.
- Rodney Strong Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($35). Only in its third vintage, the Knights Valley is an example of Seidenfeld’s philosophy of pairing high-tannin staves with low tannin grapes. The tannins are integrated in a well-balanced, delicious and reasonably priced cabernet sauvignon.
- Upshot Red Wine Blend 2016 ($28). Seidenfeld said this wine embraces his passion for blending. It is a unique combination of zinfandel, malbec, merlot, petit verdot and riesling. It certainly is delicious with rich and round dark cherry flavors, a hint of chocolate and spice. The label should be a model for all producers – it focuses on function, not design. It has the blend, time in barrel, harvest date, timeline and more.
Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($75). First produced in 1974, the Alexander’s Crown is the producer’s tiara. Since 2008, Seidenfeld has been mapping the vineyard to determine best harvest dates for specific vines. He can transmit this knowledge via phone to the grower so that the grapes are picked at optimum ripeness. This single-vineyard reserve wine is outstanding: soft but with undeniable tannins, dark fruit flavor, rich texture and a hint of mocha.
- Rowen Cooley Ranch Vineyard 2015 ($55). Using grapes from a large vineyard that ranges in elevation from 500 to 2,040 feet, Seidenfeld is able to inject diversity into a blend of cabernet sauvignon (55 percent), malbec, syrah and viognier. It has generous aromatics, ripe blackberry and red currant flavors and lush mouthfeel. The wine is deceiving because the tannins aren’t bitter and so obvious.
- Brancott Estate Letter Series T Pinot Noir 2016 ($35). This Marlborough pinot noir has classic New Zealand character with youthful cherry flavor, medium body and a hint of spice. In the pinot noir category, it’s a good price.
FEL Ferrington Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($65). Vintner Cliff Lede founded FEL Wines in 2014 and his pinot noirs have had his magic dust ever since. This single-vineyard stunner has generous floral aromas and black cherry and spice flavors. Smooth and delicious, it is sold direct-to-consumer from its web site.
- Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir 2016 ($30). Blending grapes from several Central Coast regions, Calera has created a decently priced pinot noir with good length and simplicity. Pure cherry and strawberry flavors with a hint of pepper.