Rodney Strong Vineyards is the kind of brand that's easy to take for granted. Production is large (700,000 cases per year), the wines are widely available, and pricing is very fair even when one pays full retail -- and can be astonishingly low after deep discounting at grocery stores.
Rodney Strong wines have always been reliable, yet almost always neglected by those interested only in 'serious' wines. If it can easily be found on a retail shelf, then these folks don't want it, and RSV's Sonoma County and estate bottlings have been just that -- good (but not great), accessible, affordable and available. The 'not great' part has stuck in the craw of Rodney Strong owner Tom Klein since he purchased the winery and vineyards from Guinness in 1989, and he's doing something about it.
In a series of bold and expensive moves that began in 2001, Klein sold off underperforming vineyards, acquired new ones and replanted existing properties to the latest in rootstocks and clones. He hired Doug McIlroy away from Kendall Jackson Wine Estates to direct viticulture, and McIlroy brought in Bob Steinhauer, Beringer Vineyards' retired senior vice president of vineyard operations, as a consultant.
Then Klein gave his longtime winemaker, Ric Sayre, who joined the Russian River Valley winery in 1979 and is now the vice president of winemaking, a new 'winery within a winery' for small-lot wine production, and a crackerjack staff to work in it: winemaker Gary Patzwald, a veteran of Kendall-Jackson and Matanzas Creek, and superstar consultant David Ramey, who also owns Ramey Wine Cellars, maker of brilliant Chardonnays.
To sharpen the focus, in 2000 Klein sold Windsor Vineyards, a 200,000-case-per-year, direct-marketed brand, to free up cellar space and staff energy for RSV. Then last month, Klein purchased neighboring Davis Bynum Winery, a landmark Pinot Noir producer that had fallen off its game. Wineries in Russian River Valley are expected to make great Pinot Noir, yet Pinot has never been Rodney Strong's strength. Thus, Klein is muscling up.
'(In California), we compete, we collaborate, we're collegial,' says Klein, who owns more than 900 acres of vineyards, all of them in Sonoma County. 'But it is competitive, and if you don't get better, you're gone.'
Wishing to stay, Klein made some monstrously serious changes, and the effects are now showing up in the bottle. While the sniffy connoisseur who thumbs his or her nose at RSV might never pay mind to the retooling of the brand, everyone else would do well to pay attention. Exciting things are happening.
In the last 10 years, some 95 percent of the grape sourcing for Rodney Strong Vineyards has changed, through vineyard acquisitions, replantings of estate vines, replantings in contract vineyards, and the selling-off of acreage on the valley floor, which tends to produce wines lighter and less complex than those made from grapes grown on benchlands overlooking the flatlands.
For McIlroy and Patzwald (the latter oversees the 'winery within a winery,' dubbed WWW, while Sayre looks after the big picture), than means moving grapegrowing to slopes near Cloverdale and Geyserville for Bordeaux red varieties, and away from level ground near Jimtown, northeast of Healdsburg. Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignons have lacked the depth that is the hallmark of fine Cabernet, yet a tasting of new releases, and barrel samples from 2005 and 2006, shows more intense boysenberry, blackberry and dark plum notes in the wines, greater concentration and more polished tannins, achieved by benchland grape sourcing and small-lot winemaking.
Older Pinot Noir clones in RSV's Russian River Valley vineyards have been replanted to a crayon-box mix of Burgundian and specialized California clones that are better suited for the cool climate and soils. The high-end Chardonnays now come solely from Russian River Valley, rather than the warmer Alexander Valley, which gave RSV Chardonnays a tropical aroma/flavor profile but not enough natural acidity to keep the wines crisp and long-lasting.
Patzwald used the winery within a winery for some of the 2005 harvest and all of the 2006 crush, and the results are beginning to show. Fruit is delivered to WWW in small, half-ton bins, separated by vineyard and clone. The grapes are sorted first by a shaker table that removes raisins and shot berries, then by humans who take out undesirable grapes. New 5-, 7- and 10-ton fermenters allow Patzwald to keep separate the grape lots that show a potential for achieving reserve or single-vineyard wine status.
Klein also built a new barrel storage facility and a warehouse for case goods.
'We have wonderful fruit but we've not been taking advantage of it,' McIlroy says, noting that small, distinctive lots of grapes previously have disappeared into larger fermentations. 'Now, when I find sweet spots in vineyards, Gary does his magic on them in the winery within a winery.'
Such bells, whistles and rejiggering of vineyards and personnel can make for impressive press releases, but it's what's in the bottle that counts. At this early stage in Tom Klein's Rodney Strong's renewal, the count is positive.
The estate-grown Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc continues to get better, morphing from a straightforward, tropical-fruit wine into a crisp, citrussy/melony/minerally beauty, thanks to the addition of grapes from the foggy Russian River Valley to those from Alexander Valley.
The Jane's Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley has been a bit under-fruited and too toasty for my taste, but the 2005 has better integration of oak and the delicate Pinot Noir fruit, and the pick-and-choosing of wine lots made from eight Pinot Noir clones now in the vineyard.
The 2005 Symmetry, the winery's high-end Bordeaux-style Meritage blend, benefits from the harvesting of more mature grapes than in the past, and from the improved quality of the Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec components that accent Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Symmetry is, as Patzwald says, 'The best wine we can make each year.' When the 2003 blend didn't excite, no Symmetry was bottled.
A thrilling new wine, the 2005 Rockaway Vineyard Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, will debut in fall 2008. A pre-bottling tasting showed a denser and more tannic wine than any of the 2005 RSV reds I tasted, yet there was a sense of balance and focus to the wine, all black fruits and black spices, with a sleek and sexy mouthfeel.
Granted, just 5 percent of the grapes used for Rodney Strong wines make it to the winery within a winery, the rest finding a home in the original winery and intended for the lower-priced bottlings. Yet the large-production, value-priced 'Sonoma County' line of Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon ($15-$19) is likely to ratchet up in quality due to improvements in the vineyards, increased winemaking staff and the infusion of declassified 'reserve' wine lots.
Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc, Chalk Hill Chardonnay, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Knotty Vines Zinfandel, priced $14 to $25, will see similar benefits.
'Being small doesn't guarantee the wines are going to be good, and being big doesn't mean you're not going to be good,' Klein says. 'Our vineyards are as good as any in Sonoma County, and we're learning to get the best out of them from a winemaking standpoint.'
Tom Klein did a gut check, pulled out his checkbook, and set Rodney Strong Vineyards on a new course toward excellence. Whether his vision will be fully realized is to be seen, though early indications are that RSV's top-tier wines might very well go from good to great.
These are among the new and soon-to-be-released Rodney Strong wines that reflect changes made in the vineyards, winery and personnel:
Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Chardonnay 'Reserve' 2005 ($30): It's the first wine released from the 'winery within a winery' and the first to bring together the talents of Patzwald, Ramey, McIlroy and Steinhauer. It's also the finest Rodney Strong Chardonnay I've tasted, a deft balance of ripe fruit (pear, apple and citrus), spicy vanillin oak, a peaches-and-cream mid-palate and mouthwatering acidity. The finish is very long, and every component is in its place, without overwhelming the others. Delicious. 92
Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 'Jane's Vineyard Reserve' 2005 ($35): Takes a big step up in brightness of fruit and a needed step down in toasty influence. Attractive earth and spice on the nose, followed by a plump palate of blackberry and raspberry, plus Asian spice, a hint of forest floor and oak in the background. Supple and with ripe tannins, this wine gets much of its complexity from the blending of lots from six of the eight clones planted in Jane's Vineyard (named after Klein's mother). It spent two more months in barrel than the 2004, yet has riper fruit and more finesse than its predecessor, and without an overtly woody character. December release. 90
Rodney Strong Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 'Reserve' 2004 ($40): This youngster has brisk acidity that gives it more refreshment value than, to my memory, past Rodney Strong Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons. The cocoa, black cherry and blueberry aromas follow on the palate, plus juicy black raspberry and a hint of cedar. Plenty rich, this baby is also taut and slightly astringent now, so give it a year or more in bottle for the edges round out. 89
Rodney Strong Alexander Valley 'Symmetry' 2004 ($55): This red Bordeaux-style blend has always been a fine wine, yet the 2004, a mix of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 8% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot, is a bit bigger in fruit and structure, yet remains succulent and balanced. Juicy black cherry, plum and black currant fruit, subtle vanilla and toast, crisp acidity and supple texture make it enjoyable now, and likely to remain so for 10 years. 91
PHOTOS: Top, Charlotte's Home Vineyard; second from top, Jane's Vineyard; third from top, winemaker Doug Patwald; second from bottom, viticulturist Doug McIlroy.