Take care young ladies and value your wine.
Be watchful of young men in their velvet prime.
Deeply they'll swallow from your finest kegs,
Then swiftly be gone, leaving bitter dregs.
Ah! bitter dregs!
-- Spock of Vulcan, "Plato's Stepchildren"
Sad news from the wine country of Sonoma County, where I learn through Tom Wark of the passing over the weekend of dancer-turned- vintner Rodney Strong (1927-2006).
Rod Strong was a genuinely important figure in the expansion of the California fine wine business over the past forty-odd years. He also figures in some of my own earliest and fondest recollections of learning to know and to appreciate California's wines.
Trained as a dancer, with connections to both Martha Graham and George Balanchine, Rod Strong spent the years after World War II in Paris, where he became the leading male terpsichorean with the Lido. (See photo at right, displaying a Gene Kellyesque vigor.) He returned to the U.S. and continued his dance career through the 1950s, when he stepped down off the boards and into the wine business. Initially, he bought wine in bulk, bottled it and sold it under the Tiburon Vintners label. In 1962, he purchased an old winery in Windsor, in Sonoma County, began making his own wines rather than buying from others, and formed Windsor Vineyards. Strong's innovation with Windsor was to sell wine principally by direct shipment to the consumer, often with personalized labels. Direct shipment remains the core business of the Windsor label.
While the modern California wine industry can trace its origins to Sonoma County and the plantings of Agoston Haraszthy at his Buena Vista Winery outside of the town of Sonoma, the post-Prohibition era was initially dominated -- to the extent anyone cared about California wine at all -- by the Napa Valley. A number of venerable wineries operated in Sonoma County -- Buena Vista, Hacienda, Sebastiani, Gundlach-Bundschu, and Simi, to name a few -- but Sonoma's profile in the early 1960s was low at best.
Through the 1960s, with the help of climate studies from UC Davis, Rod Strong showed a talent for locating promising vineyard locations around Sonoma County. The quality of the wines coming out of the Windsor facility steadily improved, and Sonoma slowly began its rise to respectability. (I still prefer to spend time on that side of the Mayacamas Mountains, rather than in the hurly-burly of That More Famous Valley on the other side.) While he continued to produce wines under the Windsor Vineyards label, Strong also launched the Sonoma Vineyards brand for his better wines, focusing on the retail and restaurant trade. Sonoma Vineyards later changed its name to Rodney Strong Vineyards.
As the wines got better and better, Sonoma Vineyards played an important part in raising the profile of Sonoma County as a prime grape growing locale. In the 1974 vintage, Rod Strong produced what is generally reputed to be the first individual vineyard-designated wine from the county, his "Alexander's Crown" Cabernet Sauvignon. (More on the Alexander's Crown vineyard here.)
A number of top-flight winemakers passed through the Windsor/Sonoma/Strong winery over the years, including Dick Arrowood (who went on to make the reputation of the Chateau St. Jean winery in the 1970s and currently plies his craft at Arrowood Vineyards & Winery), Forrest Tancer (now partner and winemaker at the Iron Horse Winery, whose location was originally plotted out by Strong), and current Rodney Strong winemaker Rick Sayre.
In 1989, in a moment of financial crisis, the winery was purchased by the Klein family, which continues to operate it today. Although he was no longer the owner, Rod Strong stayed on as all around ambassador for the wines that bore his name until the past few years, when he suffered a series of strokes. Although in very ill health, he put in an appearance last July as honoree at Sonoma County's 25th Showcase of Wine & Food, where an auction lot included a 2002 Meritage bottling made jointly by Strong veterans Arrowood, Tancer and Sayre. (A pair of articles on the event, with photos of Strong past and recent, can be viewed or downloaded here [PDF].)
My own first visit to the wine country was in 1977, when I accompanied my father on a weekend excursion organized by Robert Lawrence Balzer. Following a visit to the Hacienda Winery and lunch with August Sebastiani, the day wound down at Rod Strong's Sonoma Vineyards. Rod was the consummate host. On arrival, the group was equipped with wines and picnicerie, and we strolled out through the River East vineyard behind the winery to bask alongside the Russian River. As the treats were consumed, it being a warm afternoon, several members of the party -- including Mr. Balzer but not this correspondent -- stripped to their underthings and splashed or floated about on the river. After drying out, externally at least, we were led on a tour by Rod Strong, and then treated to dinner, with more wine, in the winery. I was only recently of legal drinking age at the time, and had not yet mastered the art of pacing my consumption. I learned a lot about the importance of that skill that evening: I can recall the brandy arriving with dessert and I can recall waking in our hotel room in Santa Rosa around 3 in the morning, but the period between those two events is lost to me. Let that be a lesson to you, kids.
From that visit and from tasting his wines in his excellent company on several later occasions, I maintain nothing but fondness and the highest regard for Rodney Strong, and join with those who mourn his passing from the scene. Having spent some time now and again on the stage myself, I particularly enjoyed this remark of his, quoted in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's obituary:
I don't think I would have survived the considerable trials and tribulations of my involvement in the wine business without my theatrical background. The theater is such good preparation for rejection.
The Rodney Strong Vineyards wines are still reliably good across the board, and in some cases reliably better than good. Do not reject them if offered.