On a mild autumn day in October, Rodney Strong Vineyards is humming with activity. The sky is wide and blue, leaves on the vines are turning brilliant shades of orange and yellow, the air smells of grapes, and a truck overflowing with Chardonnay fruit, freshly picked from a coastal vineyard, lumbers past the entrance to the winery on the way to the crush pad. It’s harvest time, once again, for the winery that was originally founded in 1959 by the late, celebrated American dancer, Rodney Strong.
Strong trained at the American School of Ballet in New York and danced for four years in France, where he developed a passion for winemaking. After leaving his professional dance career behind, he was known to often say, “I knew I couldn’t be an old dancer, but I knew I could be an old winemaker.” An early Sonoma County pioneer, Strong was instrumental in helping transform the area’s reputation from rugged farmland to a world-class wine region. Rodney Strong Vineyards was the 13th winery bonded in the newly discovered Sonoma County wine industry. Later, Strong would go on to reach other significant milestones. He was the first vintner to craft a single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley, one of the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, the first to produce a Chalk Hill Chardonnay and the first to use French oak for aging wine.
If mastering the art of dance is about precision, grace and presentation, no doubt winemaking requires a similar skill set. “Wine is both a science and an artistic endeavor,” says Christopher O’Gorman, director of communications. At Rodney Strong, place matters with 14 exceptional estate vineyards, which represent a range of grape varietals and regional terroirs. As proprietor Tom Klein once put it, “Place is not everything. But place is the most important thing.” The winery is known mostly for its single-vineyard wines that express the intrinsic character of terroir and the symbiotic relationship of the vines in the soil in the region where they’re planted.
There are a number of tasting options at Rodney Strong, but the Vine-to-Table Experience is an elevated wine-food pairing that visitors can enjoy on the winery’s terrace alfresco-style. The inventive creations of winery chef Alejandro Garcia are inspired by fresh local ingredients and the bounty of the season. “We wanted to create a fun, delicious and avant-garde menu that lets the wine be the star,” says O’Gorman.
We begin with the 2016 Reserve Chardonnay and a baby vegetable salad with hazelnut soil. The wine is exquisite with a lush, creamy mouth-feel and toasty notes that pair beautifully with this whimsical plate of fresh split pea pods and heirloom grape tomatoes, topped with delicate purple pansies from the winery’s garden.
Next, we taste the 2015 David Bynum Pinot Noir, sourced entirely from the Pommard Clone, its heritage traced to Burgundy, France, and Bynum’s favorite Pinot Noir clone. An elegant wine with earthy notes and black cherry, it pairs beautifully with English pea soup, served with a small slice of local Black Pig bacon and a pea cracker, which ends with a carrot flan surprise.
As we finish this course, we’re joined by Justin Seidenfeld, director of winemaking, who’s been working 14-hour days this harvest season. “We’ve just finished picking Cabernet at Cooley Ranch Vineyards,” says Seidenfeld. Despite the long days, his work is gratifying. “A lot of jobs are important and do good for the world,” he says. “But making wine is a profession that lets you produce something that speaks to people on multiple levels, including emotionally. I don’t think there’s a profession that matches that.”
As we talk, we try a splash of the 2015 Symmetry Red Meritage, a blend of all five Bordeaux red varietals, which is served with a duck breast confit, maitake mushrooms, mustard spaetzle and black olive streusal. “This is a wine of balance that can be consumed immediately, or aged,” says Seidenfeld.
For the final course, we’re served a decadent pan roasted Akaushi bavette steak with eggplant puree and onions with a Cabernet glaze, aptly served with a 2014 2040 Cabernet Sauvignon, a special vintage, sourced with fruit grown 2,040 feet above sea level. This is a refined, elegant wine with bold intensity. “These wines are designed to showcase the rugged hillside terroir,” says O’Gorman.
For dessert, there’s rhubarb mousse with Rosé macerated strawberries and lavender, served surprisingly with a 2018 Davis Bynum Rosé of Pinot Noir. This is everything a Rosé should be— light, crisp and refreshing with notes of berry and citrus, the perfect ending to an exquisite lunch.
If you’re looking for a unique Wine Country adventure, book a reservation for a Vine-to-Table Experience, where you can enjoy the classic, elegant wines of Rodney Strong and the inventive creations of chef Garcia.
As for this year’s harvest, Seidenfeld has high hopes for the 2019 vintage. He smiles and takes a sip of wine. “Our hand was not forced by Mother Nature this year,” he says. “We’ve had great ‘hang time,’ so the wines will be beautifully developed and balanced.”
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