Rodney Strong's toe-tapping wines

VINTAGE POINT

April 25, 1993|By Michael DresserMICHAEL DRESSER

Rodney Strong's training as a ballet dancer has served hi well in the wine business.

Very few in the history of the California wine industry have done so many pirouettes and still managed to stay on their feet. He's had hits, he's had flops, and the critics haven't always been kind. But here he is, after 34 years in the wine business, with his name still on the marquee and a show that must go on.

"Being in the theater steels you for rejection," he said.

But there was no reason for rejection one recent night in Baltimore. The veteran winemaker put on a bravura performance for an audience of one, assisted by a supporting cast of intensely flavorful, theatrical wines bearing the name Rodney Strong Vineyards.

Mr. Strong poured wine as he told the tale of a fascinating life, full of triumphs and pratfalls, and maybe the wine tasted just a little bit better than it really was because of the ambience he created.

After all, how many winemakers studied under George Balanchine? Even more unusual, how many California winemakers will admit to having had a bad vintage?

How much is legend and how much is biography is tough to tell, but here is the story:

Back in the early 1950s, a talented young dancer with the New York City Ballet took a job as choreographer at the Lido in Paris. And as so often happens to visitors in France, he "became mesmerized by the quality of life there" -- especially the wines.

At the time, though he was still in his early 20s, he was contemplating the limits of his future in dance. "You don't jump [as well] at 30 as you did at 26," he noted. What he needed was a second career -- outside dancing.

"I made a vow I would never make a living teaching stretches to the Junior League," Mr. Strong said.

He started visiting wineries in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Germany, learning what it took to make the wines he was tasting in Paris. And after he returned to New York to resume dancing, he put out the word that he was looking for opportunities in California's embryonic fine-wine industry.

In 1959, when he was 32, Mr. Strong and his wife Charlotte, also a dancer, brought down the curtain on their careers and moved to Tiburon, across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, and started a small winery, selling to a local clientele out of the tasting room.

In 1961, Mr. Strong began to buy vineyard land in Sonoma County, which at that time boasted all of nine wineries. The land was near the town of Windsor, in an area known as Chalk Hill.

The business developed into a two-head entity -- Windsor Vineyards, which built up a unique franchise as a mail-order and private-label distributor, and Sonoma Vineyards, which sold higher-priced wines through conventional channels.

Mr. Strong developed a voracious appetite for vineyard land. And although land was cheap by today's standards, the costs forced him to look for outside investors.

In 1970, Sonoma Vineyards became the first California winery to issue publicly traded stock. It came out at $5, rose to $41 -- then the wine bubble burst. The winery was swallowed up by a New York liquor distributor with the inauspicious name (at least to Dracula fans) of Renfield.

"Renfield was a gin house," Mr. Strong said. "They had 90 salesmen and not one could say pinot noir without pronouncing the 't.' "

From Renfield, the winery's ownership bounced from the Schenley liquor distribution house to the giant British brewer Guinness, pausing along the way to rename itself Rodney Strong Vineyards in 1982, even though by that time Mr. Strong was just an employee.

Through all the turmoil, Mr. Strong held on as winemaker, but the quality of the wines suffered.

In 1989, scandal-ridden Guinness put the winery on the market. A group led by Mr. Strong was one of the bidders, but it lost. Rodney Strong the winery was now owned by Tom Klein the businessman.

Somehow, Rodney Strong the dancer landed on his feet again. Mr. Klein decided to keep both the name and the winemaker, while bringing business skills that Mr. Strong lacked.

He has been lucky in other ways. Those vineyards that drove the winery into debt in the 1960s look like a good deal now. He estimates his cost of production at $600 a ton, when other wineries are paying $1,200 and up for comparable grapes.

"I've always felt very strongly about controlling the vineyard that you make your wine from," Mr. Strong said. "It's hard to get a grower to do precisely what you want him to do."

Judging by the wines Mr. Strong poured, the winery is at the top of its game, and its low costs structure lets it keep prices quite reasonable.

The best Rodney Strong wines are those that come from specified vineyards. The reserve and regular bottlings are well made, but the real excitement is to be found in the sauvignon blanc from Charlotte's Home, the chardonnay from Chalk Hill, the pinot noir from River East, the zinfandel from River West and the cabernet sauvignon from Alexander's Crown.

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