Smooth Jazz and Even Smoother Wine

    Each summer, the superstars of smooth jazz fill the grounds of Rodney Strong Vineyards with soothing, soulful music — the ideal companion to a chilled glass of Russian River Valley Chardonnay.

     And the summer of 2009 will be no exception. Tickets for the KJZY Summer Concert Series at the winery in Healdsburg, Calif. — that’s northern Sonoma County — are now on sale, and the lineup is as STRONG as ever.

     But wonderful, relaxing music in the shade of the summer sun is only one reason to visit Rodney Strong. The main reason, as you may have guessed, is the wine.

     Although the estate has an admirable winemaking history, proprietor Tom Klein is constantly looking to the future. In that regard, Rodney Strong has embarked on a mission to produce small-lot wines that come from isolated parts of select vineyards — or “sweet spots,” as viticulturist Doug McIlroy likes to call them. While Klein wants the winery to be successful, his chief goal today is to have it recognized as one of the very best.

     In that pursuit, he brought on Gary Patzwald, former winemaker for Matanzas Creek Winery, to work side by side with veteran vintner Rick Sayre. And he made available top consultants to assist them in the quality quest. Together, Sayre, Patzwald and McIlroy have more than a century of experience with wine.

     “It’s all about the vision,” says Klein. “It’s all about living the vision — being one of California’s most respected wine companies by crafting delicious Sonoma County wines that reflect our passion and creativity. It’s the same drive that brought us to this point and will take us to new heights in the future.”

     While the future is bright, Klein does not neglect the winery’s past. In fact, he and his team have great respect for the winery’s founder and namesake, who passed away in 2006. Ironically, Rodney Strong was born in 1927 — during Prohibition.

     Strong’s first love was dance, and by age 15 he was practicing five hours a day, training for what would be a successful career, and refining his skills with the likes of Martha Graham and George Ballanchine at the American School of Ballet. His passion took him to Paris, where he lived for four years and was the lead dancer at the Lido in its early years.

     Strong returned to the States in 1951 to dance and to teach dance, but his head was filled with the wondrous aromas and flavors of so many fine French wines.

     “I knew I couldn’t be an old dancer, but I could be an old winemaker,” Strong said on more than one occasion.

     In 1962, he purchased an old vineyard and winery building in Windsor, once known as the Monte Carlo Winery. There, he crafted his first wines by asking questions, taking classes, making mistakes and learning. Once he’d mastered the basics, he quickly came to the inevitable conclusion that all vintners must reach: Quality winemaking requires quality grapes, and the best way to assure the latter is to grow your own, and get good at it.

     By 1970, Strong was breaking ground for a new winery building in the recently planted vineyard he called River East, in Healdsburg. In what originally was a large prune-plum orchard, he planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and constructed an impressive, efficient winery building, which today houses the tasting room and lower cellar of the estate.

     Behind the tasting room, on a vast expanse of tree-dappled lawn, is where the summertime concerts take place. As the music plays, one can close their eyes and imagine the estate’s beginnings. And with a glass of Chardonnay in hand, one can toast the winery’s founder, the new proprietor who is leading it to new heights, and the many men and women who have helped to bring good wine and good music to hundreds of thousands of people through the years.


Address: 11455 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg, Calif.

Phone Numbers: 800-474-9463 or 707-433-6521

Winemakers: Rick Sayre and Gary Patzwald

Winemaking Consultants: David Ramey and Bob Steinhauer

Concert Series Info:

Posted in Wineries of Distinction
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