Rodney D. Strong is a man who gives the impression of never doing things half way. A dancer and choreographer, he turned to wine ("the only other thing I knew") as a second career when youthful agility waned. Beginning in 1960 as Tiburon Vintners, he started to develop a winery near Windsor in Sonoma County. A mail-order service featuring personalized labels helped create a multimillion dollar annual business.By the early 1970s a public company had been formed, the name had become Sonoma Vineyards and its ultramodern winery was part of nearly 5,000 acres held by the company.
Financial difficulties plagued Sonoma through 1974 and 1975, but an alliance with Renfield, a major national wines and spirits distributors, appears to have eased the situation. "All our financial problems are behind us," Strong said during a visit here last week. "We failed miserably at building our own chain of distribution. Renfield's specialty is marketing. They have an equity position, but they did not buy the company. It's still freestanding."
In the process the generic lines have been abandoned. "Others do them well," Strong said, "but my view is let's be a premium winery." Vineyard holdings have shrunk to about half what they were at the peak. Still, Sonoma grows almost all its own "noble" grapes while purchasing a percentage of mild-varietals such as zinfandel and chenin blanc. "We're largely an agriculture company," Strong said. This means he can direct pruning and watering in the vineyards, practices that determine yield, as well as crushing grapes and aging wine.
Strong supports stringent regulation of premium or varietal wines - "as tight as possible" - from the Bureau of Alcoho1, Tobacco and Firearms because "We are the only company on a national scale that will benefit. We can produce up to 500,000 cases a year." Most vineyards with strictly varietal product lines are considerably smaller.
According to him, after hard times and some business failures, speculators have faded from the California wine scene. "We're back to bed rock. People are trying to make wines and increase their share of the market. The market's increasing. In general business is good, but the industry is nowhere near maturity."
One recent problem has been the weather. Sonoma's 1976 gallonage, after a hot, dry summer, was down about 30 per cent. Strong said this was about average for his Northern California neighbors, too. He predicts the whites to be spotty. As for the current drought, it hasn't yet made disaster certain this year, but rain will be needed in March and April if there is to be chance for a normal crop.
Strong brought along several Sonoma Vineyards' wines. They were tasted during a luncheon built around oysters and stuffed breast of veal. His 1975 Johannesburg riesling, a light sipping wine in the Mosel style, was served before the food arrived. The 1974 Chardonnay, a gold medal winner at the Los Angeles County Fair, was a deep, full-flavored wine. "I don't like chardonnay to be crisp and light," Strong declared.
He then produced a cabernet sauvignon, pinont noir and zinfandel, all from his vineyards and all from the 1973 vintage. The zinfandel was another big wine, aged in American oak. As a winemaker Strong feels "you should sense the wood but not taste it. I like the whisper of wood," he said, "it adds complexity." The cabernet, a blend containing 10 per cent merlot and nearly 14 degrees of alcohol, spent almost two years in wood. It is ready to drink, but Strong foresees further development in the bottle.
His intention is to defy the conventional wisdom that the pinot noir and California are mismatched. Strong's theory is to go back to the old ways of making burgundy, to plant the grapes in cool areas, to allow the wine to ferment on the stems and to build up heat during fermentation. Dark and fragrant, Strong's pinot noir had a welcoming bouquet though it was less impressive to taste.
Strong objects to a "laboratory philosophy" prevalent in the science-oriented California wine industry. "They (university-trained wine makers) are test-tube oriented instead of bucket oriented," Strong said. "They theorize too much."
The wines from Sonoma Vineyards are available at several local retail stores. Here is a list of prices: Cabernet sauvignon, 1973: $3.45; Johannesburg riesling, 1975, pinot noir and zinfandel, 1973: all $4.69; chardonnay, 1974: $5.75. They may vary from store to store.