Rodney Strong Vineyards

The Rodney Strong winery is located in the northeastern corner of The Russian River district in Sonoma County.  It is a little out of the way, since the Old Redwood Highway, where Rodney Strong sits, isn’t chockablock full of wineries, as compared, say, with Dry Creek Road or Westside Road, both relatively nearby.  While there are other wineries we favor close to Rodney Strong, such as Limerick Lane or Foppiano, you pretty much have to consider it to be a destination, rather than a place you would be one stop among many.

The Rodney Strong facility.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

And a destination it should be.  It is not a Sonoma Palace, but it is rather grand.  You enter up a long staircase with splendid foliage all around you.  Once inside, you find an elegant, if a bit austere tasting room with servers who know quite a lot about the Rodney Strong wines.  They had better, because there are so many of them.

The tasting room at Rodney Strong.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

The reason we say that this winery is atypical for Russian River is that they don’t just make Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Chardonnay, although they do produce all those varietals.  But there are also Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Sauvignon, red and white blends and rosé.  In this regard, Rodney Strong is more like a winery in Napa Valley than Russian River.

The sheer number of wines that are available for tasting is one of this winery’s strengths.  Particularly for those who are not familiar with Sonoma County wines, this is a great place for an introduction, especially to Sonoma County as it used to be.  For Rodney Strong has been making wine here since 1959, with a family history stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century.  Mr. Strong himself was a Broadway dancer, who retired to buy vineyards and make wine.  It is always a pleasure to acquaint yourself with some of the pioneers of California winemaking as we know it today.  Since Mr. Strong was among the first to plant Pinot Noir in Russian River and Chardonnay in Chalk Hill, you really have a chance there to indulge in wine history.

Another way that Rodney Strong reflects the past is the price points for its wines.  In these days when the top bottles in many wineries go for well north of a hundred dollars, their most expensive wines under the Rodney Strong label can be purchased for two digits.  The cost of a wine is not necessarily indicative of its quality, but the overall pricing does set expectations.  Within that restriction, Rodney Strong delivers good, drinkable wine, some definitely worth sampling.

Unfortunately, the strength of such a wide range of varietals is also a weakness.  No one can make that many wines equally well.  But if your intent is to have wine for everyday dinners or barbecues, you can do very well at Rodney Strong.  And there are some wines you might taste that will do well with a weekend steak dinner as well.

The experience of a tasting at Rodney Strong – ambience, selection and wine – make a trip there quite satisfying.

Wine Tasting Dinners

We have attended a variety of wine tasting dinners.  Some of them were associated with wine clubs of which we were members.  Others, also related to our clubs, were hosted by a wine distributor who showed off the top offerings of several wineries.  We often attend dinners given by a wine society.  Most recently, our university alumni association has been sponsoring dinners that have featured winemakers who graduated from the college.

In general, we have had the opportunity to taste a half dozen or more of what the producers believe are their best wines.  In some cases where more than one winery is represented, there can be twenty or more wines available for tasting.  Sometimes, we have been served tasting portions only; in others, the bar was essentially open.

A dinner at the Etude winery.  Winemaker Jon Priest is speaking.

With all that alcohol, there had better be some food served.  Occasionally, we have been disappointed to be offered no more than hors d’oeuvres that were passed around.  At the same event the following year, we made sure to eat heartily before drinking, only to find that they had laid out enough food, buffet style, for two meals (that we barely touched).

At the recent university affair, Rhône wines were poured to accompany a Chinese banquet, with 16 dishes.  With so many food choices, appropriate pairings are nearly impossible.  Sure, if they are carving roast beef, we’ll stick with Cabernet Sauvignon or Châteauneuf du Pape.  (One dinner put on by a winery that specializes in sparkling wines served short ribs.  How did it work?  Poorly.)  And there is no Rhône wine ever made to go with tofu in a spicy sauce.

One of the attractions of these sorts of occasions is the opportunity to speak with representatives of the wineries or in some cases the winemakers themselves.  This provides a chance to really understand the background of whatever we were tasting.  We have learned about terroir, climate, farming techniques, trellising, pressing and barreling from the people who were in a position to know what they were talking about.  For the most part, they seemed happy to discuss their products and field questions from avid – but not always knowledgeable – amateurs.

We usually meet nice people at these events, with a range of backgrounds and interests.  Of course, we were all united in being interested in the wines being served.  (We don’t remember ever encountering anyone who was there just to get drunk.)  We have met young people just getting to learn about wine and oldsters whose cellars are as deep as their wine knowledge.  Yes, there is a fair amount of wine snobbery and one-upmanship, but for the most part the talk have been convivial.

At a seated dinner, we have always been at a table with strangers.  As the meal has gone along – and the wine has flowed – conversations have become livelier.  (Perhaps the wine was a factor?)  We always find it interesting to hear how others have come to appreciate the wineries that are the stars of the show and compare their experiences with ours.

One caveat: the wine tasting dinners are set up by people who sell wine for a living.  There will always be a sales pitch and the opportunity to buy the wines that accompanied the dinners.  We’ve frequently taken advantage of some real bargains, but more often walked away without buying.


Did you ever have a Minervoix wine?  If you did but it was long ago, you probably haven’t tried them again because what you had was rough and acidic.  We urge you to give another try to these wines from the southwest of France; they have been remarkably improved since that time.

And should you ever find yourself in the French southwest, you would value a trip to the tiny village of Minerve.  To appreciate it you need to know a little history.

The village is named after the Roman goddess Minerva, whose cult rivaled Christianity in Imperial Rome.  In the Middle Ages, there arose in the southwest a new religion, Catharism, that was opposed to the Catholic Church.  This led to war with the Pope and the King of France, which resulted in the extermination of the Cathars.  140 of them in Minerve were burnt at the stake rather than repent their religion.  Today, the principal street in Minerve is the Rue des Martyrs.

The gruesome events of the year 1210 left Minerve frozen in time. While we have no reason to doubt that the people of the village practice Catholicism today, a great deal of their livelihoods come from tourists who are aware of their association with the Cathars.  In the gift shops, of which there are many, they sell books and ornaments associated with their long-dead Cathar ancestors.

Minerve was carved out of a rock face of a hill overlooking a small river, the Briant.  The houses and buildings are made from local stone, with Spanish-style roof tiles.  (The entire area was considered a part of Spain until the end of the Thirty Years War in 1649.  Spanish cultural influence is still felt strongly throughout the region.)  Everything has been cleaned up for the benefit of the tourists.  But it is not hard to imagine the medieval lifestyle that must have prevailed there for a very long time.

It is a bit difficult to reach Minerve, but the views as you approach the village are worth the drive.  You enter Minerve over a high stone bridge that was built in the early 20th century.  How the world got to Minerve, or how the villagers got out, before the bridge was built is hard to imagine.  Once across, you have to park just outside Minerve and walk into it.  One of the first sights you’ll see is the remains of a tower that was built for defense in the religious war.  The little church dates back to the 11th century.  Might it have been taken over by the Cathars for their use?  Probably.  At the bottom of the Rue des Martyrs, you can see the grounds where the brave Cathars lost their lives.

Make sure to leave time for a meal when you visit Minerve.  You’ll find genuine French country cooking in the restaurants and cafes there.  Most of them are situated with incredible views from the rocky promontory where Minerve sits.  We only know what it’s like there in warm weather, so we can say that the local white wines go a long way towards managing the heat.

Wines You Can’t Buy Back Home

It happens so often.  We’re at a winery and really loving the wine we’re tasting.  We don’t have the space to take any home with us, so we ask, “Where can we buy this wine?” only to be told that it’s for sale in the winery only.  Or for club members only.  Or, overseas, that the production is so small that distributors don’t find it worthwhile to export it.  The only thing we could do is to buy a case on the spot – if they’ll sell it to us – and have it shipped, which is ruinously expensive.  So all we can do is leave, just a little disappointed.

If you find yourself in such a situation, here are some tips to soothe your disappointment.

  • Have someone local pick up a few bottles for you. This isn’t always feasible, because you may not know anyone in some of the more remote corners of Wine Country.  But in the instances when you do have a local friend, you might ask them to hold on to this special wine until your next trip or when they visit you.  Of course, these had better be very reliable friends… or they may be overly tempted to try out the wine you leave with them.

  • Consider the winery’s other wines. It’s too bad that you can’t find a top-of-the-line wine in your home town, but maybe you can find one of their other wines that are more available.  If a winemaker is capable of something that knocked your socks off, they probably are as attentive to their lesser wines as they are conscientious with their best one.  We have experienced this with Château des Estanilles in France.  Their Raison d’Etre is one of our favorite wines from the Languedoc, but it’s produced so sparingly that they don’t ship it.  But they have another they call Vallongue, and we drink it frequently when we’re in Canada.  (For some reason, it’s not imported into the US.)
  • Use your taste memory to record a great souvenir. There is an ocean of wine in this world and you’re not going to taste them all.  A small percentage of them are truly great; in all likelihood you’re not going to have a chance to try all of them either.  So when you do get a chance to sip something especially special, savor the moment.  Smell it deeply.  Roll it around in your mouth, while doing your best to remember every nuance of what you’re tasting.  You may never pass this way again, so carpe diem.
  • Tell your friends about the wine that got away. Sort of like fishermen do.  The point is that you know you’ve had a great experience.  If nothing else, you’ll encourage your friends to visit that winery so they can share your enthusiasm.  Or maybe just make them a little jealous.  But avoid being a wine snob; this wine was just a part of your vacation to them.