The Grapevine 

Strong Stuff

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At a Bastille Day dinner in Park City last month, I became reacquainted with the wines of Rodney Strong Vineyards, which I’ve come to take for granted over the years. That evening, 350 Main’s executive chef Michael LeClerc and his hardworking team laid out a delectable multicourse celebration wine dinner paired with Rodney Strong wines. 

During a first course of chilled asparagus and lobster meunière—which was every bit as good as it sounds—Mitch Preston, a representative of Rodney Strong Vineyards, laid the Rodney Strong story on me. I hadn’t heard it before. We were drinking the delightful ’06 Rodney Strong “Charlotte’s Home” Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma County when Mitch mentioned that the winery’s founder—Strong himself—was a lead dancer at the Lido in Paris. Did I hear that right? The Lido?

Indeed, Rodney D. Strong was a dancer who’d studied with George Balanchine and Martha Graham. And yes, he danced in Paris for four years, including at the Lido. But in Paris, Strong fell in love … with wine. The French wine “filled his head,” said Preston, and would continue to do so after he returned to the United States in 1951. By 1959, Strong had retired from dance and began pursuing winecraft in Tiburon. “I couldn’t be an old dancer, but I could be an old winemaker,” he’s quoted as saying. Thus begat Tiburon Vintners. And by 1970, Strong—armed with climate data from University of California-Davis—broke ground on a new vineyard in Healdsburg, Calif., which would ultimately become Rodney Strong Vineyards.

Fast forward to 2007, and Rodney Strong Vineyards—now under the direction of Tom Klein and winemaking pros like Gary Patzwald, Rick Sayre and Douglas McIlroy—is making world-class wine, which was Strong’s dream (he died last year). But I doubt that, in Paris or Tiburon, he’d ever envisioned making wine from a dozen different vineyards.

 Charlotte’s Home Sauvignon Blanc, named to honor Strong’s wife and fellow dance companion, is typical of a light, pear-infused California Sauvignon Blanc from the Alexander Valley. It’s good stuff for around $15. At the Bastille Day dinner, I felt that the Charlotte’s Home SV paired (and peared) a bit nicer with the “Premier Plat” roasted pear salad than the 2005 Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay ($15). But I liked this inexpensive wine quite a lot. It’s definitely not a powerhouse California Chard. Unlike some of the higher-priced Rodney Strong Chardonnays, this one is crisp and delicate, certainly not over the top. I just wish more domestic winemakers would make wine with this sort of finesse at the affordable end of the wine scale. I’ll try it next time with simply prepared sole or flounder.

Rodney Strong Estate Pinot Noir ($22) from the Russian River Valley was a good dance partner for Chef LeClerc’s outstanding dish of grilled wild Alaskan salmon with morels, foie gras, crisp leeks and caramelized shallot beurre rouge. But then, almost anything would have tasted great with this superb dish. Who’d have known LeClerc would follow it up with a pièce de résistance that really was: seared venison from New Zealand with a duxelles-stuffed zucchini flower, paired with 2004 Rodney Strong Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($16).

Too often I forget to dance, just like too often I overlook inexpensive, time-tested treasures right in front of me like Rodney Strong wines. They might not wow you, but take them out for a rumba or two and you might discover you’ve found a very supple and willing partner.

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More by Ted Scheffler

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