Cover: Rockaway, Rodney Strong Master Blender Experience, Sonoma County, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull
When one of our favorite wineries, Rodney Strong, called a couple of months ago to see if we’d like to come out for a few days to learn more about the winery and attend a blending seminar, we only had one question – when? Whatever the date, we would clear our calendar to attend such a unique experience.
Our Master Blender experience was scheduled for the first week of February and when we received the final agenda the week before – wow! Amazing food, wine tastings, luxury accommodations, visits led by the winery’s viticulturist to locations few get a chance to ever see, sessions with Rodney Strong’s winemakers to learn about the winemaking process, and a blending seminar led by Rodney Strong’s head winemaker, Rick Sayre.
Rodney Strong Vineyards Master Blender Experience Day 1: Arrival and welcome dinner
We arrived early in the afternoon at the Vintner’s Inn in Santa Rosa where we would be staying during the event. A four-diamond luxury hotel, the Vintner’s Inn is the epitome of wine country elegance, with stately rooms, elegant gardens, and one of our favorite restaurants, John Ash & Co.
With such a beautiful Sonoma afternoon at our disposal, we set out for a hike on the two-mile trail around the property while a bottle of Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay chilled in the fridge – the perfect post-hike refreshment upon our return!
Our welcome dinner was at John Ash & Co. with winemaker, Justin Seidenfeld, Rodney Strong’s social media manager, Laura Perret Fontana, and the four additional event attendees, Marlynn Jayme Schotland, Jana Seitzer, Annabelle Pericin and Robert Larsen.
As we worked our way through savory courses accompanied by Rodney Strong wines, Justin provided the background and details on each of the wines. Originally from Colorado, Justin graduated from the University of California, Davis in 2006 with a B.S. in Viticulture & Enology and has been making wine in Sonoma county since 2005, and at Rodney Strong since 2010.
Off to a great beginning to a fascinating week, we were eager to explore the vineyards and learn more about the winemaking process.
Rodney Strong Vineyards Master Blender Experience Day 2: Vineyard tours, barrel tasting, and an abundance of spectacular food & wine
Winegrower relations manager, Ryan Decker, was our guide for vineyard tours for the morning of day two. Our first stop – Chalk Hill in Windsor.
As we enjoyed a delicious breakfast prepared by Rodney Strong Winery Chef Tara Watchel amidst the vines, Ryan explained the unique properties of the Chalk Hill area, where the soil appears “chalky” due to ash deposits from a long-past volcanic eruption.
An excellent start to the day – learning about the vines that produced the very Chardonnay that was in my hand just the afternoon before.
First released in 1974, Alexander’s Crown was Sonoma’s first single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, quickly gaining acclaim, including being named the highest rated Cabernet Sauvignon in Robert Parker’s first issue.
Situated on hills that rise 360 feet above the valley floor, 66 acres are planted at Alexander’s Crown, with Block 1 at the top of the hill producing the prime, most intensely flavored grapes. Listening to Ryan describe the meticulous grape growing processes, it became obvious there are no shortcuts in creating a spectacular bottle of wine.
Each detail is constantly analyzed in an effort to gain even a fraction of improvement. Grapes are picked in 1/2 ton sections to isolate the best blocks or sections of vines. Cross arms were added to the stakes a few years back to “add shade with dappled sunlight” as overexposure can result in too much tannin. And the list goes on, in pursuit of producing an even more perfect bottle of wine.
The Alexander’s Crown property is also the home of Rodney Strong’s owners, the Klein family, and the location of a former home of Rod and Charlotte Strong. Ryan explained that Charlotte bred Bull Mastifs and would frequently take the dogs down to play in an area between Alexander’s Crown and the Russian River. That same area, where she spent so much time, now produces a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, called Charlotte’s Home.
Rockaway at Rockaway
As we drove through the back roads of Sonoma County on our way from Alexander’s Crown to our next destination, Rockaway, Ryan would point out highlights along the way. Given that his family first settled in the Alexander Valley in 1858, it’s understandable that he knows the area like the back of his hand.
Along the way, Ryan explained that the Pine Flat vineyards next to Sausal Creek produced some of the best Merlot of all the vineyards and it was one of the few that could be dry farmed, meaning no supplemental water was required. Dry farming requires a high vigor, deep rooting stock.
Entering the Rockaway vineyards, we began to climb up through the rolling, vine-covered hills which rise to an elevation of 750 feet. Rodney Strong purchased the property, which grows mostly Bordeaux varietals, in 2003. It produces the grapes for the single vineyard Rockaway Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
As we passed a few olive trees, just barely visible from the road, Ryan explained there were more – he’d found an olive orchard on the property. Following his discovery, he’d torn out the brush and pruned the trees and, in 2014, they produced their first batch of oil from the orchard.
Arriving near the top of the hill, we left the car and climbed to the summit, where sweeping views of the Sonoma Valley and a bottle of Rockaway awaited our arrival.
Such an appropriate ending to our morning vineyards tour – sipping an amazing wine at such an amazing place. Standing atop Rockaway, gazing out over the Alexander Valley with its many vineyards, farms and ranches, it re-emphasized the importance that Rodney Strong places on location in artisan winemaking.
From such a vast amount of potential spots to grow grapes, narrowed down to the very place where we stood, then artfully created into a spectacular wine that made its way back again to this spot to be enjoyed with this stunning view – Rockaway at Rockaway is not your average morning.
Lunch at Catelli’s in Geyserville, California
Lunch was just a few minutes down the road at Catelli’s in Geyserville. Originally opened by Santi and Virginia Catelli in 1936, the restaurant is now owned and operated by third generation Catellis and siblings, Domenica and Nicholas Catelli, and specializes in local and organic creations served in the historic location.
A variety of appetizers, salads, and bottles of wine quickly appeared at the table, including our first sampling of a Davis Bynum wine. Rodney Strong acquired the Davis Bynum winery in 2007, and the commitment to preserving Bynum’s passion for quality winemaking is apparent throughout Rodney Strong.
Ryan recommended the kale salad with blood oranges, which was delectable, and then we selected the award winning 10-layer layer lasagna with the slightly spicy Domenica’s sauce. Pasta perfection. For dessert, Catelli’s delivered “grown up” root beer floats to the table. One taste and Annabelle exclaimed, “That will put chest on your hair!”
An afternoon wine tasting touring with Winemaker Justin Seidenfeld and Ron Washam
Arriving back at Rodney Strong Vineyards after lunch, it was time for a winery tour and some wine tasting. Our guide for the afternoon was Ron Washam, whose 35 years in the wine industry have included twice being named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers’ Association and who also judges at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Each step of winemaking at Rodney Strong is a combination of art and science, with industry-leading techniques deployed where appropriate to assist in crafting world-class wines. Meeting up with winemaker Justin Seidenfeld in the tank room, Justin walked us through the conversion process that brought square fermentation tanks to the winery.
The square tanks allow more wine to be stored in a given space as compared to traditional cylindrical tanks. The tanks can be monitored and controlled by an app on a smart phone or tablet, complete with alerts, from anywhere in the world.
Additionally, the interior surface of the square tanks is easier to clean, reducing water waste, which supports Rodney Strong Vineyard’s commitment to protecting the environment. Rodney Strong Vineyards operates the winery with a carbon impact of zero, making it the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma.
Next stop, the barrel rooms and barrel tasting of the Symmetry 2014 and the 2014 Rockaway. Barrel tasting is like getting to open a present before it’s actually your birthday. Sampling from a barrel provides a glimpse of the future wine – a glimpse in that the wine changes as it matures and the winemakers may adjust the blend as well. While the primary purpose of barrel tasting by the public is for purchasing futures, a private barrel tasting in the warehouse is an entirely different experience and a great chance to learn more about the winemaking process.
Following our barrel tasting, we headed to the tasting room to do some finished works sampling, which culminated with a side by side tasting of the three 2012 Rodney Strong single vineyards wines: Alexander’s Crown, Rockaway and Brothers.
With 2012 having been an excellent vintage for Sonoma County, all three are remarkable wines. Which was best? As head winemaker, Rick Sayre, would comment the next day – it’s about taste preference. Describing a side-by side tasting, he stated favorites were nearly always split 1/3, 1/3, 1/3.
Dinner at Jackson’s Bar and Oven with Winemaker Greg Morthole
After an hour’s rest at the hotel, our ride picked us up for a dinner at Jackson’s Bar in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square.
Owned and operated by Chef Josh Silvers, Jackson’s is a casual, wine country eatery, serving comfort food crafted from seasonal, organic Sonoma ingredients. Our winemaker host for the evening was Greg Morthole, who oversees the Reserve and Single Vineyard wine making.
The evening was a wonderful blend of wine, food and conversation, ending with amazing beignets served with chocolate sauce, vanilla anglaise, and a fresh raspberry sauce.
Rodney Strong Vineyards Master Blender Experience Day 3: Blending seminar with head winemaker, Rick Sayre
Just when you think it wouldn’t be possible to eat or drink anything ever again, the next day dawns and breakfast sounded pretty good.
The group met at the Vintner’s Inn Café for a healthy start to the day, then it was off to the winery for a blending seminar with head winemaker, Rick Sayre, who joined Rodney Strong Vineyards in 1979 and Rachel Voorhees, director of education for the winery.
Morning blending seminar with head winemaker Rick Sayre and director of education Rachel Voorhees
Heading into the blending seminar, we had no idea what a cool morning we were going to experience. Rounding the corner to the room, each place was set with tasting glasses of each of the varietals used in the 2012 Symmetry, and a glass of the actual 2012 Symmetry. Historic vintages of wines lined the walls of the room, including some bottles with hand written labels by Rod Strong dating back to 1970.
Symmetry is a Meritage (pronounced like heritage), with the wine being crafted like a Bordeaux blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. A Meritage must not contain more than 90% of any one single grape type.
Rachel and Rick walked us through a brief overview of Rodney Strong Vineyards, the history of Meritage, and the properties each grape brings to the blend. Then it was time to blend some wine.
Armed with bottles of the varietals, beakers, and pipettes, we each set out to blend our own version of the wine. When finished, Rick tasted our creations, commenting on our blends, and awarded an overall winner.
I called mine “A Secret.” As in, “What are you drinking?” “It’s A Secret.” I went with the 80/20 rule, as in 80% Cab and 20% of the others (it donned on me later that I should have named it Pareto). My blend consisted of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 5% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot.
My blend ended up 2nd runner up, with Annabelle’s winning the day. The experience was fun, educational and truly a cool adventure!
Lunch prepared by Rodney Strong winery chef Tara Watchel with head winemaker Rick Sayre
Our time at Rodney Strong ended with a lunch with Rick Sayres in a dining room above the tasting room.
The lunch, prepared by winery chef, Tara Wachtel, was exquisite, served with perfect wines and some of the olive oil from the orchard Ryan had discovered at Rockaway. The group chatted about fishing in Alaska, Sonoma county, and Rodney Strong’s history, savoring the time remaining in our amazing visit.
Huge thanks to Laura Perret Fontana, Justin Seidenfeld, Ryan Decker, Greg Morthole, Ron Washam, Rachel Voorhees, Tara Wachtel, Rick Sayre and everyone at Rodney Strong Vineyards for such a wonderful experience.
Disclaimer: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. We received no compensation for this article. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.