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Tasting Room of the Week

Rodney Strong Winery

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: Rodney Strong is a man of somewhat biblical proportions--at least in Sonoma winemaking. You sort of feel the need to put a whole lot of "begats" behind his name. Because somewhere in the history of so many Russian River, Alexander Valley and specifically Chalk Hill wineries, the former dancer turned winemaker shows up with remarkable frequency.

Like a handful of others, Strong saw the potential in the orchards and open fields of wine country, despite the misgivings of his city-girl wife. And what began farther south near Sausalito as a wine-distributing business turned in 1959 into a full-fledged winery in Windsor, the acquisition of some of Sonoma's most prime grape-growing acreage and finally an empire turning out some 500,000 cases annually.

And though Strong himself has long-since faded from the picture (the winery has been acquired several different times and is now under the ownership of the Klein family), his namesake still produces some amazing wines worthy of his pioneering spirit--in addition to being a darned nice place to visit.

Mouth value: On my visits, the staff at Rodney Strong were remarkably friendly and helpful, giving no customer pressure to leave with a couple of cases of wine. Overall, the wines are a bit like you'd imagine Rodney to be: sprightly, engaging and cosmopolitan with a healthy dose of farm-country down-to-earthiness. Most are in the $18 to $28 range, making them approachable dinner and entertaining wines.

The 2003 Charlotte's Home Sauvignon Blanc ($12) is a Harvest Fair winner that pulls back on the floral and leans much more toward the fruit, making for a crisp snap of a wine that won't leave you puckering. Best served nice and chilly. The 2002 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($14) has surprising depth and creaminess for the price range. I liked the solid oak that is well-balanced with the fruit.

Reds are some of Strong's, well, strongest contenders. The 2002 Russian River Valley Pinot ($18) has tons of fruit, and felt a little young but will likely get more complex with some aging. Worth the $3 extra tasting fee (though when I offered to pay, I was waved away) was a taste of the 1999 Symmetry Red Meritage ($55). The Symmetry is consistently one of the winery's most acclaimed wines, and for good reason. It's huge and deep with an amazing nose and ripe, dark fruit. It's like comparing a Big Mac and a filet mignon. Both are wonderful, but one is just, well, more wonderful in a soul-satisfying way. (And, yes, I mean the filet.)

Don't miss: Take the self-guided tour of the winery as you enter. There are plenty of interesting facts about the winery and winemaking without any annoying tour guides.

Spot: Rodney Strong Winery, 11455 Old Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg. Open daily, 10am-5pm. Free tasting for many wines; $3 each for some special reserve wines. 1.800.678.4763.

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From the November 10-16, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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