Rodney Strong Vineyards wows NCWC judges with a rosé that reflects the well-tended soil where it was grown.
By Alexandra Russell
Rosé wine shouldn’t just be the “extra” bottle you pull out when you and your friends decide to keep going. And it definitely shouldn’t be made merely to “repurpose” juice strained from red wine fermentations to concentrate those flavors. Luckily, rosé has undergone a rebirth in the United States over the last several years, with winemakers turning away from cloyingly sweet versions favored in the past and toward a drier, European style. It’s a shift that caused wine lovers to take notice, reassess, and voice new appreciation for pink wine.
Today’s rosé wines have taken a seat at the judges’ table and proved themselves worthy of serious consideration. Case in point, Rodney Strong Vineyards 2019 Sonoma County Rosé of Pinot Noir was chosen by judges as Best Rosé Wine at the 2020 Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge (NCWC). It’s a competition that’s only open to wines made of grapes sourced from California’s North Coast AVAs, including those in Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, Marin, and parts of Solano counties. Now in its ninth year, NCWC only added rosé as a category five years ago in response to the uptick in quality.
“This wine is an intentional rosé,” says Chris O’Gorman, director of communications at the winery, speaking of the winner. “It’s from fruit grown specifically for this wine and not made from free-run juice of another wine as an afterthought. We make this wine from Pinot Noir grapes grown specifically for rosé in the Russian River Valley, one of the very best places in the world to grow Pinot. And we make it in a style that’s dry and food-friendly. It really is a wine where everything has come together to harmonize in an amazing glass of wine.”
Like many other U.S. wineries, Rodney Strong’s rosé program has evolved with the times. “We used to make a small amount of rosé of Malbec for our Rodney Strong Summer Concert Series, but five years ago we raised the bar with our rosé of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and the response has been amazing,” says winemaker Justin Seidenfeld, who’s been part of the team for a decade. “The wine is great, and we seem to have timed the rosé ‘wave’ pretty well.”
What winning means
The winery enters several competitions each year, but O’Gorman considers NCWC among the most important. “The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is our local newspaper, so this competition is one of the most important ones we participate in, since it’s literally in our backyard,” he says. “Plus, it’s fun to compete against all our friends and neighbors each year to see who’s making the best cabs, pinots, chardonnays, and so on—and, of course, we then go out and buy and enjoy them.”
Of course, it’s even better when your wine is among the winners. “We’re so honored and excited to have won best rosé this year,” he says. “It’s the culmination of years of hard work from many people, from our vineyard folks to the winemaking, marketing teams, and beyond.”
“The competition is important because it’s tied to the leading local publication in the area and gives our team members great pride in our hometown,” adds Seidenfeld. “We’re very excited and honored to win against such great wineries in this competition.”
Like so many other wineries in the eligible counties, Rodney Strong has endured multiple back-to-back years of wildfires and evacuations, as well as the trials of the global pandemic shutting down tasting rooms and limiting in-person interactions with customers. “[Winning now] gives us an opportunity to celebrate a success in the midst of what’s been a challenging few years for the wine industry and our community,” says O’Gorman. “We will certainly promote this award, and hopefully it will inspire some new customers to try Rodney Strong wines.”
Community means more at Rodney Strong than simply winning local competitions. The winery has long supported organizations that benefit regional organizations. “Rodney Strong Vineyards has passionately supported our community for decades,” says O’Gorman. “Our founder, Rod Strong, was a world-famous dancer, and we’ve sponsored the Rodney Strong Luther Burbank Dancer Series to honor that. In addition, we support dozens of local charities, including Meals on Wheels, Food Bank of Santa Rosa, Redwood Empire Food Bank, as well as national charities such as C.O.R.E. [Children of Restaurant Employees], Jose Andres World Central Kitchen, and American Forests, among others.”
That same commitment to being better stretches into the fields. In the 1990s, Rodney Strong proprietor Tom Klein challenged the team to adopt sustainability as a core company value, and to protect and preserve the environment for future generations. It became the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma County. In 2003, it installed the largest solar array of any winery in the world; it just refitted the entire system, which produces more than 50 percent of all the facility’s electrical needs.
All vineyards have recently been certified sustainable for a second time. “We have a robust recycling program at the winery and we also use pressure technology in the vineyards to limit water,” shares O’Gorman. “Part of our sustainability program is about continuous improvement, so we’re constantly looking for ways to improve in this area.”
Seidenfeld joined Rodney Strong after working as a harvest enologist at Robert Mondavi’s Napa Valley winery, where he developed a comprehensive understanding of quality land and viticulture practices. In addition to making the wines, he’s tasked with overseeing all estate vineyards and working closely with dedicated growers to make sure quality continuously improves.
“Rodney Strong was exciting to me because of its dedication to cultivating estate vineyards,” he says of his decision to join the winery.
“All of our estate vineyards are certified to the highest level available through CSWA [California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance] as well as being certified for Fish Friendly Farming,” he continues. “And while the certifications are great, we look beyond those to make sure our process provides the smallest possible impact to the environment using technology, conservation, and the best farming practices available.”
As they say, the best soil makes the best wine.
The Press Democrat North Coast Wine Challenge 2021 is now accepting entries. Visit www.pdncwc.com for more information.