These days, it seems as though anyone with a couple million extra bucks to rub together wants to get into the wine business. The industry is full of fallen-away attorneys and captains of both airplanes and industry. Rodney Strong, on the other hand, was a dancer, and trained with the likes of Martha Graham and George Balanchine (he was a certifiable star at the Lido in Paris, to boot). Deciding, long before Graham did, that there was no future in being an old dancer, and blessed (or cursed) with a palate formed on French wines, Strong set out for California and began blending bottles in the cellar of an old boardinghouse in Tiburon.
Learning by dogged doing, he soon saw the need for his own vineyards and winery and, in 1962, purchased a faded facility in Sonoma County. As the enterprise grew, Strong became known for his wines and an uncanny sense of where grapes, such as chardonnay and pinot noir, would thrive. In 1979, Strong hired full-time winemaker Rick Sayre, who (though the winery was sold to Tom Klein and his family in the early ’90s), continues to make wine under the Rodney Strong label. Strong’s death earlier this year reminded many in the industry of his pioneering efforts; Sayre’s wines are eloquent testimony to his legacy.
Zinfandels and cabernets are a part of Strong’s current arsenal, but, sentimentally, this tasting began with pinot noir, the 2004 Estate Vineyards Russian River Valley. It’s a brilliant wine, flashing ruby with all the éclat of Dorothy’s slippers. Only a hint of pinot’s characteristic barnyard aromas is apparent at first sniff. From there, it’s cherry all the way, but not big cherry: In elegant, Fred Astaire fashion, it dances teasingly across the tongue, hinting at much but revealing little. Paradoxically, the finish is long and intense, but the middle waits for food to wake it up — which is just what both a country terrine and a piece of Basque cheese did, evoking spice and building body. This Fred needs his Ginger, in other words.
The 2002 Sonoma County Merlot is spicy from the get-go and herbal, too, with faint suggestions of dill. Rhubarb, tobacco, cedar, pepper, and even rose were the flavors bandied about, but most could agree on plum as a common denominator and lively acidity as the foundation of all the diverse descriptors. A toasty caramel quality tied up the taste buds at the curtain. Complexity, intensity, and grace: Let’s say Baryshnikov.
Sayre’s 2003 Estate Vineyards Knotty Vines Zinfandel comes on with all the power of Gene Kelly: It’s big, brambly blackberry in spades. But Sayre balances its muscularity with Kelly’s typical grace and finesse as well. The blackberry isn’t too jammy, the spice is present but never insistent, and the body never feels heavy despite nearly 15 percent alcohol. Good with a variety of flavorful cheeses, this was sensational with the lusty terrine. Sort of like adding Rita Moreno to the mix.
Saving the expected best to last, I had pulled a bottle from my so-called cellar, autographed by Sayre himself, no less. It was the 2001 Alden Vineyards Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and I was expecting Nureyev. Sadly, he was a no-show due to corkiness. It was slight and kept threatening to blow off, but never quite did. We sensed an elegant beast struggling to emerge, but that’s all that can be said. All of which is an argument for having a Ruby Keeler waiting in the wings. Or for screw cap closures. They may seem mere corps de ballet, not prima ballerina, but they’re dependable.