Rodney Strong Winemaker Rick Sayre: Lucky, But Deserving

 

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Rick Sayre, Chairman of the 2016 Cincinnati International Wine Festival

On a warm, sunny Sonoma day in January, Rick Sayre generously spent four hours touring, tasting and telling the story of his journey at Rodney Strong Vineyards. Toward the end of our interview, Rick confessed that he would have preferred to be fishing for steelhead trout during this relatively quiet vineyard winter season. Fortunately for me, the rivers were too muddy for fishing from so much (welcome) rain in previous weeks! Also fortunate for me was that Rick agreed to a personal and in-depth interview even though he has a well-documented pet peeve about wine writers who seem to forget that wine is above all an experience to be enjoyed. Thank you, Rick, for your warmth and trust that this interview would go in a different direction…lucky for me, and I hope deserving.

Rick Sayre is proud of how Rodney Strong Vineyards has evolved during his 36-year tenure. Yet he is so humble about his role in the winery’s growth in size, sustainability, sophisticated use of eco-friendly technology, and the quality of the wine.

I would add patience, focus and adaptive skills to a long list of personal attributes. Born in Michigan, his parents left the family farm and moved to Southern California. As a young SoCal teenager living near Huntington Beach, Rick learned how to surf. When he was a sophomore in high school, his father moved the family to Northern California and farmed prunes – then the major Sonoma crop.

Entering the wine industry at age 19 was a happy accident, followed by more strokes of good fortune that have made for a rich career. Lucky, but deserving.

As a young husband and soon-to-be parent, Rick took a path away from college science and forestry, which he loved, and took a seasonal forestry job. He was after a job at a lumber mill north of Healdsburg, but as luck would have it, Rick happened to see a job posting for a position at Simi Winery. He took a leap of faith, filled out the application, and got the job! His new boss saw in Rick a person who would work hard even if he didn’t yet know anything about managing vineyards or making wine. In less than a month his title was Cellarmaster  and Assistant Winemaker to Robert Stemmler.

In early 1973, things took a very interesting turn. A change in winemakers had Rick reporting to legendary (then recently retired) Beaulieu Vineyards winemaker André Tchelitscheff who worked as a consultant with Rick for seven years. Rick’s in-depth tutelage in growing grapes, making wine, and the foundation of his respect for place began there. Rick was André’s “first wine kid” post-BV. He was one of many aspiring winemakers that André mentored as protégés. Today, Rick carries that legacy forward and is equally committed to mentoring young winemakers. His philosophy of winemaking stems from André’s influence and this period of his life: “Get out in the vineyards, get out in the market, visit consumers, experiment and taste wines often.”

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But this isn’t just Rick’s story. There are other key people, the most colorful of whom was Rodney Strong himself. Rick left Simi in 1979, compelled by these words from Rod: “I’ve got 1,200 acres of the best vineyards in Sonoma and they are yours to command. They’re yours and the bank’s!”

Rodney Strong, the Entertainer and Entrepreneur

In a tribute published after his death in 2006, Strong was described as “Debonair dancer. Witty man of the world. Small town boy. Cosmopolitan charmer. Fly fisherman. Mastiff breeder.” Others call him a visionary, and he was certainly a pioneer.

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Rod Strong grew up in Washington State loving both outdoor and competitive sports. During high school, he worked multiple part-time jobs, began studying dance, and performed in USO shows during the waning days of World War II. After a short college stint where he studied dance more formally, Strong decided to move to New York City where he was accepted into Balanchine’s American School of Ballet and later studied with Martha Graham. At the young age of 23, he took a successful show to Paris and reveled in the life of wine and food across Europe. Married in 1948 to a fellow dancer he had met in Miami, Rod and his wife, Dale, performed together in Europe for four years, returning to the U.S. in 1952.

There Strong met and married his new dance partner, Charlotte Winson, his wife until her death in 2003. They both retired from dance in 1959 and made a bold move to California, fortuitously just as the wine industry was just starting to take off. Their first winery, Tiburon Vintners, operated by purchasing bulk wines and bottling them on a smaller scale. In 1966, the Strongs founded a second business, Windsor Vineyards, and successfully pioneered “mail order” wine sales. During the next few years, they began to amass nearly 5,000 acres of vineyard properties in the Healdsburg area.

By 1970, Rod was ready to build a new wine production facility, becoming the 13th bonded winery in Sonoma County. The grand building was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. (As Rick and I said practically in unison, “that means the roof leaks”!) Drawing on his knowledge and experience in Europe, Rod applied a keen sense of terroir to choosing each vineyard purchase. The most special of these vineyards was Sonoma’s Chalk Hill, then and now a perfect location for Chardonnay.

Life Lessons in Winery Economics 1967-89

As early as 1967, Rod Strong needed to enlist capital from private investors to finance the development of his burgeoning wine business. Initially offering relatively small private placements, he took Windsor Vineyards public to build the new winery, later naming it Sonoma Vineyards. That worked for a few years until there was a major market slump in 1973-74. The following year, a national beverage marketing company helped the winery weather the down market in a venture capital deal. With an infusion of business acumen and capital, and with Rod still working as a vice president, the company recovered nicely.

In a bold step, Sonoma Vineyards entered into a joint venture with Piper Heidsieck in 1980 to build a sparkling wine production facility. Rick Sayre had just joined the company and speaks with both awe and humility about that experience as a new employee who not only had to figure out corporate ROI, but also had to fast-track knowledge of how to make good sparkling wine. (The wildly ambitious sparkling venture didn’t last long…Piper Heidsieck bought Sonoma Vineyards’ 50% share in 1987.)

An early-eighties cycle of growth and innovation lasted about three years. With capital from profits flowing again, in 1980-81 Sonoma Vineyards had acquired several wine-related companies in New York, Arizona and California. In 1982, the premium line of Sonoma Vineyards wine was rebranded Rodney Strong Vineyards.

But the growth spurt came to a grinding halt once again in 1983. The venture capital company bought back outstanding shares, took the company private, and in 1984 offered both the winery and vineyards for sale. Land holdings were reduced from 5,000 to 1,200 acres, mostly by shedding marginal properties. Bankruptcy was a real possibility. Rod Strong was moved back into action as the head of winery operations. Then a corporate roller coaster ride really got activated. The company was bought and sold three times in three years, finally coming to rest in 1988-89 in the hands of Klein Foods, a fourth-generation California farming family.

Terroir + Technology = Timely: 1989-present

Having paid a handsome sum for both Rodney Strong Vineyards and the mail order company Windsor Vinyards, the Kleins raised working capital by selling half of the remaining acreage. In 1991, Tom Klein became president of Klein Family Vintners, the parent company, and proceeded to invest heavily in winemaking innovation and production growth for the next decade. At that point, Rodney Strong Vineyards was producing about 350,000 cases per year. Today production is at nearly a million cases per year.

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With an eye toward increasing efficiency while boosting quality, Sayre oversaw the installation of new equipment such as whole cluster presses, rotary fermenters and automatic barrel processing lines. Facilities were built and outfitted for on-premise barrel and case storage. The Hospitality Center (tasting room and more) was renovated. Windsor Vineyards and other related companies were sold. Vineyard purchases restored nearly 500 acres to company holdings. Leading the way toward sustainable winery practices, Rodney Strong Vineyards installed what is – or at least was at that time – the largest winery-based solar energy system. In recognition of this effort, the property received a “Green Power Leadership Award” in 2004 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, and the Center for Resource Solutions. Five years later, Rodney Strong became the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma County.

Starting with a 2001 sweepstakes win for the 1997 vintage Symmetry Alexander Valley at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Rodney Strong Vineyards has amassed a stunning number of medals and awards, literally hundreds. Perhaps a pinnacle among these many awards was being named 2013 American Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. With appreciation for the accolade, Tom Klein said “We are and have been family-owned for 25 years. This pride of ownership gives me the ability to farm the best vineyards and tools to make the best wines possible.”image

Rodney Strong Wines: “You Can’t Go Wrong with Rodney Strong!”

Today the company owns 1,500 acres comprised of 14 estate vineyards in premium locations across Sonoma County AVAs. This continues the tradition set by Rod Strong, who was the first to make a single-vineyard Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the first to produce a Chalk Hill Chardonnay. Tom Klein and Rick Sayre are in complete alignment about the importance of place, of terroir. (It’s probably also important to note that they are further in alignment about their love of fishing – a seeming requisite carried forward from Rod Strong!) Farmer-turned-vintner Klein sums it up like this: “Place is not everything. But place is the most important thing. When you discover a passion for something, whether it’s golf or jazz, politics or poetry, you want to live it and breathe it.”

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Rick Sayre believes firmly that consistency is the key to quality wine. He describes his own style as a winemaker like this: “I was called Super Cellarmaster in my early days and it speaks to the style of wines I like to make, ‘Strong’.”

Many consumers think they know the Rodney Strong Vineyards (RSV) brand well – with good reason! It’s a go-to wine for many people. In the Midwest, we see the brand for sale at a reasonable price (<$20) at Kroger’s and other grocery stores. But that’s not the whole story. Sonoma County is only one of RSV’s wine ranges. In addition, RSV offers:

  • estate collection wines from all 14 vineyards, generally selling for $25-35;
  • reserve “artisanal” wines made from specially selected grapes from small blocks of estate vineyards (including Symmetry, a $55 blend of all five Bordeaux varieties) which sell for $40-45; and
  • three single-vineyard Cabernets at $75 a bottle (Brothers, Rockaway and Alexander Crown).

Guests attending the Cincinnati International Wine Festival Grand Tastings, scheduled for March 4 & 5, 2016, will be able to taste wines from all four ranges of Rodney Strong Vineyards. Tickets are available here.

Fishing is not the only tradition carried forward by Rick Sayre. As Head Winemaker, he is mentoring winemakers Justin Seidenfeld and Greg Morthole who joined RSV in 2010 to craft small production artisanal estate wines. And Rick is no doubt imparting the same wisdom he received as a young winemaker: keep an open mind, and be present in your place.

L-R Greg Morthole, Rick Sayre, Tom Klein, Justin Seidenfeld

L-R Greg Morthole, Rick Sayre, Tom Klein, Justin Seidenfeld

Resources: “Rodney D. Strong: A Tribute to a Sonoma County Wine Pioneer” (undated, preface by the former veteran New York Times wine columnist Frank Prial); www.rodneystrong.com; interview with Rick Sayre

Photo credits: unless otherwise noted, all photos provided by Rodney Strong Vineyards and Cincinnati International Wine Festival. Rodney Strong tasting room: winecountry.com; map of Sonoma AVAs: quentinsadler.wordpress.com.

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