a closer look at one of those wine myths debunked

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The current issue of Wine Enthusiast carries a column I wrote entitled Wine Myths Debunked. Find it here.

In it I tried to examine a number of commonly-held beliefs and show how they would limit one’s ability to taste outside of the box, if you will (actually, tasting inside a box is outside the box when it comes to fine wine, but that’s another story).

Anyhoo, number two on the list was ‘Big corporations only make good wine, never great wine.’

“This is simply not true,” I wrote. “Big companies have deep pockets, rich resources and the talent to make boutique-style wines within the context of a mass-production facility. Not all of them rise to the challenge, but there are many that do.”

As it happens, just this week I tasted a trio of wines that made the point very well.

All were single vineyard Cabernets from Rodney Strong, a winery begun in Sonoma County back in 1959. Rodney was a successful dancer, with credentials that included some years in Paris, where his appetite for fine wine was whetted (and wetted). When he retired from his dance career, he launched the winery. According to the website, he explained the new career choice this way: “I knew I couldn’t be an old dancer, but I could be an old winemaker.”

Many successful vintages followed, highlighted by early plantings of Chardonnay in Chalk Hill, Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, and the production (in 1974) of Sonoma County’s first single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander’s Crown.

The winery grew, changed hands, and grew some more. Rodney Strong continued consulting until 1995, and died in 2006. As of 2009, the winery was producing about 800,000 cases annually – not huge, but big enough to quality as corporate in scope. Nonetheless, quality has remained very high. Roughly 1000 acres of vineyard are owned. In 2005 a “winery within a winery” program was instituted, which brings me to the heart of the matter. Within wineries of a substantial size, there is often a smaller boutique operation. Select lots in small fermenters can segment out limited-production wines that have every bit as much character (terroir, if you like) as something made in a 1000 case winery. It just comes down to the talent.

At Rodney Strong, this Artisan Winery within the winery produces, among other things, three single vineyard Cabernets. Along with the Alexander’s Crown are bottles from the Rockaway and Brothers Ridge vineyards. I spent a delightful evening tasting all three. It was an embarassment of riches.

The 2010 Brothers Ridge opens quickly with lush black fruit flavors, perfectly matched to the oak. It spent 21 months in French oak, 43% new. It’s pure Cabernet, with compelling length. But not the best of the three.

The 2010 Alexander’s Crown carries on the tradition that began in 1974. The vineyard’s best 15 acres (out of 63) provide grapes for this wine. Textural and intense, it’s classic California Cabernet, but carries its weight and alcohol (15.5%) with grace and style. Flavors roll from citrus to tropical fruit into ripe cherry and cassis. It too is pure Cabernet.

The best of all is the 2010 Rockaway. It’s a poised, polished, complex wine with a compelling mix of blackberry, black currant and mineral-driven tannins. The sheer elegance is impressive, perhaps aided by the fact that this is a blend that includes 7% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot.

All three wines sell for $75, and are available to wine club members. For details, visit the winery website.

1 comment:

Chris Wallace said...

I strongly agree with the premise of your article that large winery corporations can, in fact, make great wines. Rodney Strong is a great case in point. I would also want to add to that Robert Mondavi who's Cabernet Reserve and To Kalon can be among Napa's best. Ch. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, closer to home, would probably qualify too.

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