Rodney Strong planted vines in Sonoma in 1959, when the county could claim only a dozen wineries and the primary crop was prunes. Originally from rural Washington state, Strong improbably became a dancer and choreographer, performing on Broadway and in many theaters around the world. He discovered fine wine in Paris, and when he decided in retire from the stage in 1959 (the same year he married), he headed to California. In The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest (Alfred A. Knopf, fourth edition, 1998), Norman Roby and Charles Olken write, with understatement, that Rodney Strong Vineyards “has gone through more changes than most.” Strong was a pioneer in Sonoma County, a pretty good winemaker and a powerful advocate of the county’s wine industry, but a businessman he was not.

In 1961, Strong opened a tasting room across the Bay from San Francisco called Tiburon Vintners, soon moving it to Sonoma County where the enterprise became Windsor Vineyards, a wine mail-order business. The success of Windsor allowed Strong to purchase vineyards throughout the county, and by 1970, he owned about 5,000 acres; that year, he renamed the winery Sonoma Vineyards. However, as Anthony Dias Blue says succinctly in American Wine: A Comprehensive Guide (Doubleday, 1985) — how many of you still have this valuable book on your shelves? –”he expanded too fast and much too expensively.” During the decade of the 1970s, the winery reached production of 500,000 cases annually and “always seemed to be struggling,” say Roby and Olken.

There followed a rapid series of ownership changes. Control of Sonoma Vineyards went to New York-based Renfield Imports in 1984, a move accompanied by the visibility-improving name change to Rodney Strong Vineyards, selling property and consolidating the line-up. Then Renfield was acquired by Schenley, which was subsequently absorbed by Guinness. Finally, the Klein family, owner of California-based Klein Foods, bought the winery in 1989; Tom Klein remains the owner today. Rodney Strong stayed on for many years as winery figurehead and representative, and I will testify to the silver-haired and silver-tongued former dancer’s charm and charisma. Strong died in March 2006 at the age of 78.

Rodney Strong’s best wine was the Alexander’s Crown cabernet sauvignon made from a single vineyard in the Alexander Valley. Sometime in the early Summer of 1985, my friend and mentor John Grisanti went through the warehouse next to his eponymous restaurant in Memphis and picked out 12 bottles of California wine that he sent home with me. Among them were Sonoma Vineyards Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon from 1976 and 1977. What I remember chiefly about these wines were their fine balance, harmony and integration, their sense of confidence and authority expressed with elegance and restraint.

We drank the Alexander’s Crown 1976 on July 27 and 28. Here are my notes: “medium ruby to mahogany; ripe cab. nose, dusty, dry, mint and spice; full body, fruit predominant, but still some tannin, very complex with layers of fruit and spice (but not quite up to the ’74) long finish, Excellent wine.” Unfortunately, I cannot find notes of where and when I tasted the Alexander’s Crown 1974, but that was the legendary breakout year for cabernet sauvignon in California.

We didn’t delay in consuming the Alexander’s Crown 1977; it’s turn came on July 28 and 29, first opened with dinner on the 28th. Here are my notes: “Med. ruby, just barely fading; deep nose, dusty, fruity; less tannin than the ’76, but still some ‘iron fist in velvet glove’ — smooth and full in the mouth, but tannic backbone — excellent finish — elegant wine.” Dinner that night, prepared by my former wife, Mary-Catherine, was escargot in tarragon butter, gazpacho, steak with two sauces and peach crepes. (This is the woman who, when she cooked dinner for me for the first time — we were 19-year-old college students — scared me witless by putting a whole artichoke on a plate in front of my callow self. I was used to canned peas.)

Vintages 1976 and ’77 were not great. They were drought years that demanded a great deal of skill from farmers and winemakers, and not a lot of wines were successful, particularly compared to ’74 and the next year, ’78. Still, the Alexander’s Crown Cabernets made by Rodney Strong managed to be not just delicious but compelling.

Here’s a roster of some of the other wines we drank (or tasted) in July 1985:
<>Mayacamas Pinot Noir 1980. Sadly, a bad bottle.
<>DRC Romanee-Conti 1973. A dud.
<>Petri American Burgundy. “Actually a little better than I expected.”
<>Storybook Mountain Zinfandel 1982, Sonoma County. “Just what zinfandel should be.”
<>Sea Ridge Chardonnay 1982, Sonoma County. “Unfocused and undefined.”
<>Mastantuono Templeton Zinfandel 1981, Dante Dusi Vineyards, San Luis Obispo. “Heavy, harsh.”
<>Storybook Mountain Estate Reserve Zinfandel 1981, Napa Valley. “Needs time.”
<>Tudal Chardonnay 1982, Edna Valley. “Excellent chardonnay — lush, creamy, green apple-citrus nose (medium gold color) — perfect balance between fruit & acid, medium body, citrus pineapple, buttery, smoky. Drank this with a meal of curry lemon soup, chicken with ginger & honey, fried bananas, sauteed green onions. Wonderful meal & wine.” The family-owned Tudal Winery was — actually still is — in Napa Valley, north of St. Helena, so this wine was likely made from purchased grapes. Nowadays, I would not be so inclined to consider “wonderful” a chardonnay that was smoky and buttery.

Image of Rodney Strong from sfgate.com.