Thu 25 Feb 2016
If you look at the website for Rodney Strong Vineyards, you’ll see quite an array of cabernet sauvignon wines, arranged in the order of Sonoma County, Estate, Reserve and Single Vineyard, seven offerings altogether. There’s also a “meritage” style blend called Symmetry, which in the current vintage contains 75 percent cabernet, so that counts. Does the winery really need eight cabernet sauvignon-based bottlings? Does an audience exist for each level in this broad cabernet category? Do consumers care?
As to the issue of price, the basic Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon goes for $20. The two Estate bottlings — Alexander Valley and Knights Valley — are $35. Moving up the ladder, the Reserve costs $40, the Symmetry Meritage is $55 and the Single Vineyard wines — Rockaway, Brothers and Alexander’s Crown — top out at $75. These are not cheap wines by any means, yet let’s be honest, compared to limited edition reserve-style wines from other California producers, particularly in Napa Valley, the Rodney Strong cabernets are bargains, though quality also is a factor in determining if a wine delivers good value, at whatever price.
Rodney Strong’s single vineyard project was launched in 2008 with the release of Rockaway 2005. Brothers — originally Brothers Ridge — and Alexander’s Crown were added over the next few years, the latter named for the elegant Alexander’s Crown cabernet-based wines that Rodney Strong himself made in the 1970s. Elegance is not the game-plan for this contemporary trio of high-concept cabernet sauvignons, except in terms of the simple, suave packaging.
From the beginning, alcohol levels have been high — 15.4 percent in the Rockaway 2005 — a device that consistently contributes a sense of over-ripeness and opulence on the palate and sweetness on the finish. On the other hand, these single vineyard offerings are crafted with rigorous tannins and dominant dusty graphite-inflected minerality, lending them a sleek, chiseled structure. Too often, though, the contrast between the succulence and ripeness of fruit and the precision and austerity of the structure isn’t resolved, leaving the wines awkward and unbalanced. I have chided this winery in the past with the overuse of French oak barrels and the length of aging, a criticism that applies to the wines presently under consideration. A criticism that I leveled against Rockaway 05 was that it felt made by a committee, as if a checklist of characteristics desirable in a cabernet wine from Alexander Valley had been followed. Indeed, it takes four men to make these wines: Rodney Strong’s longtime head winemaker, Rick Sayre; winemaker Greg Morthole; winery owner Tom Klein; and consultant (and highly regarded producer of his own label) David Ramey.
To this somewhat discouraging discourse, I’ll add a note of sweetness and light. The Rockaway and Alexander’s Crown 2012 are the best I have tasted in this series, a reflection, I feel sure, of a superb vintage but also, in some sense, of a certain delicacy of touch from the team. On the other hand, these are highly calibrated wines; visit the winery’s website to see how exacting the scheme behind each wine is, from the picking of the grapes at different times from various areas of the vineyards to their treatment in the cellar.
I review today the trio of Rodney Strong Single Vineyard offering from 2012 and 2010; for some reason, I had only the Brothers from 2011. If the other two from 2011 show up in the barbarian welter of my notes, I’ll append them promptly. I’ll write about the winery’s other cabernet-based wines in a subsequent post.
These wines were samples for review.
Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. A dark ruby-purple hue leads into a definitive statement of intensity and concentration in nose and mouth; the bouquet is characterized by cassis, black cherry and plum infused with cedar, sage and graphite and notes of leather loam and black pepper. Dusty, dense but manageable tannins cloak a rigorous and chiseled mineral element that maintains discipline while relegating plenty of space to juicy black and red fruit flavors; the finish is granitic, a bit austere and sustained. 14.5 percent alcohol. The vineyard lies at elevations from 225 to 700 feet. 14.5 percent alcohol. This feels classic Alexander Valley and the best Rockaway I have tasted. With 4 percent malbec; aged 21 months in French oak, 56 percent new barrels. Drink now through 2022 to ’25. Excellent. About $75.
Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. The color is unvarying dark ruby; structure is foremost, with the nose detecting whiffs of wheatmeal and walnut shell and intense and concentrated aromas of black currants, cherries and plums; give it a few minutes and it offers hints of black olives and bell pepper and, with a little more swirling of the glass, touches of lavender and violets. Tannins are lithe, sinewy and rigorous, and the wine’s structure includes incisive acidity and graphite-tinged minerality, yet for all that, this is a surprisingly approachable (and slightly over-ripe) wine for drinking now through 2022 to ’25. The vineyard lies at elevations of 250 to 360 feet; the wine aged 21 months in French oak, 38 percent new barrels. 15 percent alcohol, but carries it lightly. Excellent. About $75.
Rodney Strong Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Alexander Valley. For 2012, the Brother Cabernet feels like an amalgam of its stablemates, the Rockaway and the Alexander’s Crown. (It contains 2 percent petit verdot; it aged 21 months in French oak, 44 percent new barrels.) Yes, the intensity and concentration; yes, the important tannins, meaningful acidity and sleek, sculpted graphite minerality; yes, the spicy, slightly roasted and succulent black fruit flavors; yes — damnit! — the 15.5 percent alcohol that creates a slight sweet and over-ripe aura. So, that being the case, what is the justification for these wines created from separate vineyards in Alexander Valley, this one the highest at 400 to 1,030 feet elevation? They are far more similar than they are different, perhaps a reflection more of a house style and philosophy than the actual character of the vineyards involved. And if that’s the case, what’s the point? Drink now through 2020 to ’22. Very Good+. About $75.
Rodney Strong Brothers Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Alexander Valley. The color is deep ruby verily unto the opacity of a black hole, with no trace or purple or magenta or mulberry; the bouquet offers an extraordinary melange of mint, iron and iodine layered with lavender, violets and loam, finally delivering notes of ripe red and black currants and cherries bolstered by dusty graphite. Well, that’s quite a performance! The effect on the palate is more typical and unsurprising, that is, the standard plush, velvety mineral-laced tannins, boot-strap oak hauling up the wood influence, vibrant acidity, all at the service of an austere, lithic finish. 15 percent alcohol. This wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon; it aged 26 months in French oak, 48 percent new barrels. Very Good+. About $75.
Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander Valley. A deep ruby-purple hue presages a bake-shop bouquet of blueberry tart and plum jam as a glaze to graphite, lavender and licorice and hints of black currants and cherries; a few minutes in the glass bring in notes of rosemary and thyme and a hint of black olive. A huge and daunting tannic and oaken presence creates a dense, dusty, chewy structure on which to hang glimpses of succulent blue and black berry flavors. 15 percent alcohol. Plenty of substance, not much character. 88 percent cabernet sauvignon, 7 percent malbec, 5 petit verdot; aged 20 onths in French oak, 57 percent new barrels. Very Good+. About $75.
Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander Valley. The color is dark ruby-magenta, with little fading at the rim; notes of caraway, roasted fennel, potpourri and violets mingle with hints of very intense and concentrated black currants, blueberries and blue plums; a few minutes in the glass open a dusty-herbal aspect. A tremendous element of graphite and charcoal minerality plows every other quality under, dominating the palate from entry through the chiseled finish. 15.5 percent alcohol. Only for wine masochists. About $75.
Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Alexander valley. The wine is 100 percent varietal; it aged 21 months in French oak, 43 percent new barrels. Very dry yet sweetish with alcohol and oak; wearying opulence, tiring alcohol, strident, unbalanced. 15.5 percent alcohol. Not recommended. About $75.