History

Explore over 50 years of winemaking

Rodney Strong was one of the pioneers of Sonoma County’s modern wine industry, an acknowledged visionary who understood the potential that Sonoma County’s soil and climate held for producing world-class wines. A successful dancer before retiring and turning to his second love, winemaking, Rodney Strong established Sonoma County’s 13th bonded winery in 1959.

River West Vineyard Planted

1904

The history of Rodney Strong Vineyards has roots that stretch back more than 100 years; a tale of families in pursuit of an abiding passion: wine.

In 1904, Sonoma County settlers planted what is now our Heritage River West Zinfandel estate vineyard, just behind the property that is now home to our winery.

Klein Family Moves to San Francisco

1905

The next year, as those young vines at River West Vineyard were trained up stakes, Proprietor Tom Klein's great-grandparents relocated from New York City with their three sons to San Francisco. Sadly, the historic earthquake and subsequent fires of 1906 would change the family forever, destroying all their possessions and taking the life of great-grandmother Mary Klein. The devastation left great-grandfather David Klein with the difficult decision of having to place his three sons in an orphanage.

The Klein boys later served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. When the war ended, they established Klein Brothers, a small business buying and selling beans at the busy seaport of Stockton. Thus began the family’s agricultural legacy that remains intact today. The success of Klein Brothers meant eventually acquiring land on which they would grow potatoes, almonds, tomatoes, asparagus, and more, but interestingly enough, never beans.

Rod Strong Born

1927

Winery founder Rodney D. Strong was born in 1927 in Camas, Washington, in the midst of Prohibition. His first love was dance, and by 15, Rod was practicing five hours a day, refining his skills with dance masters Martha Graham and George Balanchine at the American School of Ballet. The training led to a successful career, highlighted by four years dancing in Paris.

Rod Returns from Dancing in Paris

1951

Rod returned to the U.S. in 1951 to dance and to teach, but his experience with French food and wine had sparked what would become his next pursuit.

That same year, both Tom Klein and longtime Rodney Strong Vineyards winemaker Rick Sayre were born into California agricultural families. Tom followed in his father's footsteps and pursued a Stanford education, knowing that the bean business awaited him. Meanwhile, Rick was groomed to run his family's prune-plum orchard just south of Healdsburg in Windsor, California. And, though they each shared a strong desire to pursue a life in agriculture, neither of them fully embraced their family's chosen businesses.

Winery Established

1959

In 1959, Rod officially retired from dance, married his dancing partner Charlotte Ann Winson, and made plans to begin a new career in winemaking. When asked why, Rod explained, "I knew I couldn't be an old dancer, but I could be an old winemaker." 

The couple moved to Northern California, where they purchased a century-old boarding house and began making their first wines. In the beginning, Rod purchased bulk wine and blended and bottled it to his taste in the cellar of the house, while Charlotte operated the tasting room on the ground floor.

Rod Plants the First Chardonnay in Chalk Hill

1962

In 1962, Rod purchased a turn-of-the-century winery and vineyard in Windsor, Sonoma County with 159 acres of “mixed” grapes. There he assembled his first wines by asking questions, taking classes, making mistakes, and learning the craft. In a move that proved Rod’s innate ability to see the potential of undiscovered growing regions, he replanted his vineyard to Chardonnay vines – the first Chardonnay planted in what would later become the celebrated Chalk Hill AVA.

Rod Plants Pinot Noir in Russian River Valley

1968

In 1968, Rod decided to make a further investment in the vineyards and took out a loan to buy land in the Russian River Valley. In those days, Sonoma County was known for dairies and fruit orchards, but had very few vineyards. Using the latest climate data from UC Davis, Rod purchased and planted several of the best Pinot Noir vineyards we have today.

Winery Built in Russian River Valley

1970

Rod broke ground on an impressive, efficient new winery building near the original River West Vineyard first planted in 1904. He also planted the new River East Vineyard, (originally a large prune-plum orchard) to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The winery built in 1970 still plays an important part of our Russian River Valley winery, now serving as our tasting room and lower cellar.

Meanwhile, Tom Klein started his first year at Stanford in 1970, where he would begin his training in business that would eventually lead him on a circuitous route into the wine industry.

Rick Sayre accepted a harvest position at Simi Winery in Healdsburg and began making wine. Within three months, Rick was promoted to assistant winemaker and realized he'd found his calling. Over the next nine years, Rick worked with the likes of Zelma Long, Robert Stemmler, Mary Ann Graf and, most notably, Andre Tchelistcheff, who took Rick under his wing while on board as a consulting enologist.

First Release of Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon

1974

Rodney Strong Vineyards introduces Alexander's Crown, Sonoma County's first Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It would still be six years before Chalk Hill was officially designated as an AVA.

Winery Releases First “Chalk Hill” Labeled Chardonnay

1977

With the release of this wine in 1977, Rod introduces the world to Chalk Hill Chardonnay.

Rick Sayre Comes Aboard as Winemaker

1979

In 1979 Rod Strong took a step back from the demanding daily activities of winemaking. He placed a call to Rick Sayre, and Rick joined Rodney Strong Vineyards as winemaker.

Also in 1979, Tom completed his Stanford MBA and began working for McKinsey & Company, an international management consulting firm. His team at McKinsey was hired to evaluate the potential of a well-known Sonoma County winery – Rodney Strong Vineyards.  During this time, Tom met Rod Strong and Rick Sayre.

Chalk Hill, Russian River Valley & Alexander Valley Appellations Established

1983-1984

The Chalk Hill region – where Rod Strong first planted Chardonnay back in 1965 – was designated an official American Viticultural Area in 1983 in an effort spearheaded by Rod Strong himself. That same year, the Russian River Valley was formally established. Alexander Valley followed close behind, earning its AVA status in 1984.

The Klein Family Purchases Rodney Strong Vineyards

1989

While enjoying a glass of wine at a Sonoma winery one afternoon, Tom had an epiphany. He realized that he truly loved the wine industry. He also had a valuable degree in business that he wanted to put to good use, so why not combine his professional training and his personal passion? By 1989, he had convinced his family to purchase Rodney Strong Vineyards.

Both Tom and Rod realized that Rodney Strong Vineyards was a diamond in the rough, with the potential for truly great success. Over the next decade, the Klein family funded the purchase of fermentation tanks, state-of-the-art Bucher presses, a steady infusion of new oak barrels, an on-site case goods warehouse, custom barrel servicing equipment, a new crush pad and scale house, a conveyance system to perform whole-cluster pressing on white grapes, and a 100,000 square-foot, temperature-controlled barrel storage building.

New Winemaking Equipment & Barrel House Established

1998-1999

Rodney Strong Vineyards continued to stay at the forefront of new winemaking techniques, adding whole-cluster presses and stainless-steel rotary fermenters in the winery in 1998. The following year, the barrel house was completed, housing more than 40,000 small French and American oak barrels.

First Release of Symmetry

2000

The investment in the winery dramatically improved quality and consumer popularity. Sales grew from 69,000 cases in 1989 to nearly 500,000 by the end of the 1990s, with many of the more popular wines being sold on allocation only.

In the relentless pursuit of crafting world-class wines, Tom and Rick agreed to make a Bordeaux-styled blend red Meritage and name it Symmetry.  The 1996 vintage was released in 2000.

Today, Symmetry includes the five classic Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Director of Winegrowing Doug McIlroy Hired

2001

By the early 2000s, the Klein family acquired seven additional vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Chalk Hill and Sonoma Coast appellations.

Requiring careful viticulture stewardship, the winery hired seasoned winegrower Doug McIlroy as Director of Winegrowing in 2001. Doug, like Rick, grew up in Sonoma County, working in his family's prune-plum orchard, which was eventually planted to grapes.

Solar Panels Installed

2003

Along the way, the Klein Family instituted a number of practices that have defined the winery in the 21st century. In 2003, they installed one of the first large solar panel systems in the wine industry. To protect the land and the environment, the next few years the winery increased efforts in sustainable farming, becoming a Fish Friendly Farming® grape-grower and earning multiple Green Business awards.

Small Lot Artisan Cellar Created

2005

In 2005, the winery completed the first crush using the small lot artisan cellar. Tom guided the winery to produce small-lot wines from isolated parts of select vineyards; "sweet spots," as Doug McIlroy called them. To achieve this, Doug tapped consultant Bob Steinhauer, a long-time Beringer viticulturalist, to help in the vineyards. Meanwhile, Tom and Rick hired winemaking consultant David Ramey to join the pursuit of crafting world-class wines.

First Release of Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon

2008

The winery crafts and releases its first vintage of Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon from Rockaway Vineyard, located in the eastern hills of Alexander Valley.

A Year of Milestones

2009

2009 marked a year of milestones as the winery celebrated 50  years of winemaking, Rick Sayre’s 30 year anniversary as winemaker, and the Klein family’s 20 year anniversary as proprietors of Rodney Strong Vineyards. That same year, continued efforts and investment in sustainability led Rodney Strong Vineyards to become the first carbon neutral winery in Sonoma County.

First Release of Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon

2010

Using small fermentation tanks and specialty equipment, the team added another stand-out release to the winery’s list of handcrafted Single Vineyard Cabernets, Brother’s Ridge, from a hillside vineyard  east of the small town of Cloverdale in northern Alexander  Valley.

The Renaissance of Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon

2011

Thirty years after the original 1974 vintage, the winery replanted Block 1 of Alexander’s Crown Vineyard, 15 acres of rich, red soil located at the very pinnacle of the vineyard. With fruit  exclusively from this legendary block, the winery rereleased their preeminent Single Vineyard Cabernet in 2011. The vintage rivals the best ever produced from this historic Alexander Valley vineyard, located just southwest of Jimtown.

Going Forward

Continuing Our Legacy

Today, Rodney Strong Vineyards continues its history of innovation as one of California's most respected wineries, crafting delicious Sonoma County wines that reflect passion and creativity.