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Sonoma Loses a Pioneer

Vintner Rodney Strong, one of the founders of the county's modern wine industry, dies

Tim Fish
Posted: March 6, 2006

Rodney Strong, the former Broadway dancer who helped lay the groundwork for the modern Sonoma County wine industry, died Sunday morning. He was 78.

Strong had suffered a series of strokes over the past five years and was residing at a convalescent facility in Healdsburg, Calif., when he died.

"We lost an icon," said Tom Klein, who has owned Rodney Strong Vineyards since 1989. "He touched a lot of people in his life." Winemaker Richard Arrowood, who worked for Strong from 1970 to 1974, said, "The guy was first-class. He was so eloquent and such an erudite speaker." Grower and vintner Joe Rochioli has called Strong "one of the real pioneers."

At one time, Strong was Sonoma's most visionary vintner. When Strong bought his first vineyard in the county in 1962, there were only a handful of wineries, and most of the grapes in Sonoma were going into jug wine blends like Gallo's Hearty Burgundy. Strong had other ideas. Recognizing Sonoma County's potential as a wine region, he experimented extensively with various varietals and planted grapes in a wide range of regions, at one point reportedly owning 5,000 acres in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Gregarious and known for his charm and wit, Strong, and his late wife, Charlotte, brought a sense of sophistication to the plainspoken Sonoma County wine scene of the 1960s. He was among the first to promote the county on his labels, and he traveled extensively in support of the region. He was an early advocate of Sonoma subappellations, particularly the Alexander and Russian River valleys, and encouraged labeling wines by varietal. He also established Sonoma's first vineyard-designated wine, Alexander's Crown Cabernet Sauvignon.

"Rodney Strong was a pioneer and a giant in the California wine industry," said Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator. "When I met him, in 1970, he was already obsessed with planting the most appropriate grape varieties in vineyards in the proper climate zones, way ahead of most other vintners. I learned a great deal about grapegrowing from him. He was a special man."

Born in 1927 and raised on a farm in Camas, Wash., Strong was always a farm boy at heart, though for many years the stage was his home. At age 21, he became the lead dancer at the Lido cabaret in post-World War II Paris; his off hours, he explored the great wines and wine regions of France. "He wanted to bring that passion he had for the wines of Europe to Sonoma," Arrowood said.

Strong worked on Broadway during the 1950s, where he met his wife, who was also a dancer. When age required that he find a new career, he moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1959 and started making wine, establishing Tiburon Vintners. He came to Sonoma County in 1962 and launched Windsor Vineyard. The business expanded quickly, and to finance his vision, Strong took the company public in 1970, renaming it Sonoma Vineyards. But the winery suffered a series of financial setbacks.

Strong lost control of the company in 1974, but remained on board during a succession of corporate owners. The winery was renamed in his honor in 1978. In a 2002 interview, Charlotte conceded that they did not always make the best business decisions. Arrowood added: "Rod had trust in people who oftentimes sold him a bill of goods."

Strong remained active at his namesake winery through the 1990s and continued to own vineyards. He was also a partner in Toad Hollow Winery in the Russian River Valley. Charlotte Strong died of brain cancer in November 2003, following Strong's first series of strokes. His last public appearance was in July 2005, when Klein and the Sonoma County Vintners paid tribute to him at the Sonoma Showcase Auction.

The memorial service for Strong will be held on Tuesday, March 21st from 1:00 to 4:00pm at the Mary Agatha Furth Center in Windsor, Calif. Donations can be made in his memory at the Healdsburg Animal Shelter and the American Cancer Society.

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