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Inspired stories about artisan wine and taste makers.
by L.M. Archer FWS, Bourgogne ML
Today’s Exclusive Interview:
Justin Seidenfeld – Winemaker | Ryan Decker – Grower Relations Manager
by L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne ML
Today’s interview takes a more personal turn.
Rodney Strong Vineyards enjoys a pioneering reputation in the Sonoma wine community. Founder Rod Strong crafted the first Single Vineyard Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, planted some of the first Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, and produced the first Chalk Hill Chardonnay.
Today,the Red Thread™ talks with Rodney Strong Vineyards winemaker Justin Seidenfeld and Grower Relations Manager Ryan Decker about working with Head Winemaker Rick Sayre and proprietor Tom Klein crafting innovative wines from fourteen exceptional estate vineyards throughout Sonoma.
I first met Justin and Ryan at the 2015 Hospices de Beaune, where we shared a table and some memorable wines at La Maison du Colombier in Beaune. That night, the dynamic duo attempted valiantly to recover from jet leg before tackling La Paulée de Meursault and a tasting at famed Domaine Romanée-Conti (DRC) the next day.
Here, the Red Thread™ shares their thoughts on terroir, teamwork, and that tasting at DRC.
r/T™: Any local producers, negociants or wine makers who stand out from the Burgundy trip? What about La Paulée – anything that surprised you most about the event? What about the DRC tasting – did the wines live up to their mythic reputation?
JS: I was very impressed with the wines from Domaine Ramonet. We tasted fifteen different white burgundies, and the differences were amazing, even though the grapes were grown so close to each other. It truly was the definition of terroir.
La Paulée was crazy. The most amazing thing about it was the variation in wines from all over the world. From California to Lebanon, it was fun to see so many types of wine in one spot.
DRC was great! You really felt like you were on hallowed ground. From walking in the unmarked red door into the cellar, to blind tasting older vintages and seeing how they have held up for so long was better than expected. One of the wines we blind tasted was a 2002 Batard Montrachet. I guessed the vineyard right, but thought the wine was only a few years old because it was so bright and fresh. I was shocked when I saw it was thirteen years old. I feel very lucky to have gone to this special place and it is something I will never forget. Definitely a bucket list item for me!
RD: The Paulée was a fantastic experience. I was surprised by how many people they were actually able to fit into the Chateau de Meursault! I was also surprised by how the language barrier did not seem to matter much. Fortunately, most people there had a better grasp of English than I do of French, but wine is truly a universal language. The food was also incredibly good at the Paulée, especially considering the scale on which it was produced. I could not believe how many bottles of wine were opened that day. I wish I could have tried them all – some of them I will probably never see again in my lifetime.
The producer that stood out the most to me was Ramonet. The consistent quality across all of the wines we tasted with them was incredible.
DRC lived up to the hype. The cellar was impeccably clean compared to other places that we visited, and we opened two older vintages (2002 Batard-Montrachet and 2006 Richebourg) that were amazing.
r/T™: Justin, you graduated from UC Davis with a degree in viticulture and enology. Ryan, you took a bit of a different tack. What or who spurred each of you to pursue the wine industry?
JS: Being a winemaker embodies everything I have always loved. It is a profession that allows me to make something tangible that I can see, feel, and taste.
It allows me to work out doors and with science. It allows me to do something that makes peoples live better in some way and a profession that is grounded in vast amounts of tradition, but yet is ripe for innovation and improvement.
I love getting letters from people who have enjoyed a wine that I made at a special occasion and how the wine will always bring back great memories for them. This solidifies that I made the right choice in professions and why I love it so much.
RD: I graduated from Fresno State University with a degree in Viticulture. My family has been farming in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County since the 1850’s, and they have been wine grape growers since the 1960s. My first foray into the wine business was working in the Rodney Strong Vineyards Tasting Room.
I was pursuing a Business degree from Sonoma State at the time with no intention of being a viticulturist, but a tasting room gig sounded like fun.
Long story short – I was bitten by the wine bug, and decided to follow my family’s roots and pursue a career in the wine industry. The viticulture professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, where I took a few introductory classes, had a big role in pushing me to go to Fresno State. As an alum, the professor highly recommended the hands-on aspect of the program.
r/T™: Justin, prior to joining Rodney Strong Vineyards in 2010, you worked for a number of well-known Napa and Sonoma wineries, including stints supervising wine making at a number of Constellation brand venues, as well as for Robert Mondavi Winery. How does your role at Rodney Strong Vineyards differ from previous responsibilities? What about you, Ryan? For both of you, any part of your job you like least? Most?
JS: My role differs most because now I am leading the team that is crafting our amazing wines. In my previous roles I was taking direction from the winemakers, and now I am giving the direction.
The part of my job I like the least is getting phone calls from growers during harvest at 4am needing direction. My favorite part is seeing the culmination of decisions that were made years before, and how the wines developed because of them.
RD: I have worked for Rodney Strong Vineyards in the Wine growing department since graduating from college. While attending Fresno State, I worked for the chair of the Viticulture department in his research lab. Many of our research projects revolved around plant-water relations, hang-time, and crop load. Not only did I learn how to set up research plots to test a particular hypothesis, but I had an inside look at the physiological responses of plants to various conditions in the vineyard. The experience formed an excellent base of knowledge to pull from once I began working in the estate vineyards for Rodney Strong.
r/T™: You both work with a prestigious wine team at Rodney Strong Vineyards, including Proprietor Tom Klein, Head Winemaker Rick Sayre, Consulting Winemaker David Ramey, Consulting Winegrower Bob Steinhauer, Winemaker Greg Morthole, Director of Wine growing Doug McIllroy, and Cellarmaster Christophe Davis. Explain how you coordinate things throughout the year, especially during harvest, crush and cellaring. It sounds like you need a careful bit of choreography.
JS: During harvest, Ryan and I take the lead. We rely on information provided by our teams and the guidance we get from Rick and Doug. However, everything goes through the two of us to make the picking decisions and setting up harvest with our growers. It is a very complex set of logistics that all have to be figured out to make sure our fruit is picked at optimal maturity, has a place in the winery, and that proper winemaking protocols are conveyed to the cellar.
RD: We have a great production team assembled here at Rodney Strong. The winemakers trust the viticulture team to deliver high quality fruit, and the vit team has the utmost trust and respect for the abilities of our winemakers. Keeping the lines of communication open is a key component of our success.
Rick, Doug, Justin, Greg and I have our own corner of the administrative building, and if we aren’t in our own office we can usually be found in one of theirs. During harvest, the winemakers and cellar crew are very accommodating when it comes to fruit deliveries. We all recognize that one of the most important decisions for a wine is when you decide to harvest the grapes, so we put a lot of emphasis on timely harvests. If something is ready to pick on short notice, a place in the winery is always found.
r/T™: Some say that leadership starts from the top down. Rodney Strong Vineyards enjoys a leading role in sustainability, including designation as Sonoma’s first carbon-neutral winery. It’s also Certified Sustainable and Fish-Friendly Farming Certified, and boasts an impressive solar energy system, comprehensive Integrated Pest Management system, and a commitment to protecting the area’s water, air, soil, and wildlife while maintaining social equality for vineyard workers. What is it like to work for a proprietor so supportive of such practices?
JS: Tom Klein and his family are great owners and are the reason I came over to Rodney Strong. Working for people that are driven to make the best wines possible and want to preserve the vineyards and the community that I love, make me want to work as hard as possible to live up to their expectations. I’m proud to work for Rodney Strong and the Klein family.
RD: Tom Klein and his family are very committed to the winery and agriculture in general. Tom’s family has been farming in California for generations, and their intentions are to continue to farm for generations to come. Being committed to the health of the environment, and in turn the long-term health of the company, instills a sense of security and pride. Many of the best practices in the vineyard are difficult and expensive, and it is nice to know that the owner will choose the right course of action, and not just the most profitable.
r/T™: Let’s talk terroir. Some say founder Rodney Strong really put Chalk Hill AVA on the map when he planted chardonnay there in 1977. Today, Rodney Strong grows Bordeaux varietals in Alexander Valley, Knights Valley and Northern Sonoma, Pinot and Chardonnay in Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast, and Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon in Dry Creek Valley. Do you each have a favorite AVA/block/varietal? What about some of the soils and microclimates of these regions – how do they impact the flavor profiles of the wines?
JS: I am extremely fond of the Petaluma Gap. It is located in the very southern part of Sonoma County and is very windy, cool, and foggy. The soils are high in salt content, and mostly composed of adobe clay. It is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because the yields are kept very low. We have just released two new wines from the area, a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay. I am very excited about them.
RD: I have always been a big fan of Zinfandel, and particularly old vine Zin. There is just something about a vineyard that has been in continuous production for over 100 years. I like to think of all that the vines have had to endure during that span, and how it has shaped them into how they are today. Zinfandel can be very similar to Pinot Noir in the vineyard – both fickle, sensitive, and requiring a deft hand. It is always a bit of a challenge to produce high quality Zinfandel that is expressive of it’s terroir, so it can definitely be a love/hate relationship, but the end product is always very rewarding. My favorite AVA is Dry Creek Valley, but don’t tell my mom (she grew up in Alexander Valley!)
I learned very early on that there are two main factors that contribute to the quality of every vineyard – ‘site’ and ‘season.’ Since the ‘season’ part of the equation is out of our hands, choosing the proper ‘site’ is incredibly important.
The Cortina soil series is probably my favorite soil to grow grapes on. It is found mainly in the northern Sonoma County AVAs of Alexander Valley and Knights Valley, and it is characterized by deep gravel and sand. This soil type does not hold a lot of nutrients or water, so the vines tend to stay more in balance than sites in the area on more fertile ground. Hitting water stress targets are very easy, and the wine quality from these soils tends to be very high if managed properly.
r/T™: How would you describe your wine making approach – more old or new world? Any wine region(s) and/or wine makers that/who inspire(s) you? Do you have a favorite vintage? Any nightmare vintage you’d rather forget?
JS: I consider myself a purist winemaker. I believe that wine is mostly made in the vineyard. I try to respect the tradition of past, while putting a little new world twist on things to push the quality envelope as far as possible.
As far as memorable vintages goes, every vintage has its challenges. It might be an early rain, or we might get more or less grapes than expected. As far as I am concerned those challenges are what make each harvest fun and exciting and make each wine we make more memorable.
Every winemaker I have met has inspired me in some way. I’ve taken little tidbits from each of them to create my own purist style.
RD: My vineyard management style would be considered a combination of old and new school. I love technology and I use it often in the vineyard, but at the end of the day I tend to be a ‘hands-off’ viticulturist whenever possible. I like to use technology to choose and develop a vineyard site that would best represent the terroir of the area. The proper rootstock, varietal/clone, vineyard spacing, soil prep work, row direction, and irrigation system design all have an impact on the terroir of the site. When all of those things are done properly, managing a vineyard for superior quality can be very easy.
r/T™: Anything goals you would still like to accomplish as a wine maker?
JS: Absolutely! Making a 100 point wine is at the top of the list!
RD: The one goal that I would like to achieve is to have my own vineyard one day.
r/T™: Anything else you’d care to share with readers about Rodney Strong Vineyards that makes it different from other wineries in the area?
JS: Rodney Strong has a vineyard portfolio that spans all major varietals and is spread over the best areas in Sonoma County. We have vineyards starting from the Petaluma Gap in the south to the Alexander Valley in the north and everywhere in between. We have fourteen vineyard sites in total and that is truly unmatched in the industry. They are the foundation for our success.
One of my favorite things to hear when I am at a tasting is when someone says that they like one or two wines at most wineries but they like all Rodney Strong wines. We accomplish that because we have great vineyards and our passion to make great wines.
RD: Everything we produce says ‘Sonoma County’ on the label, so we are entirely committed to this place. Rodney Strong Vineyards is really like two wineries under one roof. One part of the winery is dedicated to our larger blends like the Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, and we have a completely different cellar that is crafting extremely small quantities of the absolute best grapes we are able to find in our vineyards to really highlight the terroir of the county.
r/T™: Finally, if your experience in wine making and viticulture has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?
JS: I have learned that I will never stop learning. I have now made eleven vintages of wine and have not even scratched the surface of information to learn. That is why I love my job. It constantly forces me to keep trying new things. This could be finding new vineyards, learning better winemaking practices, traveling the world to learn history and seeing new innovations. The possibilities that are out there for making better and better wines are why I am excited to wake up and go to work every day.
RD: My experience as a viticulturist has taught me that beautiful, perfect vineyards don’t always make beautiful, perfect wines. Some of the best fruit I have ever grown came from vines that looked haggard, unkempt and stressed out. In terms of viticulture, the real beauty of a vineyard is what lies just below the surface!
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