Rodney Strong is an example of how sophisticated the California wine business has become. It makes $15 wine that is sold in grocery stores, but is of better quality than most grocery store wine. It has a line of very high-end reds, aimed at the Winestream Media and the people who read it, and which are about as different from its $15 wines as possible. In all of this, Rodney Strong produces more than 800,000 cases a year, making it the 20th biggest winery in the U.S., according to Wine Business Monthly.
That Rodney Strong can do all three of those, and do it mostly well, speaks to California’s dominant role in the wine world. It’s not only the best place to grow grapes, but its business model is the best, too. The idea is to make wine the way Detroit makes cars, with something for grocery store consumers, something for people who want to spend more, and then the very high end stuff.
The trick to this approach is not sloughing off. The quality/value ratio at the bottom has to be as impressive as at the top, or you’ll never get anyone to trade up. The 2011 Rodney Strong merlot ($17, sample, 13.5%) shows how much care goes into the wines. The 2011 California vintage was one of the coolest in decades, but that didn’t stop a lot of producers from making their usual over-extracted, over-alcoholic, over-oaked wines — even though, thanks to the cool vintage, they had to use a fair amount of sleight of hand to do it.
But not the Rodney Strong merlot. It tastes like it came from a cool vintage — fresh and juicy, no cloying red fruit, a touch of oak at the back that makes the wine better and not like caramel candy, and almost spicy in a French sort of way. It’s about as honest a California merlot as I’ve had in years, in which the winemaker makes what the grapes give him or her, and not what the focus groups want (“smooth,” “sweet fruit”).
Highly recommended, and not just for dinner (beef and lamb almost certainly). This is a gift wine, to show someone you want them to drink interesting wine, and that you found a very interesting one for them to drink.