Rodney Strong Wine Estates operates with a single mission: “to craft exceptional Sonoma County wines that reflect our passion and creativity.” Although its wine is well recognized and enjoyed throughout the country today, the winery has yet to say “mission accomplished.” “We are much closer than we were 26 years ago, but striving for excellence is a continuous process,” says John Leyden, vice president of packaging and distribution. “We are proud of how far we have come and our goal is to keep getting better and better. I consider us one of the top wineries in Sonoma County and in California for that matter.”
The Healdsburg, Calif.-based winery began more than 55 years ago when American dancer Rod Strong settled in Sonoma County to pursue his passion for winemaking. Rodney Strong Vineyards was the 13th winery bonded in the Sonoma County wine industry. Winemaker Rick Sayre joined the company in 1979 and in 1989 convinced Leyden to come on board. “Tom Klein had just purchased the winery and Rick felt strongly the new owner was not only committed to running this as a successful business, but also striving to make it the crown jewel of Sonoma County,” Leyden says.
Production has increased tremendously over the years as the winery has grown and the quality of the product has improved because of Klein’s commitment and the commitment from his staff, Leyden says. “The wines here keep getting better and better,” he adds. “When I started here 26 years ago, few knew of Rodney Strong wines. Well, people certainly know about us now.”
Today, Rodney Strong Vineyards makes red and white wines in Single Vineyard, Reserve, Estate and Sonoma County labels. “There are no shortcuts when it comes to making world-class wines,” Klein says. “It requires great vineyards. It demands a committed, passionate winemaking team. And it calls for an investment in craftsmanship. We’ve gathered it all here at Rodney Strong. No shortcuts. It’s my family’s commitment.”
Overseeing purchasing and distribution for Rodney Strong Wine Estates, Leyden says his focus has been on maintaining supplier relationships. “I hear people say that business is business, not personal, but my approach has always been to make it personal,” he adds. “I’ve formed strong relationships over the years and I’ve nurtured those relationships for our mutual success. Basically it’s about trust; it’s a partnership and both parties must benefit. You want loyalty, you give loyalty.”
To maintain those relationships, Leyden and his team pride themselves on meticulous planning in order to give suppliers a proper amount of lead-time. “Of course there are occasions when emergencies arise; your supplier is much more eager to assist you if these emergencies are the exception and not the rule,” he adds. With some suppliers, the team also sits face to face on a monthly basis to review present, short-term and long-term needs. Leyden believes relying strictly on emails and phone calls can allow things to “fall between the cracks.”
“With our glass supplier, we commit to three-year contracts and agree to purchase a minimum of 80 percent of our volume from them,” Leyden adds. “This allows me up to 20 percent to qualify other potential suppliers and keep it all above board. Buying glass, or any other commodity for that matter, from an alternate supplier can be triggered by quality, price or service issues. Similar to a stool, it takes these three legs to insure stability.”
About four years ago, three main glass producers in the United States and Mexico shutdown one of their furnaces for maintenance and rebuild – all at the same time and sourcing glass bottles domestically was difficult. “We do not have the clout of larger wineries or wine groups therefore we relied on good relationships and our history of loyalty to get us through that tough year. However, this also prompted us to qualify China for glass bottle needs should something similar to that occur again. One must always have a backup plan in place,” he explains.
When the winery does consider a new supplier, Leyden and his team will negotiate price and create a test order to see if they are viable source. The team also makes an effort to tour their facility when possible. “The majority of our suppliers are well-established in the industry; there are really very few we wouldn’t consider dealing with,” Leyden notes. “Early on, we were producing 60,000 to 70,000 cases and it wasn’t always easy to get some suppliers’ attention or to have them agree to supply us directly. We now bottle an amount that can attract any supplier. And, it certainly helps that we pay our invoices in a timely manner.”
Because of the Klein family’s dedication to making an exceptional product, a number of improvements have been made to Rodney Strong Vineyards’ operations over the past 25 years. A new bottling line was installed about eight years ago with state-of-the-art equipment, including accumulation tables to prevent down time.
“Accumulation tables allow for a buildup of product between machines when problems occur with either the machines or packaging,” Leyden explains. “We have three to four minutes to fix a problem while product is diverted to the tables. Normally, we run our line at an average of 180 bottles per minute, but after a problem is fixed, we speed the line up to 220 bottles per minute in order to allow for product to be pulled off the accumulation tables. Thus allowing us to empty the tables and make them available should a problem arise again. We are fortunate Tom Klein allowed us space for these tables; many wineries do not have this luxury. Down time, no matter how minor can add up to lot of lost production during the course of a bottling shift.”
Rodney Strong Vineyards is running at about 80 percent efficiency with a target of 85 percent or better, but speed must be coupled with quality. The winery added camera inspection machines on line, yet still relies on people as well to conduct visual checks.
Two Artisan cellars have been added, providing in essence wineries within its winery. These cellars are where Rodney Strong Vineyards makes its Single Vineyard and Estate wines. With these cellars, grapes are brought into the winery in bins and are sorted by hand before going to the de-stemmer and press. The winery brought in multiple 1,500- to 4,000-gallon tanks, which allow for smaller individual fermentations.
“When you start with the right ingredients you end up with a superior product,” Leyden says. “By keeping – from the very beginning – small components rather than large blends of harvested grapes, the winemakers can work their magic and be more creative.”
Among other improvements Klein has made in the winery are: 80,000 square feet of solar panels, a 60,000-square-foot warehouse for case goods storage, and a 140,000-square-foot barrel storage warehouse.
Rodney Strong Vineyards will continue to improve and provide its customers with an exceptional product. “There are good reasons I’ve been here for 26 of my 45 years in the wine industry,” Leyden says. “Dignity, respect and integrity represent the backbone of our company. I couldn’t ask for a better work environment.”