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Glory in a Glass

Some men dream of riches. Some men dream of fame. Tom Klein dreams of capturing magic in a single glass of wine.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

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Klein also loves to smoke cigars when he travels. "The best moment I've had smoking cigars was a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, smoked at Boodle's in London. Its club room has high ceilings, leather chairs, and sitting there reading the Financial Times was one of the best cigar moments I've ever had. I also love sitting in the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland, looking out at the old course and enjoying the club malt whisky and whatever cigar I happen to bring over. That's impossible to beat."

Despite his many successes in life, Tom Klein is by no means content: he won't be satisfied until he and his winemakers reach the pinnacle of their craft. And Klein is sparing nothing to get there. In 2000, with the Internet growing in importance, Klein and his family decided to sell Windsor Vineyards. Its traditional mail-order business was becoming outmoded. Three years earlier, Klein and his team had launched a bold plan to upgrade everything at Rodney Strong, starting with their vineyard assets. By 2004, they had acquired an additional seven vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley appellations. Today, they produce 800,000 cases of wine a year; about 40 percent of that comes from their own vineyards. They also modernized their wine-making facility and equipment. "In terms of fermenting, cooperage and presses, everything is now done on site," Klein says. "From grape to glass, we do it all."

By 2005, though, Klein was still looking for that great leap forward. "Times were changing and we simply weren't keeping up," he admits. Other wineries were making better wines and winning all the accolades. Klein was not about to take that lying down. "I went to a number of wineries in Napa, to see what they were doing, and I asked Rick to go around Sonoma and see what the quality small producers were doing and what we could learn from their experience." Then, they hired a gifted winemaker as a consultant: David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg.

Now everything was coming together. Klein was convinced that with the new vineyards they had the right vineyard quality, the right hillside locations, the right soil content and climate conditions, and the right rootstocks and varietals to make truly great wines. They also had the right equipment and the right team. Still, to reach the top they had to make some radical changes. Those came in the form of what Klein calls "a winery within a winery," modeled on David Ramey's own boutique winery and dedicated to producing exceptional estate-bottled wines.

In the main facility at Rodney Strong, you still see the huge stainless steel tanks that produce most of its wines, but you also see small 5-, 7- and 10-ton fermenters and rows of small oak barrels made of the best French oak. "What small fermenters really let you do is go out in your vineyards and prospect," Klein explains. "You get to find these little nuggets in the vineyard where you find a row or a little plot that has the right rootstock, the right soil and the right aspect to the sun, so you have this fantastic opportunity to grow something special."

For this new initiative, only the best grapes will do. "Our estate wines, our reserve wines and our Meritage wine, called Symmetry, all come from our estate vineyards," Klein says. Each vineyard is scrutinized for vine and fruit quality, then the best sections are cordoned off to ensure they get special attention. At picking time, the vineyard team inspects every bunch so no grapes are picked prematurely. That's the key: only using the best grapes and only picking them when they have fully ripened. While Rick Sayre oversees the process, it is up to winemaker Gary Patzwald to nurse those grapes and bring out their full character and potential. If anyone doubts that making great wine is high art, just watch Patzwald work with his wines and his barrels. It's like watching a botanist care for the most delicate of orchids.

Klein likes what he's seeing. With Ramey's guidance, Rodney Strong has made excellent progress with Symmetry, and its Chardonnay Reserve and Cabernet Reserve. "We are also working on three new single-vineyard wines to come out of the Alexander Valley," Klein says. "The first, to be called Rockaway, will debut this summer, in its 2005 vintage. That will be followed by a second vineyard next year, and a third the following year."

James Laube of Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication, did some barrel tasting at Rodney Strong last year. "We tasted some 30 wines, dating from 2001," Laube wrote, "and for me it was clear that the newest Cabernets, from the 2006 vintage, were the best wines. The barrel samples were rich, broad, deep, complex and long on the finish."

The proof is in the barrel. During our visit, Klein drew out a sample of the 2007 vintage of Symmetry. As young as it was, the wine was big in flavor and lovely and smooth on the palate. "By picking the fruit only when it's fully ripe, we make it less tannic, so you don't have to store it," Klein says. "This is a wine that you will be able to drink as soon as it's released, and it will have all the character and elegance we're striving for."

Self-effacing as he is, Klein plans no major fanfare when his new wines are released. "I'd rather let the quality of the wines speak for itself," he explains. Still, one woman at our informal tasting summed up her verdict in a single word: "Wow!" With that, Tom Klein broke out in a shy Gary Cooper grin. "Well, now that is the best review we can ever have!"


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