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Flavors: Winemaker Emeritus Rick Sayre of Rodney Strong Vineyards Talk Wine

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Stella Fong
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Winemaker Emeritus Rick Sayre of Rodney Strong Vineyards returned as the 30th anniversary of the MSU Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival.

Rick Sayre, winemaker emeritus of Rodney Strong Vineyards reigned as this year’s MSU Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival Winemaster. For the second time since 2005, Sayre returned to educate those curious about wine to help raise monies for scholarships for students.

“Rodney Strong was considered a pioneer and he fell in love with wine when he was in Europe,” Sayre said. Strong and his wife were ballet dancer in Paris and “they lived on wine and cheese when they were not dancing.” They separated upon return to the states. Strong then met his second wife, Charlotte, “a red headed fireball, and they came, and they moved to California in 1959. He started a little wine shop in Tiburon.”

Strong then started “the very first mail order wine business.” “Unfortunately, in the mail order wine business back then, you could only distribute within the state of California, so they were pretty much unknown in the rest of the United States.”

In 1962, Strong bought 159 acres in vineyards in Windsor in Sonoma. He eventually replanted the grapes with Chardonnay that would later become the celebrated Chalk Hill AVA. In 1969, after purchasing land in the Russian River Valley, he planted Pinot Noir. Ten years later, Rick Sayre joined the winery as the winemaker with the Klein family purchasing the winery in 1989.

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Stella Fong
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: Red wines from Rodney Strong Vineyards for the Winemaster Symposium at the Northern Hotel for the 30th annual MSU Billings Wine and Food Festival.

In Northern California, “there’s a very famous agriculturalist, Luther Burbank,” Sayre said. “Santa Rosa was blessed with one of the best places in the world to grown fruit, produce.” “It’s a great place to grow grapes. It has a Mediterranean climate,” with dry summers and rain in the fall.
Sayre’s career began, “At first when I was in college, I wanted to be a doctor so I was taking a lot of heavy classes in chemistry, zoology and I enjoyed that I have always been a person of science, but I took a minor class of forestry, and I really fell in love with that.” After his summer job as a fire fighter ended, he needed a job and came across a help wanted sign. “Two weeks on the job, German winemaker Bob Stemmler came to me and said, ‘I want you to consider being my assistant wine maker,’” at Simi Winery.

Here, he crossed paths with André Tchelistcheff now known as one of the greatest winemakers. Initially Sayre had no idea who he was. “I find out that he had trained the two winemakes that won the Judgement of Paris – Mike Grigich that made that Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and Warren Winairski of Stag’s Leap.”

“Andre was definitely very passionate about what he did and he was like a breath of fresh air because the winemakers that I knew when I first started, that if they knew a secret or some formula to make wines, they kept that to themselves …. Andre was a teacher and he wanted to share his knowledge. He was very difficult to work for, a task master, but he gave you a pat on the back when you needed it. You also got a kick in the britches if you screwed up, but he always did it very compassionately.”

Winemaster Symposium 2022.jpg
Stella Fong
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Winemaker Emeritus from Rodney Strong Vineyards teaches the Winemaster Symposium for the 30th annual MSU Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival.

Over the years, technology has redefined the wine industry. “Tchelistcheff did not have a lot of tools available to him back in the ‘30s and ‘40s that we have now.” These days, “We now have multispectral imaging in the vineyards” with PhDs with expertise in irrigating the grapes. Sayre continued, “There’s people doing genetics now on certain traits of the yeast, and the bacteria giving certain flavors.” Most important is having the winemaker going out into the vineyards and being aware of what is going on.
In almost four decades in the cellar, Sayre has guided Rodney Strong Vineyards’ wine collection to include world-class Reserve, Symmetry – a Bordeaux style red blend, and Single-Vineyard releases, an outstanding line of Estate wines and best-in-class Sonoma County wines. In 2008 the first vintage of Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon set a new standard for hillside single vineyards in Alexander Valley.

In 2014 Rodney Strong Vineyards was named Wine Enthusiast Winery of the Year for innovation, leadership, and commitment to quality Sonoma wines. Sayre retired four years later with Justin Seidenfeld now taking on the role as Director of Winemaking.

These days, Sayre farms an acre of land growing vegetables with his wife for Sonoma restaurants and free dives for abalone. However, as Winemaker Emeritus, Sayre continues to travel to educate about Rodney Strong Vineyards wines.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.