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Rodney Strong Vineyards and Tenth Ward Distillery

by The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr

Rodney Strong Vineyards has been a staple for us for decades. A label created by a successful dancer who turned to his second love after retiring, Rodney Strong was Sonoma County’s 13th bonded winery in 1959 and holds title to many pioneering efforts. Today, Rodney Strong is getting a refresher with new, innovative fermenting tanks, replanted vineyards and new labeling.

The property has particularly prospered after the Klein family purchased Rodney Strong in 1989. Many of its labels – Chalk Hill chardonnay, Symmetry and Alexander Crown cabernet sauvignon – are icons in Sonoma County.

The 2018 Rodney Strong Vineyards Chalk Hill Chardonnay ($22) was Rodney Strong’s favorite wine and remains one of the best values in chardonnay. Winemaker Justin Seidenfeld attributes the success of this wine to the dense soil cap, which yields small berries and low production. Ripe pear and stone fruit flavors, he explained, are also a result of the warmer climate in this part of Sonoma County.

At $25, the 2017 Rodney Strong Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is one of the best buys in this category. The grapes from two regions with different micro-climates give the medium-body wine a broad palate that ranges from red to dark fruit. This is a great pinot noir to just sip.

Sporting a new label, the 2016 Rodney Strong Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) is a nice balance between power and finesse. It spends 30 months in French oak barrels, half of which is new oak. Fruit forward with a velvet texture.

The 2016 Symmetry ($55) is a blend of all five Bordeaux grape varieties with cabernet sauvignon comprising 70 percent. Made by Rodney Strong since 1996, Symmetry is a winemaker’s blend of grapes not used in the single-vineyard wines. Seidenfeld said the “idea is to make a wine based on structure.”

The 2016 Brother’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) from Alexander Valley is a show stopper with intense dark fruit notes and hints of mocha, vanilla and licorice. Rodney Strong drops 20 percent of the crop in order to use nothing but the best fruit for this terrific wine.

Tenth Ward Distillery

We stumbled onto Tenth Ward Distillery on a recent day trip to Frederick, Maryland. Located on S. Patrick St. downtown, Tenth Ward is hardly unique in Frederick since it is the current home to a total of 5 currently operating distilleries. With a population of a little over 72,000, this makes it the highest per capita number of distilleries in any town in America, according to Monica Pearce, self- described “Founder and Boss Lady” of Tenth Ward Distilling.

Sporting a “Whiskey Woman” shirt we recently met with Monica the first female owner of a Maryland distillery to hear her story and taste her spirits.

Monica credited Frederick County office of economic development with significantly contributing to their success. Holding to their slogan of “Ward Off Ordinary” (you can buy the t-shirt), Tenth Ward is proud of the diversity of their employees and local sourcing of all grains used in distilling. In addition to female ownership, which is only one percent of all distilleries in the U.S., Tenth Ward also employs a black female as assistant distiller Kachnetha (Kay) Bennett. This trend of female involvement in distilling follows a significant trend of increasing female spirits drinking, with fully 37 percent of spirits consumed by women.

Local sourcing of raw materials is important to Pearce. All grains come from Rippon Lodge Farm in West Virginia and apples for their apple brandy come from McCutcheons in Frederick. Even the water used for proofing their whiskey is spring water from the Catoctin Mountains.

We tasted Tenth Ward’s spirits in its repurposed, industrial tasting room.

We really enjoyed the truly unique take on the Tenth Ward Smoked Corn Whiskey ($30-750ml). Made from 80 percent smoked corn and 20 percent malted barley this clear spirit is a must for mezcal lovers. Corn notes blend with smoky notes in a very smooth package, that comes across as an easier to drink mezcal.

The Tenth Ward Smoked Bourbon ($40 for 750 ml) is another spirit made from the smoked corn and malted barley, but here it is aged in new American white oak barrels for 6 months. This bourbon for scotch lovers exhibits scotch-like notes with a hint of smoke. Very smooth and agreeable.

The Tenth Ward Stouted Rye ($45 for 750 ml), our favorite, is crafted from a 70 percent rye, 30 percent barley mash bill and aged in American oak. It spends time in local Flying Dog Brewery Gonzo Imperial Porter barrels. This delicious rye exhibits classic spicy rye and chocolate notes with a sweetness more like a bourbon.

Tenth Ward also produces a seasonal liqueur several times a year. Their current iteration is the Tenth Ward Autumn Liqueur ($45 for 750 ml), an apple brandy crafted from locally sourced apples. Ten ingredients are added to the base but the ginger, cinchona bark (the source of quinine), black tea and honey dominate. It is mildly sweet but the cinchona bark adds a slight bitterness to create a balanced elixir.

Only two distillers on the East Coast attempt a version of absinthe, and Tenth Ward is one of them. The Tenth Ward Absinthe Nouvelle is the real deal, sporting an ABV of 70 percent (140 proof), and includes the essential spices of anise, fennel and wormwood. Pleasantly herbal with licorice notes Tenth wards version is as good as we have tasted. Sante!

Wine picks

  • La Valentina Riserva Spelt Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2016 ($25). This is a classic, well- made Montepulciano D’Abruzzo featuring deep and rich cherry and berry notes with leather accents. Great to pair with winter meat dishes.

  • Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2017 ($45). Charles Krug offers well-made Napa Valley wines at decent prices. This cabernet sauvignon offers a lot of quality for a modest price, at least by Napa Valley standards. Cranberry, cherry, and cassis elements are accented by herbal notes that create a very interesting and complex glass of wine.

  • Primus Carmenere Apalta, Colchagua Chile 2018 ($19). Bright and fresh cherry fruit flavors with a pleasant spicy edge.

  • Raeburn Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2019 ($20). Pear and apple notes abound in this very reasonably priced chardonnay. Toasted vanilla and soft mouthfeel.

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