Rodney Strong, Broadway dancer and Sonoma Valley pioneer has died aged 78.

In wine circles, Strong is best known for championing the wines of Sonoma County after setting up there in the late fifties.

Strong established Rodney Strong vineyards in Sonoma in 1961 and went on to become one of the valley’s chief exponents, owning 5,000 acres between Sonoma and Mendocino.

Although he was to lose control of the company in 1974 after a series of financial setbacks, Strong remained on the board and continued to be a major figure in the region.

Rodney D. Strong was born on 8 March 1927 in Camas, Washington. He trained as a dancer and by the age of 21 was appearing onstage as the lead dancer in the Paris Lido. It was also in Paris that Strong discovered the wines of France.

By the early 50s, Strong had returned to his native America and was appearing as a dancer on Broadway. By 1959, however, Strong’s age forced him to give up his career and he moved to northern California with his new wife.

‘I knew I couldn’t be an old dancer, but I could be an old winemaker,’ Strong would later remark.

After launching Tiburon Vintners in the same year, Strong’s own vineyards were acquired in the early sixties – a time when most Sonoma grapes were going into mass-produced jug blends.

Strong not only championed the region, he continued to experiment with various winemaking techniques, including temperature-controlled fermentation, varied oak-ageing and use of yeasts, throughout the sixties.

Always a champion of single-vineyard wines, the flagship Alexander’s Crown single vineyard wine was first released in 1974. But by then, Strong’s company was in such a bad financial state, it had to be sold.

Despite losing the vineyard, he remained as a board member, consultant and spokesman for the company that would, after four years, be re-named in his honour.

Strong continued to play an active role in valley throughout the 90s although he suffered a series of strokes over the last four years.

Strong, who died on March 5, married dancer Charlotte Ann Wilson in 1959. She died in 2003. They had no children.

Written by Oliver Styles