Wine Ink: The generosity of wine entrepreneur Leslie Rudd
May 9, 2018
Last week, word came that Leslie Rudd, a wine entrepreneur among many other things, had succumbed to cancer. As he had a home in Aspen, upon hearing the news I went to Google to see what more I could learn. It had just happened, so there was nothing posted yet about his passing.
But the first entry to pop up on Google was a story in the Butler County Times Gazette in El Dorado, Kansas, from that very morning, announcing that a local girl was one of 20 Kansas high school students who had been awarded a newly established Rudd Foundation scholarship to help with college expenses. It was a story that was so perfectly timed and so indicative of the life that Leslie had lived as a philanthropist first. Above all else, I hoped he'd had a chance to read it. It would have made him very happy.
I did not know Leslie well, though I had the pleasure of speaking with him on a few occasions. But I was a fan of his work, his wines and his largess. And as I will explain later, his giving had an impact on my personal wine life.
He began his career by building a family business, Standard Beverage Co., into the largest beverage distributor in Kansas. But it was Leslie's forays into the world of food and wine in Napa that really defined his professional life. He was in his mid-50s when he made a pair of significant purchases. In 1996, he acquired a patch of land covered in the coveted "Rutherford Dust" from Steve Girard and christened it Rudd Winery. That same year, he purchased the high-end Dean and DeLuca grocery chain.
Over the next two decades, Leslie went on to create America's finest kosher wines under the Covenant label with partner and winemaker Jeff Morgan; purchase and revive the Oakville Grocery; resurrect an aging winery called Edge Hill into a Napa treasure; open PRESS, a luxury steakhouse on Highway 29 in the heart of the valley; and found Distillery No. 209, a craft gin company based in San Francisco. He also partnered with his friend Pat Roney in establishing Vintage Wine Estates, which owns a number of leading brands, including Clos Pegase Winery and Swanson Vineyards.
A full professional resumé, indeed.
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But it was his giving that made a difference to so many. In 1998, he established The Rudd Foundation. In addition to his charitable gifts in his home state of Kansas, the foundation also partnered with The Court of Master Sommeliers to create the Rudd Roundtable, which brings sommeliers and wine professionals to Napa for discussions. And in St. Helena, California, The Rudd Foundation dedicated the St. Helena Performing Arts Center, which now serves the choral and drama departments of St. Helena High School and the community at large.
In October 2013, I wrote a column about Leslie Rudd and the impact The Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America's St. Helena Campus, where he served as the primary benefactor, had on me.
This is an excerpt:
"I first became aware of Leslie Rudd more than half a decade ago while sitting in the tasting 'lab' in the building. There, as a participant in a blind tasting of California pinot noir led by Karen MacNeil, then chairman of Professional Wine Studies at the CIA at Greystone and the author of 'The Wine Bible,' I had an epiphany that wine is, well, everything.
"That is to say, I discovered that the study of wine is also the study of geography, geology, technology, history and, yes, even humanity. It changed the way I perceived wine and opened up my eyes to the universal nature of a product that I loved to drink but had never thought of as a link to all tangible things. It was a thought that has informed the way I look at, drink and write about wines ever since.
"The point is that the establishment of the Rudd Center, which is devoted to providing educational opportunities for both wine professionals and enthusiasts, has the ability to change people's points of view — their perception of the role of wine in the world. And with that knowledge they can, as sommeliers, distributors, winemakers, educators, and even wine writers, pass that on to others, helping to propagate an even grander world of wine than exists today."
It was a gift I will not soon forget. Thank you, Leslie.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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