Leslie Rudd wasn't a name heard much around Napa and Sonoma just a decade ago, but with deep pockets and a nose for opportunity, he has been building a wine and food empire that includes six wineries, specialty food stores, a restaurant and a spirits distillery. In the past year, he has shifted his focus from a boutique winery to larger properties with strong potential for growth. And his business partner says there's more to come.
"We're looking for at least one other major acquisition," said Pat Roney, who has partnered with Rudd on a number of projects since 1995. That's fairly ambitious—their portfolio of wine brands currently produces 200,000 cases a year. Less than two years ago, it was a tiny fraction of that.
It's hard to know what motivates Rudd—he generally keeps a low profile and declined to be interviewed for this story—but his wealth and passion for wine and food can be traced to Standard Beverage Corp., a successful wine and spirits wholesaler in Kansas that his family launched in 1949. While Rudd has been a partner in numerous food businesses over the years—Pizza Hut, for example—he has been focusing on luxury brands almost exclusively since 1996, when he bought a major interest in Dean & DeLuca. Today the upscale food and wine outlet has locations around the world, from St. Helena, Calif., to Dubai.
That same year, Rudd bought Girard Winery and in short order sold the brand to partner Roney and converted the former Girard property in Oakville on Silverado Trail into Rudd Winery. The estate released its first wines in 2000 and now produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The wines frequently earn outstanding ratings—the 2002 Cabernet scored 94 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
Rudd at first seemed content to focus on boutique projects in Napa—he produces an artisanal gin, and in 2007, he salvaged the small Oakville Grocery chain from bankruptcy. He provides key investment money for a variety of partners and projects, and has also backed many philanthropic endeavors such as the Rudd Center for Wine Studies at Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena.
But last year he began a series of aggressive moves to expand the wine end of his business. "He's driven to excel," said David Ramey, of Ramey Wine Cellars, who was winemaker at Rudd Winery in its first few years. "He seems to have a good sense about knowing where the market is going and has a knack for buying low and selling high."
In April 2007, Rudd and Roney purchased Windsor Vineyards from Foster's Wine Estates. A direct-sales and private label wine specialist based in Sonoma County, Windsor produces about 100,000 cases annually and ships to 34 states. That shipping infrastructure is a big asset. "We'll also be able to sell our other brands through that system," Roney said, thus avoiding the traditional three-tier distribution system.
In January 2008, the duo bought Grove Street Winery in Healdsburg. The value label lacks a quality reputation, but it was the winery's large production facility that appealed to them. In April, they bought StoneFly, a small Cabernet Franc producer in Napa, and in May they snapped up Sonoma Coast, a fledging but well-regarded brand with no vineyards or winery. The partners plan to grow Sonoma Coast from 4,000 to 20,000 cases annually, Roney said.
Add to that, Rudd and Roney have launched a new brand: Windsor Sonoma Winery, which will draw fruit from a 40-acre vineyard that they recently purchased on Westside Road in Russian River Valley. The goal is to produce about 50,000 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Neither Rudd nor Roney would say what this buying spree cost. Roney said their goal is to double production to 400,000 cases a year, or more. "There's a lot of consolidation at the distribution level," said Roney, "and in order to become a priority for the distributors, you have to have volume."
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