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Napa Vintner and Entrepreneur Leslie Rudd Dies at 76

The savvy investor, businessman and philanthropist from Kansas left an indelible mark on California's food and wine scene

Aaron Romano
Posted: May 4, 2018

Food and wine entrepreneur Leslie Rudd died May 3 of complications from cancer. He was 76.

Starting out working at his dad's wholesaler in Kansas, Rudd built an impressive array of businesses in wine, spirits and food over 53 years. He was CEO of the Leslie Rudd Investment Company and the founder of the Rudd Group, which included Vintage Wine Estates in Santa Rosa, Rudd Oakville Estate, Edge Hill Estate, Covenant Wines in Berkeley and Distillery No. 209 in San Francisco, as well as the Oakville Grocery and Press restaurant in Napa Valley.

Born Aug. 15, 1941, in Wichita, Kan., Rudd was the son of Sam Rudd, who owned Standard Beverage Corp. Leslie joined the family business in 1965 as a sales representative upon his graduation from Wichita State University. He quickly moved up the ranks and in 1969 was named vice president, then president five years later. The company's most rapid growth came after he took over as president; it eventually became the state's largest wholesaler.

Rudd's first foray into luxury food and beverage came in 1996 when he purchased a majority interest in specialty grocer Dean & DeLuca. That same year, he also bought Napa's Girard winery, which he transformed into the home for Rudd Oakville Estate, known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.

Rudd sold the Girard brand to Pat Roney. The two later partnered to grow their wine holdings, buying Windsor Vineyards from Foster's Wine Estates in 2007. That brand, a direct-sales and private-label wine specialist, gave them the experience and infrastructure to create Vintage Wine Estates, which now produces close to 2 million cases annually through a collection of wineries and exclusive brands, including Clos Pegase, Cosentino, Girard, B.R. Cohn, Layer Cake and Cherry Pie.

David Ramey was Rudd Oakville Estate's first winemaker and considered Rudd a friend. He recalls traveling together by train in France and witnessing Rudd's brain at work. "He'd start chewing on business questions," Ramey told Wine Spectator, noting that Rudd was always trying to push forward, whether by developing new projects or improving existing ones. "He had a desk nameplate that read, 'Continuous Improvement' instead of his name, which very much summed up his approach to business and to life."

Rudd was also philanthropic. His Rudd Foundation, established in 1998, offers college scholarships to Pell Grant–eligible high-school students in Kansas. The foundation also advocates for a healthy national food policy, as well as several charitable causes and initiatives promoting the Jewish faith.

Despite all his endeavors, friends remember Rudd as a low-key person. "He would host dinners at the winery, and arrive late, and be the first to leave," chuckled Ramey, adding, "But he also had a sly sense of humor, and was a great guy and easy to be around."

Rudd is survived by his wife, Susan, and daughter, Samantha, who took over as proprietor at Rudd Estate in 2016.

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