Aspen Times Weekly: A Legacy in Wine — Leslie Rudd Raises Many Bars
Vintage Wine Estates
In addition to his own wineries Leslie Rudd and his partners have built an impressive collection of California wineries
Sonoma Coast Vineyards
Cartlidge and Browne
For serial carnivores, there is nothing like a great steak and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Some like a filet, others prefer a New York strip. But for me, the “Cowboy Cut” rib eye on the bone, fire-seared on the outside and just over the line from bloody to rare in the middle, spells perfection. Set it up with a few spuds, some fresh-from-the-garden Brussel sprouts and, of course, a Napa Red of just the right provenance and you have the most manly — and American — of all meals.
Such was my pleasure this past week at PRESS, the mid-Napa Valley steakhouse in the clean white edifice owned by Aspen and St. Helena resident and entrepreneur Leslie Rudd. PRESS is both one of Napa’s top restaurants and one of the world’s best steakhouses. Its singular obsession for providing the best aged cuts of meat, paired with an incredible selection of the great wines, all housed in a welcoming Howard Backen-designed building, is, well, sublime. And the wine cellar, which is monitored by two of the most able and willing sommeliers anywhere, Kelli White and Scott Brenner, holds 10,000 bottles of the best juice ever made.
Since 1996, Rudd, who made a good-sized fortune in the wine and liquor wholesale business in Wichita, Kan., has made a good-sized impression on the Napa Valley. With an eponymous winery on the corner of the Silverado Trail and the Oakville Cross (as blessed a patch of dirt as one can find in all of the great wine lands on the planet), a vineyard and farm 1,600 feet above the valley floor on the ridgeline of Mount Veeder, and a historic winery and (former) distillery property hidden on the edge of a hillside not far from PRESS, Rudd has a trio of the finest gems in Napa.
Beyond those projects, any of which could hold a lesser man’s attention for a lifetime, he is also the proprietor of the Oakville Grocery and the ever-expanding family of Dean & DeLuca culinary emporiums, which were his first foray in Napa. Both of which have destination locations along Hwy. 29, the main artery through the heart of the stunning Napa Valley. In San Francisco, he has created Distillery 209, where gin is made under the name of the previously mentioned historic 1880s distillery building he has renovated on the Edge Hill Winery site.
And this past month, Vintage Wine Estates, a winery investment company of which Rudd is a significant partner, purchased another iconic Napa property, Clos Pegase, which is just down the road from the Rudd Family Estate. These are some, but by no means all, of the entities in which Rudd has invested both capital and his enormous enthusiasm for all things wine with the intent of building institutions.
But as impressive and important as these holdings may be, perhaps his greatest long-term contribution to wine may emanate from the little stone building on the St. Helena campus of the Culinary Institute of America that he endowed as the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies. I first became aware of Rudd more than half a decade ago while sitting in the tasting “lab” in that building.
There, as a participant in a blind tasting of California Pinot Noir led by Karen MacNeil, chairwoman 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.
While a great wine and a great steak satiate, the value of education lasts forever.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“We believe in the power of women, so we turned to what we know, winemaking, and tried to make our own small contribution to the discussion,” co-owner of Ponzi Vineyards Anna Maria said. “We had to do something.”