A lot has already been written about the passing of my friend, business partner and Covenant Winery co-founder Leslie Rudd. He died on May 3 at the age of 76 following a courageous battle with cancer. I’d like to share a few personal thoughts about this most exceptional individual.
If you didn’t know Leslie, I’m sorry you’ll never have that opportunity. He was complex, caring, cutthroat, creative and inspiring. He was also one hell of a mensch, the guy who could bring people together and light up the room—then disappear and let those same people build something unique and outstanding together. Les built community wherever he went.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Leslie was the consummate businessman. As a young man, he transformed his small, family-owned liquor distributorship into the largest in the state. Then, he forged a second empire based on astute real estate and restaurant investments.
An interest in wine and history led him first to France and then to Napa Valley, where he built his impressive eponymous winery—Rudd Estate—in 1996. Many people don’t realize that Leslie also owned some 30 other wineries and wine brands through Vintage Wine Estates, which he founded with his friend and partner (and my former boss at Dean & Deluca 18 years ago) Pat Roney.
In short, nobody did deals like Leslie. He saw things with pristine clarity. He assessed people and situations with extraordinary precision. He read voraciously and seemed to remember everything. And he could also do math really fast in his head. It was this scary brilliance that regularly brought most of us who were close to him to our knees. I hated arguing with Leslie. He usually won.
But let’s also remember that Leslie was an extraordinary teacher and mentor. He shared his knowledge, enthusiasm and affection generously. The lion inside him was tempered by a disarmingly soft-spoken, modest exterior. He could be so easygoing, so much fun and so endearing. I loved just hanging out with him.
For many years, we lived down the street from each other in St. Helena (Napa Valley). Unannounced, Leslie would typically drive up to my house—usually early in the morning—and we’d go for a spin in his car. We’d snoop around the neighborhood, see what (vineyard) properties were for sale, gossip about local news and plot strategies for conquest of sorts. Then we’d go eat at one of his favorite breakfast haunts to share more ideas. Somehow, visitors from afar (like the East Coast or Europe) would often show up at our table. There would be additional questions, answers, commentary and then….it was time to leave for our day jobs! Who needed coffee? After a few hours with Leslie, I was charged up.
Jeff Morgan and Leslie Rudd in Jerusalem, 2011.
Leslie’s and my decision in 2003 to create Covenant—a $100 Napa Valley kosher Cabernet—was unexpected. He loved a challenge. And he was also drawn to Jewish causes, which he supported through his philanthropic Rudd Foundation. But I must admit the idea of building a kosher winery was quite improbable for us, especially since neither Leslie nor I kept kosher. In fact, we didn’t even attend synagogue!
We were cultural Jews who felt an affinity for our heritage, however. And when Israeli winemaker Eli Ben Zaken, from Domaine du Castel, came to visit Napa Valley in 2002, we invited him to Rudd Winery to show us his wine. In retrospect, it was the tasting that changed the course of my life.
Upon sampling Castel’s Grand Vin, Leslie and I asked ourselves, “Why not create an equally outstanding kosher wine from Napa Valley?” The idea just popped into our heads. I really have no idea why. We rarely drank kosher wine at all.
The following year, we founded Covenant and made our first Cabernet Sauvignon with Napa Valley grapes at Herzog Wine Cellars, in California’s Central Coast. We also received a lot of technical assistance from Leslie’s original Rudd Estate winemaker, David Ramey, who ultimately became a close friend to both of us.
By 2011, Covenant had become well known in America, and Leslie and I decided that a visit to Israel was overdue. We flew to Tel Aviv in the spring, just as the olive trees were blossoming. The pollen-filled air gave Leslie the worst case of hay fever I’ve ever seen, but he hung in there long enough to be impressed by what he saw. We visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and—of course—Castel winery, which had inspired us to get started in the first place. “Let’s make wine here in Israel!” we exclaimed with classic naiveté. (Warning: Building a wine business far away in a foreign country is not easy.) Still, we couldn’t imagine a better place for a Jewish winemaker to put down roots. In 2013, Covenant Israel released its first wine—a Syrah. Today, our Israeli wines are distributed throughout Israel, the U.S., and Europe. In fact, we are the only winery I know of that makes wine in both Israel and the U.S.
Clearly, Covenant would never have happened without Leslie’s support and enthusiasm. He gave me the confidence and guidance I needed to pursue the dream. And without his initial investment, I would never have found the resources to get started. At first, Leslie and I didn’t know that making kosher wine would lead us closer to Judaism and Israel. And we didn’t realize that Covenant would also bring us closer together as friends. Leslie was like the big brother I never had. He was tough on himself, and he was tough on me. Yet he balanced his drive with humility. And his generosity of spirit was boundless.
To say Leslie Rudd has changed my life is an understatement. I feel blessed to have known him. And his legacy lives on through those of us whose lives he touched. Thank God I was one of them.
May his memory be a blessing.