Jeff Morgan (left) in the shuk in Jerusalem with his friend Leslie Rudd, who recently passed away (Photo/Courtesy of Jeff Morgan)
Jeff Morgan (left) in the shuk in Jerusalem with his friend Leslie Rudd, who recently passed away (Photo/Courtesy of Jeff Morgan)

Goodbye, my friend: winemaker and entrepreneur Leslie Rudd

It is with great sadness that I write this obituary for my friend, mentor, business partner and Covenant Winery co-founder Leslie Rudd, who passed away last Thursday. He was 76.

Leslie grew up in a Jewish home in Wichita, Kansas, where he had a strong connection to his Jewish roots and identity. Today, his eponymous Rudd Vineyard and Winery in Napa Valley is among the great wine estates there, and it is where he maintained an ongoing passion and commitment to making great wine.

With this in mind, in 2003 he took on the challenge of producing a kosher wine that would be the equal of any fine non-kosher wine. I had the good fortune of becoming his partner in this venture, which we called Covenant. Not surprisingly, Covenant’s top wine is called Solomon Lot 70, in honor of Rudd’s Hebrew name, Shlomo (or Solomon, in Hebrew). The grapes for this wine are sourced exclusively from Rudd Vineyards.

In 1974, when he was only 33, Leslie took over the management of Standard Beverage Corporation, his family’s wine and spirits distributorship in Wichita. With his guidance, the business grew to be the largest of its kind in the state — a position it maintains to this day.

But Leslie, referred to by his daughter Samantha as a “serial entrepreneur,” was never content to rest on his laurels. Through astute investments in real estate and restaurants, he created the Leslie Rudd Investment Company, which now boasts a diverse portfolio. In 1996, he purchased a majority interest in Dean & DeLuca, the pioneering New York food emporium. He expanded Dean & DeLuca nationally and brought it to Napa Valley, where he upgraded the shelves to include California wines, before selling the retailer in 2014. However, Oakville Grocery, acquired a decade ago, remains part of the estate’s portfolio.

In 2000, four years after purchasing the Oakville property that is now Rudd Estate, Leslie acquired Edge Hill, a historic winery in St. Helena. After extensive renovation, Edge Hill has been restored to reflect the time and spirit of early winemaking in Napa Valley. The property hosts, among other structures, a 19th-century brick building with original signage that reads, “Distillery 209.” It has been transformed into a beautiful tasting room. But Leslie took that name and created Distillery 209, a boutique distillery known for its high-quality spirits, on Pier 50 near AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Leslie Rudd was extremely generous and believed in giving back.

In addition to these many endeavors, Leslie partnered with his longtime friend and associate, Pat Roney, to found Vintage Wine Estates in 2003. The company now includes an impressive portfolio of some 30 wineries and wine brands including B.R. Cohn, Clos Pegase, Cosentino, Delectus, Girard, Swanson and Viansa.

As Leslie’s association with Covenant brought him closer to his Jewish heritage, he traveled with me to Israel in 2011. Israel reminded us of what Napa Valley was like 30 years ago, and we were inspired to found Covenant Israel, a wine project aimed at investing in Israel and showing support for what we believe is one of the world’s most up-and-coming wine regions. Israel also seemed like the best place for two Jewish winemakers to put down roots. Covenant Winery in Berkeley and Covenant Israel (produced in the Galilee) together make about 10,000 cases of wine annually.

Leslie Rudd was extremely generous and believed in giving back. He was a mentor to many. And his Rudd Foundation, founded in 1998, is a philanthropy that focuses on education, advocating for healthy national food policy and charitable causes and initiatives related to Judaism.

As a businessman, husband, friend, father, philanthropist, mentor, vintner and restaurateur, he was many things to many people. He was humble, funny, caring, eloquent (a voracious reader), a student of history and also the consummate deal-maker. He urged me to do my best, but at the same time reminded me that “done is better than perfect.” His legacy lives on through the many lives he touched.

He is survived by his wife, Susan; his daughter, Samantha (who now heads the family’s Napa Valley wineries); and a grandson, Rudd. May his memory be a blessing.

Jeff Morgan
Jeff Morgan

Jeff Morgan is co-owner and winemaker at Covenant Winery in Berkeley. He also makes wine in Israel with his Covenant Israel project. All of Covenant’s wines are kosher for Passover. He and his wife, Jodie, have written nine cookbooks, including “The Covenant Kitchen: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table.”