Leslie Rudd, a Boy From Kansas Who Saw Château Haut-Brion as His Business Model

In the 1950s, teenage boys tended to be interested in girls, cars and a new thing called television. Leslie Rudd liked real estate.

While in high school, he often visited the office of Nestor R. Weigand Sr. , a prominent real-estate broker and investor in the young man’s hometown of Wichita, Kan., to ask questions about the business.

By his early 30s, Mr. Rudd was running a liquor-distribution company started by his parents and branching out with investments in real estate and restaurants. His bigger dream, conceived during a tour of France, was to own a wine-producing estate. He liked the idea of a family business that could last generations. In the mid-1990s, he sent letters to 18 owners of Napa Valley wineries, offering to buy them. One responded, and Mr. Rudd acquired what is now Rudd Oakville Estate .

He also was a fan of Dean & DeLuca, a gourmet grocery chain known for radicchio and balsamic vinegar, whose first store opened in New York’s SoHo neighborhood in 1977. Mr. Rudd and others bought control of the chain in the mid-1990s, expanded it and sold it two decades later.


Mr. Rudd died May 3 of esophageal cancer at his apartment in New York. He was 76.

One of his favorite mottos was “done is better than perfect.” He liked to ask, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Friends said he was a master of determining when to get into an investment and when to get out. He enjoyed buying and improving businesses; the day-to-day operations were left to others.

Leslie Gerald Rudd was born Aug. 15, 1941, in Wichita. His parents, Elenore and Sam Rudd, founded a wholesale wine and liquor company in the late 1940s. Leslie worked in the company’s warehouse as a boy and enrolled in what is now Wichita State University in 1959. He left school before graduating to work in the family business and soon made it clear he had bigger ambitions than those of his parents. (He finally received his WSU degree in general studies in 1981.)

“Leslie was the spark plug,” his mother said in a family history. “He had [his father] Sam build a warehouse and then another warehouse. From then on, Les took a big part of the business. Sam was more cautious and afraid to invest, but Leslie wasn’t.”

He was looking far beyond Kansas. At age 21, he toured France’s Bordeaux region and stopped at the Château Haut-Brion winery, where he was struck by the centuries-long history and emphasis on quality. He vowed to establish his own wine dynasty.

While building up the family liquor-wholesaling business, he began making real-estate investments with Nestor Weigand Jr. , the son of his early mentor. After making a large profit on the sale of an apartment building in Oklahoma, the two bought a vacation home to share in Aspen, Colo.

Mr. Rudd met one of Wichita’s most prominent investors, Charles Koch, in 1964 at a dinner hosted by F.A. “Baldy” Harper, an economist and writer. “We were simpatico,” Mr. Koch said. They became close friends, traveled together and shared business ideas.

Mr. Rudd was smart, inquisitive and humble, Mr. Koch said, and those qualities endeared him to others. When he visited top wine producers in France, “they’d show him what they were doing,” Mr. Koch said.

Mr. Rudd invested in Godfather’s Pizza franchises and was a co-founder of the Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon chain in the 1980s.

After living in Wichita and Aspen, he decided he wanted to raise his daughter, Samantha, in a more rural area while pursuing his dream of making wine. He spent two years searching for a wine estate in California before buying 55 acres in Napa Valley in 1996. There he established Rudd Oakville Estate as a producer of Cabernet Sauvignon and other wines.

A visitor from the British newspaper The Telegraph in 2014 said the estate’s entrance is “formal, wood-paneled and old-worldly, but underground all is modern. The cellars are antiseptically clean, lined with concrete and containing smooth, giant concrete eggs in which some of the wines are fermented.”

The restless Mr. Rudd also invested in other wineries, including a maker of kosher wines, and established an artisanal gin producer, Distillery No. 209, in San Francisco, selling it for as much as $60 a bottle. In St. Helena, Calif., he founded the Press restaurant. Some of the food came from his own Rudd Farms.

His foundation funds scholarships in Kansas, a center for wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America, and a center for food policy and obesity studies at the University of Connecticut.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Susan; a grandchild and a sister.

“He didn’t have any hobbies because he just liked to work,” said his daughter, who now runs the family businesses.

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

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