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Glory in a Glass

Some men dream of riches. Some men dream of fame. Tom Klein dreams of capturing magic in a single glass of wine.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

Tom Klein crouches in front of his fireplace, strikes a match and carefully sets the kindling ablaze. He adjusts the logs until the flames lick up and become a crackling rainbow of yellow, orange and red. Then he settles back and fills two mugs with exceptionally good coffee. "I love a fire in the morning," Klein says. "It's a wonderful way to start the day. So is coffee and a fine cigar." • Klein is a tall, lanky man with broad shoulders, big hands, a strong jaw and a quiet, self-effacing presence that reminds you a bit of Gary Cooper. No glitz, no pretense: a man of character, a man of his word.

This morning, at his stately home in San Francisco, Klein is dressed in boots, jeans, a warm shirt and a heavy vest of olive green; in a few hours he will head to the Sierras for a week of skiing with his wife and their two sons. Right now, though, he leans back, takes a sip of coffee and begins talking about his dream, his passion, his amazing odyssey in the world of wine. And what an odyssey it has been.

Thirty years ago, Tom Klein didn't know a Chardonnay grape from a Pinot Noir; today, he is running Rodney Strong Vineyards, a successful winery in Sonoma County, California. Now Klein and his team are pursuing a dream that is much bigger and much harder to achieve: they are pouring their hearts and souls into creating a line of handcrafted, estate-bottled wines that they hope will be of transcendent quality and character, wines they hope will be deemed among the best in America and in the world. As Klein makes clear, this quest of his is about far more than profits or return on investment. It's about the values that he and his family hold most dear.

"We're making good wines," Klein says. "But I know we can do better. This is about the pursuit of excellence, about being the best we can be."

Klein brings some impressive credentials to this quest. He grew up in Stockton, a hardworking, unpretentious port community serving the farmers, traders and shippers of California's fertile San Joaquin Valley. His grandfather, Sol Klein, and Sol's brother Jack had established a family business there called Klein Brothers, where they bought and sold beans and other agricultural products. When profits were up, Sol and Jack also bought attractive farm properties in the Central Valley and other parts of California.

Tom grew up playing sports, fishing in the river in the summer and going duck hunting in the fall. His dad, Bud Klein, had been a star baseball player at Stanford University, and in 1950, after a stint in the Navy, Bud was offered a contract with the Boston Red Sox. By then, though, Bud and his wife, Jane, already had a daughter, Kathy, and Tom and his two younger brothers, Dick and Steve, would soon be on the way. So Bud went back to Stockton and joined the family business. His shot at the Majors was not to be.

Tom followed in his father's footsteps in a number of ways. After graduating from high school in 1969, he enrolled at Stanford, where he studied history, political science, economics and international relations. Like his father, Klein was also a star athlete, playing football and rugby. After Stanford, he played rugby with a Bay Area club team and then with the U.S. national rugby team. With a mind to go into the family business, Klein returned to Stanford in 1977 to get his MBA at the Stanford Business School. Then it happened.

"That winter," Klein recalls, "a man named Bruce Cass was teaching a wine appreciation class. Every Tuesday night for about 10 weeks, Bruce gave us an intensive course in wine. Each week he took a different wine and talked about where the grapes were grown, what varietals were used, how the wine was made and what was the influence of the barrel. Then he'd pick six or eight examples of that wine, say, a French Chablis, for us to taste and appraise. In the process, Bruce helped us develop a vocabulary to describe what we were tasting—and that was important. If you want to develop a palate, you've got to be able to put words around what a wine tastes like and why you like it. In the course of 10 weeks we studied and learned to understand Cabernet, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. That was really my introduction to wine."

Right away, Klein was hooked: "Spring break that year I jumped in my car, drove up to Napa and spent the next two days tasting wine. Everything was so casual back then. I remember going to Caymus Winery and knocking on the door of the founder, Charlie Wagner. In those days you knocked on the door at the front of his house; the winery was behind. Charlie said, 'Hello, what can I do for you?' I said, 'Well, I'd like to taste some wine.' He said, 'Great! Come on, let's go out back...' Then we went out in the barrel house and started tasting wine out of barrels."

Klein loved it all. "The wine, the life, the people, the lifestyle—all this just appealed to me." During a picnic one day in Sonoma County, a life dream snapped into focus: "I just sat there thinking, 'Boy, this would be a fun thing to do someday,'" he recalls. "'It would be great to be in the wine business.'"

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