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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

(continued from page 1)

After completing his MBA, Klein went to work in the San Francisco office of McKinsey & Company, the international management consulting group. There, destiny extended a hand: Klein and a group of fellow consultants were sent to Sonoma County to study the Rodney Strong Vineyards, headquartered just outside the town of Healdsburg.

The winery had a colorful history. Rodney Strong, its founder and guiding spirit, was an adventurous and gifted creator. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest, starred in football, basketball and track, and then moved to New York, where he studied dance with George Balanchine and Martha Graham. From there, he became a successful dancer and choreographer in Paris and New York. In the early 1950s, Strong married a lovely dancer named Charlotte Ann Winson, and they danced together onstage throughout the 1950s. But Strong and Winson realized they couldn't dance professionally forever, so they moved to Northern California and went into the wine business, just as it was starting to boom. By 1970, they were running two operations in Sonoma Country: Windsor Vineyards, primarily a mail-order house, and Sonoma Vineyards, which would later be renamed their own signature winery, Rodney Strong Vineyards.

During his work for McKinsey, Klein met with Strong and his winemaker, Rick Sayre. Klein was impressed by both men, and believed their winery had enormous potential and could one day become one of the true jewels of California wine. Nonetheless, when the McKinsey group finished its study, Klein said good-bye to Healdsburg and figured that was that.

In 1984, Klein's family bought an international trading company that specialized in agricultural products, and Klein left McKinsey to run it. Suddenly he was free to be entrepreneurial and creative. "We were traders," Klein explains. "We sold dried, edible beans, peas, lentils and the like. We also started a California dried fruit and nut export business, and we ended up exporting California almonds all around the world." Klein and his team also spotted a promising new market: gourmet coffee. "We created a gourmet green coffee business. In the early days we were the largest supplier to Starbucks—until Starbucks hired our trader to go to work for them. That sort of put an end to our green coffee business."

Then, in 1989, Klein got a surprise call from some friends in Stockton—Rodney Strong Vineyards was up for sale. By this time, Strong and Winson had sold their winery and it had passed through several owners, finally landing with the Guinness beverage group. But Guinness had decided to divest its wine holdings to focus on its beer and spirits businesses. The callers told Klein that a group of investors was coming together to buy the Rodney Strong operation, along with Windsor Vineyards. Might Klein and his family be interested in a piece of the action?

Klein talked it over with his father, Bud, his sister Kathy and their other partners at Klein Brothers. Everyone was intrigued—but cautious. "I told my family, 'I know the winery and some of the people. But I don't know anything about their business for the last eight years.' Still, I said I would look at it. And the more I looked, the more I thought we should pursue it."

The negotiations with Guinness were intense and complicated, but as they worked through the final details, Klein could feel his excitement grow: "I realized this was my chance, my chance to live my dream." As soon as they closed the deal, Klein made a shrewd decision: to keep Rick Sayre as director of wine making. Klein says that in running a family business, building the right team—and keeping its members happy and motivated—is essential. So is keeping a tight focus. "We have one winery, one wine-making team, one viticultural team, and we intend to keep it that way," Klein explains. "We are a family-owned company, we are dedicated to staying a family-owned company, and we have chosen to just focus on one region, Sonoma County. That's been successful for us. We make six varieties of wine, and we've made the same six varieties for 20 years: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet and Merlot."

Success in the wine business demands patience, balance and good judgment; Klein seems to have those qualities in abundance. He waited until his 40s to settle down and get married, and when he did, he made a superb choice: Kate Kelly, a popular TV anchorwoman in San Francisco. With brains, beauty and a Stanford education, Kate had offers from the networks in New York, but she chose instead to stay in San Francisco and raise their family. She and Tom have two handsome sons, Jack and Matthew, and as Tom will be the first to tell you, Jack is a promising young baseball pitcher, and Matthew, even at the age of 11, has a very discerning palate.

Klein is also careful to make time for his other passions in life: skiing, fly-fishing and coaching Little League baseball. But his biggest passion in sport is golf. Klein plays some of the finest courses in the world, from Pebble Beach to Augusta National to the fabled St Andrews courses in Scotland. Another way he keeps his balance is by enjoying a fine cigar. "I like to smoke Dominican, Honduran and Cuban cigars," Klein says. "My favorite size is the robusto. I also enjoy the double corona on occasion, but robusto is my favorite. I tend to like the Connecticut wrapper. I like a mild, medium-body cigar, and I love to smoke cigars in the morning in my office, with a good cup of coffee."

Klein says that smoking fine cigars complements his other pleasures in life. "I like to smoke on the golf course or on a fishing stream or at the duck pond at the end of the day, watching the birds come in," he says. "I find that Scotch whisky is the best accompaniment to a cigar. I have also discovered—and not many people I know have ever tried this—but cigars are terrific with a Reserve Chardonnay, especially with a heavily wooded, top-flight Chardonnay. It's that oak that complements the cigar. It absolutely works."

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