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.
| By Paul Chutkow | From 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.'"

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."

Klein also loves to smoke cigars when he travels. "The best moment I've had smoking cigars was a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, smoked at Boodle's in London. Its club room has high ceilings, leather chairs, and sitting there reading the Financial Times was one of the best cigar moments I've ever had. I also love sitting in the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in Scotland, looking out at the old course and enjoying the club malt whisky and whatever cigar I happen to bring over. That's impossible to beat."

Despite his many successes in life, Tom Klein is by no means content: he won't be satisfied until he and his winemakers reach the pinnacle of their craft. And Klein is sparing nothing to get there. In 2000, with the Internet growing in importance, Klein and his family decided to sell Windsor Vineyards. Its traditional mail-order business was becoming outmoded. Three years earlier, Klein and his team had launched a bold plan to upgrade everything at Rodney Strong, starting with their vineyard assets. By 2004, they had acquired an additional seven vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley appellations. Today, they produce 800,000 cases of wine a year; about 40 percent of that comes from their own vineyards. They also modernized their wine-making facility and equipment. "In terms of fermenting, cooperage and presses, everything is now done on site," Klein says. "From grape to glass, we do it all."

By 2005, though, Klein was still looking for that great leap forward. "Times were changing and we simply weren't keeping up," he admits. Other wineries were making better wines and winning all the accolades. Klein was not about to take that lying down. "I went to a number of wineries in Napa, to see what they were doing, and I asked Rick to go around Sonoma and see what the quality small producers were doing and what we could learn from their experience." Then, they hired a gifted winemaker as a consultant: David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg.

Now everything was coming together. Klein was convinced that with the new vineyards they had the right vineyard quality, the right hillside locations, the right soil content and climate conditions, and the right rootstocks and varietals to make truly great wines. They also had the right equipment and the right team. Still, to reach the top they had to make some radical changes. Those came in the form of what Klein calls "a winery within a winery," modeled on David Ramey's own boutique winery and dedicated to producing exceptional estate-bottled wines.

In the main facility at Rodney Strong, you still see the huge stainless steel tanks that produce most of its wines, but you also see small 5-, 7- and 10-ton fermenters and rows of small oak barrels made of the best French oak. "What small fermenters really let you do is go out in your vineyards and prospect," Klein explains. "You get to find these little nuggets in the vineyard where you find a row or a little plot that has the right rootstock, the right soil and the right aspect to the sun, so you have this fantastic opportunity to grow something special."

For this new initiative, only the best grapes will do. "Our estate wines, our reserve wines and our Meritage wine, called Symmetry, all come from our estate vineyards," Klein says. Each vineyard is scrutinized for vine and fruit quality, then the best sections are cordoned off to ensure they get special attention. At picking time, the vineyard team inspects every bunch so no grapes are picked prematurely. That's the key: only using the best grapes and only picking them when they have fully ripened. While Rick Sayre oversees the process, it is up to winemaker Gary Patzwald to nurse those grapes and bring out their full character and potential. If anyone doubts that making great wine is high art, just watch Patzwald work with his wines and his barrels. It's like watching a botanist care for the most delicate of orchids.

Klein likes what he's seeing. With Ramey's guidance, Rodney Strong has made excellent progress with Symmetry, and its Chardonnay Reserve and Cabernet Reserve. "We are also working on three new single-vineyard wines to come out of the Alexander Valley," Klein says. "The first, to be called Rockaway, will debut this summer, in its 2005 vintage. That will be followed by a second vineyard next year, and a third the following year."

James Laube of Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication, did some barrel tasting at Rodney Strong last year. "We tasted some 30 wines, dating from 2001," Laube wrote, "and for me it was clear that the newest Cabernets, from the 2006 vintage, were the best wines. The barrel samples were rich, broad, deep, complex and long on the finish."

The proof is in the barrel. During our visit, Klein drew out a sample of the 2007 vintage of Symmetry. As young as it was, the wine was big in flavor and lovely and smooth on the palate. "By picking the fruit only when it's fully ripe, we make it less tannic, so you don't have to store it," Klein says. "This is a wine that you will be able to drink as soon as it's released, and it will have all the character and elegance we're striving for."

Self-effacing as he is, Klein plans no major fanfare when his new wines are released. "I'd rather let the quality of the wines speak for itself," he explains. Still, one woman at our informal tasting summed up her verdict in a single word: "Wow!" With that, Tom Klein broke out in a shy Gary Cooper grin. "Well, now that is the best review we can ever have!"

Paul Chutkow is a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Napa, CA.