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Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2024: Tom Klein — A 35-Year Legacy of Excellence

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By Laurie Wachter

 

It’s been 45 years since Tom Klein first set eyes on Rodney Strong winery and vineyards

He was working at McKinsey & Company after earning his Stanford MBA when an assignment led to meeting two Sonoma County legends — Rod Strong and his winemaker Rick Sayre. These men left a deep impression on Klein and heightened his interest in fine wine, which he had developed while traveling for his family’s agribusiness.

The Klein Family (Left to Right) Matt Klein, Kate Kelly Klein, Tom Klein and Jack Klein

“Tom led the team assigned to prepare the winery for sale, so he learned everything about it before it was sold to Guinness,” explains Dan Wildermuth, vice president of global marketing at Rodney Strong. “When Guinness decided to divest its California wine holdings, they called Tom and asked if he knew anyone who might be interested [in the Rodney Strong business]. Tom was. It was a perfect fit for him — he was able to combine his passion for wine and his business acumen into one.” 

So, 35 years ago, Klein bought Rodney Strong with his family.

Today, the proprietor of Rodney Strong is himself a Sonoma County legend. He has rescued and maintained the Sonoma County winery as a family-owned and -operated business. With more than 800,000 cases per year and award-winning wines, that’s no small achievement. It’s (in part) what landed him on Wine Industry Advisor’s 2024 Wine’s Most Inspiring People list.

“At the time he bought it in 1989, Rodney Strong produced 60,000 cases,” adds Carmen Castaldi, president of Rodney Strong. “Now, we’re a mid-size wine company committed to luxury wines out of Sonoma County, and we strive to be equal among giants.

Making Quality Sonoma County Wines

When asked why he has chosen to focus his energy and wine business on Sonoma County, Klein’s answer is, as is his manner, straight to the point.

“Because we can make great wine here. It’s too warm to grow wines in some locations, and it’s too cold to grow them in others. [Sonoma] is a great climate for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, all the Bordeaux reds and a few of California’s reds. In Sonoma County, we can make the quality wines we have today. My feeling has always been that Sonoma is the place to be, and I don’t want to be in the wine business in any other place.”

David Ramey [Photo by McManus Photography]

Winemaker David Ramey, who had a hand in shaping the wines at Rodney Strong, maintains Klein himself made the difference. He considers Klein one of the great gentlemen in the wine world. “Tom Klein is smart, and he has dedicated his life and his family’s investments to Sonoma County since he came to Rodney Strong. He fell in love with it and has provided it with resources and his attention for all this time.”

Beyond delivering quality Sonoma County wines, Klein quite literally put Sonoma County on the map. While on the board of the California Travel & Tourism Commission, he discovered that all the maps showed Paso Robles, Napa Valley and the North Coast wine region. So, he had all of them changed to add Sonoma County. 

Inspiring Community

Klein’s perspective on philanthropy is that, “California is an expensive state to live in, and our workers are one of our most important long-term assets. We’ve always taken care of our employees, and educating young people is very important for us to get the quality workforce we need going forward.”

Klein has built a team of committed employees, many of whom are long-term. Because he has watched their children grow up and seen some struggle to gain literacy or college education, he reserves a special place for nonprofits that support literacy and education. Klein was instrumental in a “Fund the Future” literacy auction that raised millions for a support system for first-generation college students. He also took on the challenge of trying to get everybody in the wine industry to join him by reaching out to wine industry greats such as Jess Jackson and the Gallos for significant financial contributions. 

“Tom’s commitment to Sonoma County inspires other people to step up to support the community with us,” says Castaldi. 

Dedication to Agriculture

Klein attributes his success in the wine business to his upbringing on family farms in San Joaquin Valley. “My family has been in the agriculture business for more than 100 years, and we’ve always had a family ethic that refuses to be anything but straightforward, honest and direct. I have a broad streak of that running right down my spine: tell the truth, be honest, recognize your issues, get them solved and keep moving forward without skimping.”

For Klein, moving forward with Rodney Strong began with upgrading facilities and quickly moved to achieving carbon-neutral status and upgrading and expanding its vineyards while always focusing on wine quality. 

Carmen Castaldi

“The most inspiring thing about Tom is his determination and commitment to excellence in wine and Sonoma County,” says Castaldi. “It is also about doing the best you can by starting with the vineyards. Over the last 10 years, we’ve invested $15 million in replanting three of our Grand Cru Alexander Valley Cabernet Vineyards to the highest level of technology and quality.”

Klein also acquired a long-term lease to plant vineyards on the historic Cooley Ranch above Lake Sonoma, working with soil scientists to identify unique microclimates for each of the five traditional Bordeaux red varietals. Most recently, he acquired the 335-acre River West Vineyard, which had belonged to Rodney Strong before its sale to Guinness.  

Vision for the Future

These investments are a crucial part of the future Klein envisions for his winery. Addressing the future of the wine industry overall, Klein acknowledges the challenges of increased competition. His advice is, “You’d better have good wine, or you’ll never succeed. Continue to improve and make your grapes and your wine taste better. It takes capital to make that work. And you can’t fake it. It’s got to be real.”

Tom Klein has never “faked it.” He believes in hard work, integrity and continuous improvement. His dedication has built a Sonoma County legacy of sustainable vineyards and high-quality wines.

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Laurie Wachter
Laurie Wachter

Laurie Wachter

Laurie developed her love of analytics and innovation while advising consumer packaged goods companies, including Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and the Altria Group, on consumer and POS data analytics and direct-to-consumer marketing. Today, she writes about the wine, food and beverage industries for a global client base from the Northern California wine country.

 

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