Sullivan Rutherford re-emerges as an elite Napa Valley wine estate

Vintner Jeff Cole says Sullivan Rutherford is an ideal place to grow cabernet sauvignon. (Courtesy photo)

Steeped in Napa Valley history, Sullivan Rutherford Estate helped establish the area as one of the world’s premier wine regions. After years of relative obscurity, a new ownership group and winemaking team are determined to return the legendary estate to its standing as one of the valley’s iconic producers.

Founder James “Jim” O’Neil Sullivan was a successful graphic artist in Los Angeles who created, among other projects, album covers for Dick Clark Productions. A passion for cabernet sauvignon led him to relocate the family to the Napa Valley after acquiring the original Rutherford site in 1972. Years later, in 1978, he purchased the prime 26-acre property that is the current estate.

In those early years, Sullivan consulted with friend and legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff to select the Bordeaux varietals and design the original vineyards. His early releases were lauded and began to focus attention on the Napa Valley prior to the 1976 Judgment of Paris that vaulted it to the world stage.

After Sullivan’s death in 2005, the family was less involved in the daily operations and hired long-term winemaker Scott McLeod to serve in an interim capacity. McLeod also led the search that resulted in the appointment in 2013 of Yountville native Jeff Cole as winemaker. The two worked together for a few years, but the 2015 vintage was Jeff’s from vine to bottle.

Following earning a degree in viticulture from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and hands-on experience at some central coast wineries, Cole returned to the Napa Valley and, before coming to Sullivan Rutherford, worked at Schramsberg Vineyards making sparkling wines. Jeff’s skills caught the attention of technology entrepreneur Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla in 2016 when he was seeking to purchase an estate to fulfill his dream of producing wine in the Napa Valley.

Juan Pablo’s love of wine began as a young man when his grandfather introduced him to the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. His fervor for fine wine grew while living in Paris for many years and after visits to the area, he determined that the Rutherford appellation was where he wanted to be. Soon after purchasing Sullivan Rutherford, he added vineyard manager Mike Wolf, who initiated a vineyard restoration efforts designed to maximize the quality of the fruit.

Technology entrepreneur and longtime wine lover Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla heads up Sullivan Rutherford Estate.
Courtesy photo

With a solid team in place, Juan Pablo will oversee an aggressive plan to return Sullivan Rutherford to elite status.

Jeff Cole speaks passionately about the estate vineyards — mostly planted in cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and Malbec — and feels that the Rutherford appellation is the best place in the world to grow cabernet sauvignon. It is the terroir of great Napa Valley blends with varietals that originated in Bordeaux, France.

He began a tasting of current vintages with an apology for omitting the sold-out Sullivan Rutherford Rose 2019 ($35). He then poured the Sullivan Rutherford Coeur de Vigne 2016 ($110), a cabernet sauvignon dominant blend ready to drink now and accessible to most palates. Drought conditions during 2016 resulted in smaller, more concentrated berries that led to a full-bodied wine with dark fruit and baked spice flavors. Described by Jeff as “red, bright and fresh,” its higher acidity and soft tannins provide the makings of a great food wine.

Overcoming heat spikes and a late frost, the vintage 2017 Sullivan Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($110), Jeff said, is his best. A blend of cabernet (87%) and petit verdot (13%), aged in 50% new French oak, its blueberry flavors, hints of dark chocolate and sebaceous mouthfeel underscore a wine that, according to Cole, “has length and grip.”

Selected from only the top vineyard blocks, production of the 2016 Sullivan Rutherford James O’Neil Cabernet Sauvignon ($235), named after the founder, was limited to 500 cases. Aged 20 months in 80% new French oak with a bit of petit verdot added for acidity and structure, it is an expression of the finest fruit on the estate.

The label of Sullivan Rutherford James O’Neil Cabernet Sauvignon was designed by the winery’s founder. (Courtesy photo)

Earthy with complex aromas, it has a savory quality that adds to depth and richness on the palate. A vibrant acidity and earthiness drives Jeff’s desire to drink young wines, but, the “James O’Neil” will comfortably age for 15-20 years.

The intriguing abstract label titled “The Wedding” was created by James O’Neil Sullivan for a friend and deserves a closer look.

Plans are underway for a new state-of-the-art production facility and hospitality center to enhance one of the valley’s most picturesque estates. Look for Sullivan Rutherford to resume its legacy as one of the Napa Valley’s iconic wine experiences.

Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email sfewine@gmail.com.

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