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Sullivan Rutherford Estate exterior.

Sullivan Rutherford Estate Has Pioneered Change for More Than Two Centuries

By Published On: May 19th, 2022

Raising the bar, one vine at a time

Sullivan Rutherford Estate has passed through many hands over its 201-year history. Today, it is rooted in the legacy of its past, while training its eyes on the future.  

The historical significance of the Estate dates back to 1821, when the Napa Valley’s ownership was given to Mexico, by Spain. Two decades later, when the Valley was divided into two parcels by Governor Juan Alvarado, the Estate straddled the line between Rancho Caymus to the South and Rancho Carne Humana to the North.  

Never a dull-moment at the estate, vine-growing began in earnest about 140 years ago, when Inglenook’s founder, Gustave Niebaum recognized the world-class potential of Rutherford.

In 1972, the late James O’Neil Sullivan planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with industry legend Andre Tchelistcheff’s guidance, believing that the property could best Bordeaux’s First Growths. Its modern iteration began in earnest when entrepreneur Juan Pablo Torres Padilla acquired Sullivan Rutherford in 2018.

“Winemaker Jeff Cole was hired at Sullivan in 2013, and he focused on making fewer wines and raising the quality across the board,” says Managing Partner Juan Pablo Torres Padilla. “The level of quality is what gave me the confidence to acquire the estate and invest in it further to unlock its potential.” 

Sullivan Vineyard’s Winemaker Jeff Cole.
Sullivan Vineyard’s Winemaker Jeff Cole

Torres Padilla was eager to continue to elevate the winemaking, while also upgrading the viticulture and the hospitality experience.  

Sullivan Rutherford currently has 40 acres under vine across three estates, 22 of which are on the estate, where the family home and winery are located. In 2018, the team decided to modernize the estate’s viticultural approach by redeveloping and replanting about one-third of the vineyards and reducing yields across the board. Then, they went on the hunt for more land.  

Sullivan Vineyards at Sunset.
Sullivan Vineyards at Sunset.

“We were searching for vineyards that would be different and complementary to the Rutherford Estate,” says General Manager, Joshua Lowell. “The Napa Valley has such an incredible diversity of soil.

For our team, there are three types in particular that stand out. We wanted well-drained alluvial gravels on the benchlands of the Valley floor like we have at the Rutherford Estate. We also looked for the iron-rich, red-tinged soils from weathered basalt. Finally, we sought out the white rhyolitic soils of cemented volcanic ash.” 

They found 12 acres in Soda Canyon at the base of Atlas Peak, with gently sloping hillsides facing west, and white rhyolitic soils.

In 2019, they planted nine acres. Last year, they purchased a well-known vineyard (Criscione), a source of well-loved Cabernet Sauvignon for more than 15 years. Another hillside site, it rests Howell Mountain just below the Bell Canyon Reservoir. Despite being in a warm area, the vineyard itself experiences a rather cool growing environment, says  Joshua Lowell, as it’s situated toward the East, away from the extremes of the afternoon sun.

The soils are comprised of red volcanics and obsidian from Glass Mountain.  

Taste the Terroir  

Why all of the different, diverse sites? Because their expression in the glass is so different, explains Lowell.  

“The Rutherford dust is real,” says Winemaker Jeff Cole says. “Cabs and Merlots from our Rutherford Estate have a cocoa powder-like earthiness to their flavor and texture. It is a wonderful sense of place. There are also brambly fruits, graphite and dark chocolate. Cabernet from Criscione, meanwhile, displays its red soils with a ferrous, savage character, much like the best Cabernets off the red soils of Pritchard Hill or Coonawarra. Fruit is in the blue-purple realm.

The reds from Soda Canyon have an extremely polished tannin quality and display more red-skinned fruits and floral aromatics.” 

Soon, you’ll be able to tease out the terroir at a spanking new winery. 

“We have been designing it for four years,” Cole says. “At the end of the day the wines must come first but we also want a bespoke building that couldn’t be built anywhere else. It is a tricky task, but I think we have achieved it. We have been working with renowned San Francisco based architect Hans Baldauf of BCV Architecture + Interiors. He took a lot of inspiration from the Sullivan family house on the estate that was designed by John Marsh Davis. The structural engineers have been challenged! At the same time, we didn’t compromise on anything production related.” 

And yes, there is a hospitality element to the building, but it is woven into the production areas so that guests will have an immersive experience.  

“The goal is not to hide behind false exclusiveness, but rather to showcase excellence in everything we do,” Estate Director Lisa Barker explains. “We are on track to break ground later this year.”  

For now, you can expect a personalized experience in the current winery space. Sullivan Rutherford Estate accepts a few appointments a day, so they can get to know you and tailor their experience to your palate and your wine education, terroir-exploring goals.  

Bordeaux terroir and California history come together in the glass at Sullivan Rutherford Estate in a new and profound way; we’re excited to see where the new winery takes our taste buds next. Stay tuned for the latest developments!  

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