Realtors talk about location, while winemakers wax poetic about terroir. The terms are not equivalent: location is horizontal, indicating proximity to good schools, houses of worship and modes of entertainment. Terroir is vertical and refers not just to the soil and subsoil but also to the very essence of the vineyard site.
The Sullivan vineyard (as it is now known) is located in Rutherford, a region that goes back to the early history of Napa Valley. It was part of the Rancho Caymus land grant given to George C. Yount in 1836 and may well have been one of the first sites in the valley planted to wine grapes. It was part of the 400 acres purchased by Virgile Galleron in 1918, and it was sold 60 years later to James O’Neil Sullivan.
Sullivan was an artist and graphic designer who made wine at home before moving to Rutherford in 1972. Aided by his friend, the celebrated winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, he crafted memorable Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and blends. His low-production winery was never really “established” in the classic, commercial sense. I first encountered the wine in the home of a private collector in the 1990s and ran into a brick wall when I tried to find it in either the wholesale or retail markets.
Sullivan died in 2004, and the property was sold in 2017 to Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla, a Mexican investor who had fallen in love with Napa. Torres-Padilla kept Jeff Cole as winemaker and is committed to preserving Sullivan’s vision. Among the estate wines, the best known is Coeur de Vigne, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The benchmark bottles are found in the J.O. Sullivan Collection, specifically the Founder’s Reserve Cabernet and Merlot.
Blended with 12% Cabernet Sauvignon and 8% Petit Verdot, the 2018 J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Merlot ($290) has a fragrant nose with aromas of anise, menthol and fresh herbs. Inky black and dense, it is as powerful in the mouth as it appears on the nose. The herbal component dominates on entry, giving way to an intense inner core of blue and black fruit in the mid palate. The finish is long and lingering, with echoes of cocoas and the famous Rutherford dust. Think Merlot isn’t “serious?” Think again.
The 2018 J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is just as dense and impenetrable as the Merlot, if not more so—you could hide a silver dollar in a glass of this and not find it with a flashlight. The nose exudes blackberry, cedar, vanilla and new oak. Given its appearance, it is surprisingly compact in the mouth, with a midpalate dominated by tart berry flavors and good acidity. The finish is long and succulent.
The Founder’s Reserve wines are both expensive and difficult to find, although both are allocated to consumers who join Sullivan’s private membership program. Fortunately, the 2018 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($110) and 2018 Coeur de Vigne ($95) are readily available at retail as an introduction to the winery.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?