Napa’s House of Wine — Jeff Cole On Life at the Stunning Sullivan Rutherford Estate

We're Talking Grapes

BY // 01.11.21

love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.

In Wine Talk, I introduce you to friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Driving down St. Helena Highway, we approached the property with high expectations. The afternoon I spent at Sullivan Rutherford Estate was perfect.

It was a warm, sunny day in March of last year, and the vineyards and flowerbeds invited one’s gaze. We pulled into the driveway and parked, then strolled to the residence, where our tasting was to take place. I now have a favorite house in the Napa Valley, and the wines were excellent.

Jeff Cole, Sullivan’s winemaker, and the estate’s general manager, Joshua Lowell, led the tasting — mainly merlot and cabernet sauvignon — and gave us a tour of the rest of the property, 26 acres in total.

Sullivan was founded in 1972 by James O’Neil Sullivan, who, following the advice of his friend André Tchelistcheff, planted cabernet sauvignon. Sullivan, a graphic designer, worked with architect John Marsh Davis on the design of the estate’s residence and production facility (the home’s kitchen I covet). The living areas of the residence are situated one floor above ground level, giving one an expansive view of the property.

Jak Wonderly shot this video, which includes some great views of the estate:

It was a family affair, and though the estate was purchased from the Sullivans in 2018 by a group under the leadership of Mexican businessman Juan Pablo Torres Padilla, Ross Sullivan, James’ youngest son, is an advisor to Padilla. (James passed away in 2004.)

I’ve visited many wineries, and Sullivan is one of my favorites. If you find yourself in the area, make an appointment to spend some time on Galleron Road.

Cole has been the winemaker at the estate since 2013. He studied at California Polytechnic University, and began his career at Schramsberg Vineyards and J. Davies Estate Vineyard. He knows a thing or two about sparkling wine, and he’s making some great cabernet sauvignon and merlot at Sullivan.

“It’s no secret that great wine begins with a great site, and I don’t know of anywhere else in the world that offers the potential presented at this estate,” he says. “My goal is to continue to make wines with structure and density, allowing the richness of the terroir to shine through. With the on-going investments in the vineyard and production, we will deliver wines that are indulgent upon release and that have immense ability to evolve beautifully with aging.”

Jeff Cole tells us more in this edition of Wine Talk:

James Brock: How has COVID-19 changed your work and life?

Jeff Cole: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, my house has become a school, with my wife now doubling as a teacher. We are cooking a lot more and I have not traveled outside of the city of Napa in seven months. Fortunately, work must go on. The silver lining is having even more time to spend in the vineyard and cellar.

The Sullivan estate: 26 acres of vineyards and gardens.

JB: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?

JC: The Schramsberg 2011 Reserve sparkling wine is a really fantastic bottle. It is a wine that is primarily made from pinot noir grapes and is aged over 8 years before release. You don’t need to pair it with anything because of its richness and vibrancy, but it would go well with any light meat such as duck or pork. You can find it on the winery’s website for $130.

When I traveled  to Portugal a couple of years ago, I was introduced to Vinho Verde wines, and they blew me away! Vinho Verde wines can be blends of many different white grape varieties such as albariño, azal branco, and avesso, to name a few. These wines are refreshing, low in alcohol, possess high acidity, and are super affordable, typically selling for less than $15 a bottle. They are awesome on their own, but also pair well with any seafood or dish higher in fat. You can find them at BevMo or any import wine shop.

Lastly, I am enjoying our 2017 J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is the best to ever come off of our estate, due to the culmination of perfect growing conditions, farming, and winemaking execution. It is a powerhouse that will only get better with age. It is structured, layered, rich and dense, yet there is fresh acidity that carries through the wine.

It represents the estate from an identity standpoint and also represents our winemaking style. It is limited in production, and can be purchased through our website and tasting room for $250.

JB: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why.

JC: If cost were not an issue, I would choose the 2008 Pol Roger Winston Churchill Champagne. Pol Roger is one of my favorite Champagne producers, and the Winston Churchill always delivers. The 2008 has all the richness and pleasure that is expected from a tête de cuvée, but there is still a freshness and vibrancy about it that gives it life and balance.

JB: What is your favorite grape, and why?

JC: There are a few grape varieties that I love working with, like cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, but I right now I have an affinity for merlot. New World is definitely underappreciated, but if grown in the right condition and handled properly in the cellar, it is a variety that can rival the best cabernet sauvignons in weight, density, structure, and, ultimately pleasure. We are currently replanting some of our cabernet vines over to merlot, since it grows phenomenally well at Sullivan.

The 2014 James O’Neil Merlot sells for $280 a bottle.

JB: How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day? Can be one of your wines, but does not need to be.

JC: This is a no-brainer! The one bottle PaperCity readers should buy to cellar for the next 10 years is Sullivan’s 2015 James O’Neil Merlot. This wine was built to age.

Jeff Cole is a Napa Valley native and attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside of your home and workplace)?

JC: There is a little hole in the wall in the town of Yountville where I grew up called Pancha’s, and I might not be going there necessarily for a glass of wine, but it is definitely good for a pint of beer and a game of pool.

JB: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

JC: If it smells and tastes funny, then it probably isn’t a sound bottle of wine. I know people want to attribute weirdness to terroir or winemaking style, but in reality, wines should provide pleasure and each person’s palate should be the ultimate judge of quality.

JB: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

JC: There was no romantic time in my life when I was eating foie gras and drinking a glass of rosé under the Eifel Tower that triggered a eureka moment. I think there was a perfect storm with the fact that I grew up in the Napa Valley and subconsciously the wine industry was imprinted on me.

When I got to college, at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, there was a budding wine program that was ultimately calling my name. At that point in my life, it was something I had never thought about, but I saw it as a great opportunity to blend art and science.

More than any single bottle of wine, Cal Poly’s philosophy of learning while doing is what inspired me and opened up the gates of creativity for me in the cellar.

JB: What has been the strangest moment/incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

JC: My first vintage in the Napa Valley was in 2007, at Schramsberg Vineyards, and there was a ritual/rite of passage for greenhorns. I was sent on a mission to several wineries to find the “hose stretcher,” and unbeknownst to me, all the wineries I went to were in on this prank.

Sure enough, every time I arrived at one of the wineries in on the prank they had just given it to the next. It was at the fifth winery when I knew something was up and called off the mission. Needless to say, there is no such thing as a “hose stretcher,” and when I arrived back at Schramsberg I was greeted with laughter and a pat on the back.

That experience taught me some humility, and that message is something I try to implement on a daily basis. It reminds me that every day working in the Napa Valley should bring enjoyment and that we can’t take ourselves too seriously.

Pliny the Elder was a wise man.

JB: Your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?

JC: My favorite wine reference in a work of literature is from my good buddy Pliny the Elder, with his quote “In Vino Veritas” — meaning, in wine, there is truth.

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out his website Mise en Place.

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