Sullivan Rutherford Estate

USA, California, Napa Valley

Sullivan Rutherford Estate

Born and raised in Mexico, Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla moved to France when he was nineteen. He became a software engineer while spending much of his free time in Burgundy and Bordeaux. Eventually, he was ready for a life change. Three years and 120 winery visits later, he found the winery challenge he was looking for. In 2018, Juan Pablo’s investment firm, VITE, bought Sullivan Rutherford Estate in Napa Valley, and he became the managing partner of the estate. He is now focused on establishing its reputation not for just another cult Napa Cab but for world-class Merlot.

Championing Napa Merlot

Sullivan Rutherford Estate was founded by James O’Neil (Jim) Sullivan in the early 1970s, a prominent graphic artist from Los Angeles. He and his wife, JoAnna, had their hearts set on making wine in Napa Valley. In 1972, under the advisement of André Tchelistcheff, the couple purchased 26 acres of land in Rutherford from Virgil and Alice Galleron. 

“This land went from Spanish to Mexican rule in 1821,” Juan Pablo explains. “I love that there is a Mexican connection here. Back then, Napa Valley was divided in two, and the dividing line went right through this property, so this is the heart of the valley. In 1918, the Galleron family bought over 400 acres here. The land was passed onto Virgil Galleron, who sold a section to Jim Sullivan. Alice Galleron still lives next door; she’s 101 years old.”

Juan Pablo doesn’t just talk the talk.

When he told his friend Daniel Cathiard of Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Bordeaux that he wanted to own a winery, Daniel told him he’d better work in one first. At 40, Juan Pablo left his software career behind to intern at Smith Haut Lafitte and learn the trade.

“This was a 12-year process,” Juan Pablo tells me. “The whole thing started in 2006. In 2016, I first tasted at Sullivan. I didn’t know why no one knew about these wines; they were so great. We didn’t purchase this property until 2018. When we started discussions with Jim Sullivan about purchasing this estate, we made it clear that we wanted to keep the history of this place. Its history is very important to us. Developing a luxury wine estate takes a long time, and there are no shortcuts. We didn’t want short-term gain. We wanted to invest and grow this over time.”

- Winemaker Jeff Cole

Today, 22 out of the 26 acres at Sullivan Rutherford estate are planted to vines, much of which is Merlot. 

“We champion Merlot here,” says Juan Pablo. “I had never tasted an exceptional Merlot until I came here. Jim Sullivan was advised by Michel Rolland to plant Merlot. Merlot here in Napa has not been treated right. The soil at this estate is like 70% gravel in places. We only get around one ton to the acre—the soil is very poor. We believe we have exceptional terroir for Merlot, and we want to emphasize that.”

In the heart of the Rutherford, behind Quintessa and with Raymond Vineyards to the northwest, Sullivan Rutherford Estate is located on prime, free-draining Cabernet Sauvignon turf. Yet Juan Pablo is convinced this land can produce equally great Merlot, if not better.

"We champion Merlot here."

- Winemaker Jeff Cole

"Our wine is the result of a team."

“When we purchased the vineyard, we realized that part of this place was farmed in the right way and part in the wrong way. We made the decision to replant about 40% of the estate. We pulled out eight acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and replanted half to Cabernet Sauvignon and half to Merlot. We’re using Clones 1 and 3 Merlot for the new plantings.”

Getting the vineyard right was just part of Juan Pablo’s restructuring plan. The other significant change was to find the right people.

“Our wine is the result of a team,” Juan Pablo points out. “I can bring passion and vision, but I need a great team to make great wine. So, we started by creating the team. We convinced Joshua Lowell to come over from Aubert to be our general manager. In late 2018, we took on Mike Wolf for our viticulture. And we kept Jeff Cole on as our winemaker. Jeff has been here since 2013. We didn’t want to change things just for the sake of changing them, and Jeff is on board with our vision.”

Sullivan Rutherford Estate’s flagship Merlot is the J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve. I have to hand it to them: The 2021 I tasted with them is among Napa’s best examples of this variety and comes highly recommended. 

Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photography by Svante Örnberg

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