Sullivan Rutherford Estate

Team at Napa Valley winery honors its founding family while upgrading and reimagining the estate.

The flagship tastings at Sullivan Rutherford Estate allow guests to experience how new ownership has repositioned the Napa Valley winery James and Joanna Sullivan founded in 1972. Jim Sullivan, a successful Hollywood graphic designer, commissioned architect John Marsh Davis to design the property’s 1978 architectural centerpiece, a California Arts and Crafts–style home and winery. Davis’s other Napa Valley projects include what’s now the main hospitality space at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in St. Helena. At some angles, the redwood-clad Sullivan structure’s second story seems to float above the estate vineyard. 

Early Merlot with model of existing buildings and planned winery (on right).

The Sullivans focused on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, though the latter had faded in importance by 2018, when a group headed by Juan Pablo Torres Padilla purchased the winery from the Sullivan heirs. Born in Mexico City, Torres Padilla fell in love with Bordeaux wines during the decade and a half he studied and worked in France. Since his arrival, he has made many physical upgrades, purchased two additional Napa Valley vineyards, and plans to break ground in Spring 2024 on a production facility designed by San Francisco–based architect Hans Baldauf. One constant amid all the changes has been winemaker Jeff Cole, who’s been with the winery since 2013.

Winemaker Jeff Cole.

Merlot Mastery

The rarefied “Merlot Mastery: Redefining Napa Valley Merlot” experience at Sullivan Rutherford Estate elevates the conversation about the sometimes misunderstood noble grape. The tasting starts with a blind tasting of high-scoring European Merlots and J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Merlot, which garners a fair amount of acclaim itself. The Sullivan wine’s parity established, the tasting proceeds to a vertical of Founder’s Reserve Merlots. The wines at the tasting I attended in February 2024 were from 2019 through 2021.

Merlot tasting’s initial flight compares Sullivan wine with European counterparts.

Beautifully Sculpted Wines

The three beautifully sculpted Sullivan wines expressed their vintages and Napa Valley terroir. The 2020, for instance, was discernibly softer than the 2019, which Cole largely attributed to differences in the two growing seasons. The majority of the grapes came from an eastern St. Helena AVA property now owned by the winery; fruit from a 2021 replanting of some of the 26-acre Rutherford ranch’s Merlot will appear in future wines.

Small bites help illustrate the Sullivan Merlots’ food-friendliness.

Graceful Mouthfeel

The accompanying small bites amply illustrated the wines’ food-friendliness. Part of what makes the Sullivan wines so food-compatible is their graceful mouthfeel. Cole described several steps he takes, each designed to enhance the wines’ combination of power and elegance, during fermentation and aging.

Summer colors at Sullivan Rutherford Estate’s pond.

Founder’s Tasting 

At a Founder’s Tasting in 2022, I walked the property with a host who’d started here when the Sullivan family still owned the winery. The pondside garden glowed with summer color. On that sultry day, the tasting unfolded in a shaded, cabana-like breezeway beneath the house that framed the garden perfectly.

Founder’s Tasting in 2022.

Right Call on 2020

On the day of the 2022 tasting, Cole took a break from final pre-bottling adjustments to the 2020 wines for a quick chat. Rather than make wines in 2020, many wineries sold off their grapes for fear of smoke taint from wildfires. But, said Cole, “We went for it. We’re pretty excited about the wines.” Judging by the Merlot served at the 2024 tasting, Cole and Torres Padilla made the right call. 

Juan Pablo Torres Padilla.

Distinctive Dark Fruit

Asked in 2022 what distinguishes the estate reds, Cole mentioned the “very distinctive dark fruit, savory, bitter/dark chocolate, and dried herb characteristics” for which the Rutherford AVA (American Viticultural Area) is known. The mellifluous 2014 James O’Neil Merlot (with 11% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cab Franc) and the 2016 James O’Neil Cabernet Sauvignon (with 5% Petit Verdot) certainly bore this out, as did the 2018 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the bonus pour, the 2018 Estate Cabernet Franc.

The Sullivan home’s second story seems to hover over the surrounding vineyard.

Artistry and Expertise

Sullivan Rutherford Estate sits on the Napa Valley floor, 3½ miles south of downtown St. Helena and just east of The Prisoner winery. Many tastings unfold inside the restored home or its wraparound porch. Having covered Sullivan for Fodor’s Napa and Sonoma and during the founding family’s era for The California Directory of Fine Wineries, it’s been gratifying to see how Torres Padilla’s team has honored the past while upgrading and reimagining the estate, with Cole’s artistry and expertise providing the through line.

New plantings of Merlot show winery’s commitment to the grape.

Why go: Merlot treated with Cabernet reverence; valley-floor setting; architecturally significant home.


1090 Galleron Rd., St Helena 94574

More Rutherford AVA Wineries

Piña Napa Valley
Sequoia Grove Winery
Tres Sabores Winery

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This story was adapted from social media posts in 2022 and 2024.

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