October 28, 2021

Uncorked: Old brand is new again at Napa Valley’s Sullivan

Mythical horse-like creatures aren’t running through the vineyards in California’s Napa Valley.

Sullivan General Manager Joshua Lowell knows this. He’s also aware of the synergy required to propel a winery to new heights, because he’s done so at Peter Michael, Futo and Aubert. In his experience, there’s not a single person that can be added to the mix who will suddenly produce classic wines.

At Sullivan, Managing Partner and CEO Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla wants to develop a “First Growth” estate in Napa Valley. It’s a lofty goal that Lowell knows will take a collective effort.

“There are no unicorn employees,” Lowell said. “The unicorn is the team. We have a good culture and a long-term vision with short-term goals.”

Since the acquisition of Sullivan in 2018, they’ve added a site in Soda Canyon, between the Stag’s Leap District and Coombsville, and, earlier this month, a third estate in the Criscione Vineyard in St. Helena.

The ownership by Torres-Padilla is off to an ambitious beginning, even if at first Lowell wondered where things were headed. He’d met Torres-Padilla, the former CEO of an artificial intelligence company turned entrepreneur, through a mutual friend. Lowell wasn’t sure what he was up to with the purchase of Sullivan, but the duo seemed to constantly run into each other in social settings.

So much so that his wife joked they were “testing each other’s chemistry.”

“I saw his approach, and really liked him,” said Lowell about Torres-Padilla. “I thought he was a little crazy to buy Sullivan. It’s a winery that had been around a long time, and was one that was kind of always characterized as an underperformer.”

When he came on board as GM, Lowell tasted through the Sullivan library wines and found “some spectacular wines in the cellar.” But, he also saw untapped potential. There were new heights that could be reached.

In his career, Lowell had started a brand, and taken one to a new level, but he’d never gotten on board with a reclamation project. Even though Sullivan is an established brand, Lowell feels like it’s a new venture.

“It’s kind of like a startup,” Lowell said. “We work a lot of hours as a team. I see Juan Pablo more than my wife. When I get involved, I am all in. If I work for an owner, I need to believe in their vision, and they need to believe I can carry out their vision.”

On their tasting through the Sullivan cellar, Lowell said one varietal showed the most promise: merlot. It’s a varietal that has slowly crept back into wine lovers’ consciousness, after years of being mass-produced, overexposed and probably planted in the wrong places. A snide line deriding it in the 2004 film “Sideways” landed a concussive blow.

Eyeing cabernet sauvignon’s soaring prices, growers throughout Napa Valley started to abandon merlot. While the comeback trail has been a long one, merlot is on the move, and Lowell has plans to be ahead of the curve. He’s replanted the property back to merlot.

“I’m pretty bullish on merlot,” Lowell said. “Some of the best wines in our cellar were merlot. Some of the early ones were spectacular. At one point, half of the vineyards in the estate were merlot. Slowly, it was pulled out, and the old merlot vines went to cabernet as it became more valuable.”

With the J.O. Sullivan Founder’s Reserve Merlot, Rutherford, Napa Valley 2018 ($250), Lowell has plenty of reasons to be bullish. Tasted over two days, it’s incredible. Full-bodied, elegant and complex. Right out of the bottle, the blueberry flavors are offset by sage, bay leaf and charcoal notes. It had a silky mouthfeel both days, and an enduring finish. It evolved greatly, but always maintained a balance and enough body that while it was fascinating to capture in its youth, would be a wine that would really shine in 10 to 15 years.

The Sullivan Coeur de Vigne 2017 ($90) had blackberry, vanilla, pine needle, cinnamon stick and that classic “Rutherford Dust,” which conjures images of warm gravel or a dusting of dark chocolate.

Torres-Padilla maintained the Sullivan name, as an ode to the late founder, Jim Sullivan, who established the winery in 1972.

“We are just part of the story of a property,” Lowell said. “It was there before us, and it’ll be there after us.”

They’ll break ground on a new winery and hospitality room in 2022. Lowell felt like Napa was headed in a new direction. Perhaps consumers are past the days of rock star winemakers, high scores and extracted wines. Like a battle-tested veteran, he said he wants to be part of a “Napa that is much more mature and seasoned.”

“You have to have the right property, the right team and the investment and business practices in place to make sure the winery is sustainable over the long run,” Lowell said. “That’s First Growth to me. There’s so much potential in Napa, but only several dozen wineries do it consistently, vintage in and vintage out. I’m learning those things more and more.”

Which means Sullivan’s wines will continue to improve.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.