Jeff Cole is something of a rare bird, in that he grew up in Napa Valley—specifically, in Yountville, a few miles from Sullivan Rutherford, where he currently serves as winemaker. The 26-acre property has almost 22 acres planted, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, but with all the major blending grapes onsite as well. They source “a little bit of fruit,” Cole says, while staying true to the appellation, but the winery is currently in expansion mode, increasing its estate footprint. It’s an exciting time to check in with the brand.
James O’Neil Sullivan founded the estate in 1972 and acquired the current acreage in 1978, planting Cabernet Sauvignon with the encouragement of legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff. Last month, Wine and Whiskey Globe had a virtual chat and tasting with Cole, experiencing some tour de force Napa gems.
You’re a native, but you’re not from a wine tradition.
My family weren’t in the industry, but of course I was surrounded by the vines growing up. I had friends whose family members were in the industry. Once I graduated high school, I moved to San Luis Obispo and attended Cal Poly down on the Central Coast. And as I’m sure you’re aware, it’s a thriving wine industry down there. Cal Poly had a wine program, and when I was there in the early 2000s, it was actually a minor. I thought I might dabble a little bit. And really the quarter before I was going to graduate, everybody that was in the minor had an opportunity to roll into this new degree the faculty had developed. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, so I spent an extra two years to get my degree in wine and viticulture from Cal Poly.
And you got some real world experience at the same time, right?
I worked for a couple of wineries while I was going to school. And once I graduated, I stayed on at Windward. I was doing the tasting room, I was helping with the winemaking, I was helping out in the vineyards—which was good because, you know, coming from Cal Poly there’s a whole learn-by-doing approach. There isn’t just an emphasis on one aspect of the industry you’re trying to get into. I mean, I can make the best wine in the world. But if I don’t know how to market and sell it and brand it properly, then it doesn’t really matter, right? I was at a 2,000 case operation, direct to consumer through the tasting room. So it really required the few of us employees there to do everything. It was a good transition out of school. But ultimately, being from the Napa Valley and understanding the fact that the top talent in the world works here, I felt that I needed to get back and put myself in a situation where I could learn from the best. So in 2006 I moved back to the Napa Valley. I took a job at Schramsberg vineyards in Calistoga. I’m sure you’re familiar with their sparkling wine program. They also have an estate Bordeaux program, or Cabernet program, called J. Davies. When I took the job, I was bottom of the totem pole in the cellar; I spent seven years and eventually worked my way up, and spent the last three years as the assistant winemaker there for both the sparkling and the J. Davies program—so really learning two different winemaking styles and processes.
Next came Sullivan Rutherford.
I’ve been here, actually, this month, seven years exactly, going into my eighth harvest. In 2013, they were in kind of a transition, hiring a whole new management team, and they wanted a winemaker full time. I worked on the 2013 vintage and most of the 2014 vintage, and really 2015 was my first vintage as essentially the head winemaker here. So that was my background, my history, my journey, if you will. It’s really an exciting time to kind of build on what I’ve accomplished over the over the last seven years.
2016 COEUR DE VIGNE
For me, Rutherford is the best place in the world to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m sure we can go back and forth and argue that. But this property is really on the northern boundary of Rutherford, so we still get that coastal influence. And we can get into the soil profiles. I think when André Tchelistcheff was helping the Sullivans find a site conducive to producing the bigger, more structured Cabernet Sauvignon, they zeroed in on this spot. It’s literally a little mound in the middle of Rutherford on the valley floor, a mound of sand and dirt and gravel. Relative to our neighbors, we’re probably two to three feet above them. And so all the water drains off of this property and away from us. And this really allows the vines to struggle and to produce very concentrated small berries, which in turn allows me to produce a more structured, more extracted style of wine.
The 2016 is a wine that was started in the mid 80s. Jim Sullivan was big into structure and mouthfeel, and so he would really push the limits along those lines. They’re fun to drink and they’re food friendly. So the family started Coeur de Vigne, which means heart of the vine—meaning the heart of the valley, the heart of the vineyard, something to represent this property. This wine, I call it the snapshot of the state in a given vintage because it isn’t from one specific block or one area of the property, it really encompasses, you know, most of our blocks. There’s a minerality, there’s an earthiness, there’s a savory characteristic, there is kind of the darker fruit characteristic that’s pretty inherent in most Rutherford wines. It depends on the vintage but more often than not this wine is heavy on Cabernet. This one specifically is 50% Cabernet, 24% Merlot, 19 % Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot. For me, ’16 was a very ripe and warm year. Just tons of fruit, it’s explosive aromatically and there’s a freshness and a brightness. A sense of acidity that I like—that’s how I try to differentiate it.
2017 ESTATE CABERNET SAUVIGNON
What’s interesting about this cabernet, that I haven’t seen before, is there’s just this blue character to the wine. Blueberry just pops out of the glass. As I mentioned before, most Rutherford wines tend to be very tight and closed and dark and dark chocolate and savory, but to me the ’17 just pops blue. Blueberry. Pops blue fruit, fresh and vibrant. When you sip it, it’s elegant, but it’s concentrated. There’s length, there’s a little bit of grip, there’s a brightness and freshness that blueberry carries through it. For us 2017 was phenomenal.
Yet so many producers describe it as a tricky year. And of course there was the fire.
We had heat spikes that slowed everything down, like literally 110 for three days in a row; the vines completely shut down, and then they just couldn’t recuperate. And then as we all know, if you didn’t get your fruit off before October 7, you had to deal with the smoke taint aspect. Fortunately for me, most of my Cabernet blocks were in by that time. So we didn’t feel the effects of the smoke but we definitely were able to baby the vines long enough for them to get to the kind of ripeness that we want to produce this style of wine. For me, the ’17 is phenomenal. I know a lot of people struggled with it, and we’ll see how these wines review, but for me this one turned out fantastically.
I struggle every year to get a fruitful essence to be the dominant trait in these wines and so for me to have that bluish fruit character paramount is what gets me excited about this one.
2016 JAMES O’NEIL CABERNET SAUVIGNON
The James O’Neil, I keep saying, is our reserve here. It was named after our founder, Jim—James O’Neil Sullivan. And so we’re kind of paying homage to him by putting his name on our best wine.
In 2012, they replanted some Cabernet—mainly the wrong row orientation, the wrong plant material in the ground—and a big portion of the 2016 comes from some of these younger blocks. Seeing these young blocks kind of mature, seeing that at a young age, these blocks are already making it into our new upper tier wine—I mean, it’s just going to get better from there.
Typically this is small production, anywhere from 200 to 300 cases a year. It’s dark, savory, earthy, lush and rich.
A gorgeous label too.
Jim was a graphic designer and an artist. This label is called “The Wedding,” and he made it for a good buddy of his that was getting married. And if you look at it closely, you can see a face in there. Very subtle, but I think pretty unique. The 2013 James O’Neill was the first wine that we put this label on and moving forward this will be the label for this iconic brand.
How long would you put this one away for? It’s very pretty now but I feel like I want to stash it.
This will go 15, 20 years easily. I like to drink my wines younger; I like to feel the structure and the tannin. I like that grit. I like the personalities the wines have at a young age. Obviously the fruit at this stage is bright and fresh and vibrant. And those are the things that I like. But again, 15 to 20 years easily. And even though this wine has a lot of richness and broadness and scale there’s still a freshness to it. I’m cognizant when I’m putting these wines together to make sure that there is enough acidity to carry and to give life and freshness. I’m excited now, and in 15 or 20 years to pop this bottle and see what it’s like because I bet it’s still gonna be fresh. A lot of life and a lot to give. Now or 20 years from now I think they’re going to be delicious either way.