Sullivan Vineyards has been “Rutherford’s cabernet sauvignon hideaway” since 1972. This small producer offers a collection of ultra-premium bottlings with a focus not on cabernet but on merlot and chardonnay, too. It’s top tier of wines are known as the James O’Neil collection, a block selection representing 5 percent of the estate’s vineyards which is named after the winery’s founder.
Four wines (plus one that arrived later) were sampled in this virtual tasting of Sullivan — which recently changed ownership and expanded its estate vineyard holdings — led by genial winemaker Jeff Cole, whose first vintage here was 2013. Thoughts follow.
2016 Sullivan Rutherford Coeur de Vigne – A Bordeaux blend of 50% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot, 19% cabernet franc, 5% malbec, and 2% petit verdot (this year). Rich and spicy, with notes of dark chocolate, cedar box, and some vanilla. It’s not overwhelming or heavy, with a modest acidity that tempers a moderately tannic backbone. Hints of coconut and caramel sauce — laced with dark chocolate — give the finish a soothing conclusion. A- / $110
2015 Sullivan Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Opulent and intense, this is textbook Napa cabernet, filed with a mix of black and red fruit, milk chocolate, and vanilla. Unctuous but not syrupy, a solid structure propping up its ripeness and sweetness. Moderated tannins already, with raspberry notes lingering on the finish. A / $110
2017 Sullivan Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – Considerably more youthful than the 2015, with a tightness and astringency that defines the attack. Chocolate-covered blueberries and currants eventually peek through, but the tannic overload keeps any sense of fruitiness in check. Try this again in 2023 or beyond. B+ / $110
2013 Sullivan Rutherford James O’Neil Merlot – There’s even more chocolate on this wine, hitting the tongue right from the start. Some blueberry and blackberry notes give the wine some nuance, and there’s enough grip and tannin to keep things balanced. Long and lush, with a hint of herbaceousness that cuts the fruit just so. That said, there’s still no sign of austerity and age here; I never would have pegged this as a 2013. A / $280
2016 Sullivan Rutherford James O’Neil Cabernet Sauvignon – Extremely big, right from the start. Easily the most savory of the wines in this lineup, there’s a brooding, slightly woody character that feels almost overwhelming at times, tamping down the fruit on what is, effectively, still a very young and quite tannic expression. The palate develops with air to reveal a somewhat doughy character, with notes of unbaked cookies, tempered by a gentle raisin and brambly blackberry note. There’s probably lots of runway ahead on this wine, but from this POV it’s a little difficult to see what direction it’s headed. B+ / $235