Napa Valley AVA
When they bought their first four acres in 1972 in Rutherford, Napa Valley, Jim and JoAnna Sullivan were already somewhat unique among the residents of Napa Valley. Both were third generation Californians, whose backgrounds were filled with colorful relatives and myriad stories of early California lore and settlement.
The couple had arrived in Rutherford as a matter of course, their lives being directed by each’s specific interests and needs. The Sullivan family had grown up in Southern California where Jim became a noted graphic designer and JoAnna developed into a passionate chef and opportunistic business woman who took to canning her own peaches for resale.
Along the way they had engaged in home winemaking with assorted friends and were frequent visitors to Northern California and to Napa Valley in particular.
As their initial vineyards grew and prospered, an additional twenty-six acres located on Galleron Road were acquired in 1978, property that soon became home to both the Sullivan Family and also to their fledgling venture called Sullivan Vineyards.
“I can remember our family lived in a trailer on the property while everything was being built,” recalled Sean Sullivan, 42, the family eldest son and now the winery’s general manager. “It seemed a bit crowded at the time but it was all part of my parent’s dream and desire to combine the finest aspects of wine and art. Dad had managed to take a number of classes in winemaking both here in Napa and also at UC Davis. Everyone told him he was making some really great wines and he wanted to do it all first class.”
While noted architect John Marsh Davies set about the creation of their home and winery buildings, Sullivan Vineyards’ first release of approximately 500-600 cases occurred in 1981and gained the new entity immediate critical acclaim. Within a few years the wine industry’s top periodicals and luminaries placed Sullivan Vineyards among the top wineries in California.
Sadly, Sullivan’s founder Jim Sullivan passed away in 2004, but his legacy is very much alive within the Sullivan Family. JoAnna continues as the business’s CEO and has the final say on most fiscal matters that affect business at the winery. Sean Sullivan also attended UC Davis and served as Sullivan’s winemaker for more than a decade. Today Sean shares the winemaking responsibility with Frenchman Philippe Langner who has extensive expertise gleaned among the glittering chateaux of Bordeaux. Sean has occupied most of the last ten years in the extensive replanting effort brought on by the phylloxera epidemic that swept California during the mid 1990’s.
“We decided to replant our property in sections,” Sean Sullivan explained. “We feel our acreage is somewhat unique and wanted to take advantage of what we had. Some spots on our land are better suited to certain varietals and it is our challenge to fit the vines to the particular terroir. At the conclusion of our replanting, we will also be an entirely all-red winery for the future.”
Sean’s sisters Kelleen, 42, and Caireen, 30, are also active at Sullivan Vineyards. Kelleen is a noted artist of national statue who has enjoyed numerous solo shows and who has produced a heralded Artist Series for the winery for the past five years. Caireen is involved with the sales and marketing of the winery throughout the country.
Sean Sullivan feels that Sullivan Vineyards is able to enjoy the flexible status of a niche winery in that Sullivan aims to produce wines that are both balanced now and are also capable of ageing in a correct manner.
“What we are trying to do is quite simple,” he elucidated. “But is requires a great deal of finesse. We want our customers to be able to drink our wines now and also later if that is their preference. Some customers drink our wines immediately and others have tendency to put them away for a time. We want to appeal to both. The correct combination of fruit and acid is something of an art, but some of the greatest French chateaux have been doing it for a long time. It’s up to us to make our wine unique and distinct. If we do, we will always be successful.”
It is obvious to practically everyone concerned that Sullivan Vineyards is indeed accomplishing that certain intangible that makes the Sullivan name so revered. The winery’s success is a fitting tribute to Jim and JoAnna’s foresight and hard work throughout the years.
It is a distinct pleasure to introduce you to this month’s Platinum Series Wine Club Selection from Sullivan Vineyards.