Sullivan Vineyards & Winery has agreed to sell to VITE USA, Inc. in the wake of financial turmoil that pushed the family-owned estate in Rutherford to file for bankruptcy earlier this year.
The winery’s filing and now its sale follow a years-long bout of litigation between the Sullivan family and Stephen A. Finn, Kelleen Sullivan’s former husband, regarding ownership of the winery, which came into dispute amid the fallout of Finn’s and Sullivan’s divorce in 2015.
The agreement for VITE USA to purchase the 26-acre estate at 1090 Galleron Road was approved in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on Monday and the sale for an undisclosed amount is slated to close after the new year.
Winery president Ross Sullivan will stay on as an adviser to the group.
Regarding the sale of the estate his family has owned since 1978, Ross Sullivan said, “There’s no secret that the family has been embroiled in some of the unfortunate sides of family relationships and there’s no doubt that that was bogging the business down a little bit. And so we see this as a great opportunity to allow business to flourish and … get past some of these family issues that have held it back.”
Juan Pablo Torres-Padilla, the face and CEO of VITE USA, described his group as a family investment fund, whose only winery property to date is Sullivan Vineyards.
A native of Mexico with more than 15 years in France behind him, including time spent in the wine regions of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, Torres-Padilla said the group first eyed wine properties in France but reset their sights on Napa Valley over two years ago.
Acquainting themselves with the local wine industry, the group made introductions throughout the valley, meeting eventually with the Sullivan family. The two groups met from time to time for more than a year until, Torres-Padilla said, “Some weeks and months ago we started seriously talking about the possibility of making this transaction happen.”
Of the group’s long-term vision for the estate, Torres-Padilla said, “We believe we can build upon the success that Sullivan Estate has had so far in terms of winemaking, but also in terms of (being) a top destination in Napa.”
The specifics of that vision are still materializing, he said, and the group is crafting a mid-to-long-term plan for development, though details are scant thus far.
“Basically it means that we are in a position … to actually plan on a long-term project that will require a significant amount of investment in terms of people, in terms of time, leadership, energy, to create this unique and sophisticated experience.”
The winery has room to expand in terms of production, currently churning out roughly 5,500 of the 9,500 cases allowed per year by its current permit. But while growing the volume of Sullivan’s wine “is an option,” Torres-Padilla said, “it’s probably not our immediate priority.”
Instead of quantity, the group’s bent is “much more on the quality of the overall experience,” he said.
The same applies to visitorship for now, as tastings at the winery are and will remain available only by appointment, “for the foreseeable future,” Sullivan said, adding that the winery sees between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors per year.
“We believe what we have today is aligned with the model and positioning of our wine,” Torres-Padilla said. “Maybe in the future that might change …. But as of now, we believe that’s the right balance in order to get the right number of visitors.”
The estate will retain Jeff Cole, its winemaker since 2013. The Rutherford property features all five Bordeaux varieties, along with chardonnay, Sullivan said, though the winery’s focus on cabernet sauvignon will continue to take precedence.
“The focus is to continue creating a cabernet sauvignon-based experience,” Torres-Padilla said. “There might be some adjustment in terms of how much of each varietal we will grow, but that will be part of our mid-to-long-term plan that will have a focus to really continue creating a cabernet sauvignon-based perspective, which is really what Napa Valley excels in, what the terroir is for.”