Realm Cellars produced their first vintage in 2002 (made at Sherwin Family Winery by winemaker Mike Hirby). Along with their estate vineyards in the Stags Leap District, Realm Cellars sources fruit from a number of premium vineyards located within and around the Napa Valley including Dr. Crane, Farella and To Kalon vineyards. These vineyards are well-regarded in the industry both for the pedigree of their grapes as well as in some cases, historical significance. Both Dr. Crane and To Kalon are closely tied to the vineyard history of the Napa Valley and their specific sites combine the best in terroir and grapes to produce premium vineyards and wines.
Realm’s mission is to produce limited amounts of premium wines from Bordeaux red varietals (both blends and single vineyard wines). Original founding partner, Juan Mercado switched careers from hospital administration in the San Francisco Bay Area to working in the wine industry. This is a career change that we venture a guess to say Juan certainly has no regrets about. Managing partner, Scott Becker joined Juan in 2012 – today Scott is the owner of Realm Cellars. He has been involved in the wine industry for many years – first working at Cakebread Cellars – later for Global Wine Partners, (a company that focused on wine investments) and then for Bill Harlan to help develop PROMONTORY.
For many years, Realm did not own vineyards, and focused their efforts on securing high quality fruit from premium vineyards entirely within the Napa Valley – a “realm” of properties if you will that spans from Calistoga to Coombsville. For any vineyards they work with not under their ownership, they don’t just buy fruit – they develop a relationship with the owner or grower and play an integral part in how each vineyard is farmed. They employ their own viticulturist who works with the property owners/farmers on a full time basis. Their focus is two-fold; creating red blends from various Napa vineyards with proprietary names as well as single vineyard, mostly single varietal wines.
2011 was the first vintage of Realm for their current winemaker Benoit Touquette. He is a native of Bordeaux and has a Masters degree of Enology and Chemistry from the University of Bordeaux. 2011 as it were, was an ideal vintage for him to start with at Realm. This was a much cooler year than the Napa norm, with rain late in the season and a generally cooler summer followed by a cool Fall with early rain. It was a challenging year for some vineyards in the valley – Realm’s 2011 vintage, across the board in no way reflects the general challenges with this particular harvest. These wines are stylistically plush, with plenty of fruit and are drinking well at a young age.
University of Bordeaux today
Early on Juan adopted names for each wine which reflect the writings of Shakespeare or characters that appear in his plays. In addition, the following line from the Tragedy of King Richard II is on every bottle of their wine, “This blessed plot, this earth, this REALM”.
The Tempest Napa Valley Red Wine is typically a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot with the dominant varietal always being Merlot. This was the first wine Realm released in 2002. The 2011 Realm Cellars The Tempest is a dark inky wine with plenty of earthy notes on the bouquet. Toasted oak, dusty blackberry aromas show along with a mouth feel that is plush, velvety and soft. The tannins are well integrated on the finish. This wine is very approachable in it’s youth.
The 2011 Realm Cellars Falstaff is 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromatically this wine is pleasing, notes of tobacco, chocolate and dark fruit are revealed. The tannins show more up front on palate rather than the back – the wine shows more skin tannins than oak tannins. The mouth feel is soft and rounded with a with a finish that shows plenty of fruit as well as additional notes of toasted oak.
The 2011 Realm Cellars Bard is their highest produced wine (at the time of our last update, their total production is around 15,000 cases across all their wines). This wine is made from several vineyards, usually sees around 70% Cabernet Sauvignon each year with smaller percentages of other Bordeaux based varietals. Aromatically, floral aromas show on the bouquet, pleasing aromas of violets and black currant. A hint of spice shows on the mid palate to finish – the finish is long and lingers for some time. The wine has very good structure.
The Farella Vineyard is managed by Tom Farella, long time grape grower. Realm has been sourcing fruit from this vineyard since their early years. Juan happened to see an ad in the Napa Register for fruit from this vineyard. The Farella’s sold to Robert Mondavi for many years but after the Mondavi sale to Constellation, they held back the fruit. Juan’s timing was right and fruit from this vineyard has been the backbone of their Tempest wine every year.
The vineyard is located in Coombsville, a cooler part of the valley – cool, but not as cold as nearby Carneros which is closer to the San Pablo Bay and less protected geographically than Coombsville. The vineyard is on a hillside and on a clear day you can see the outline of San Francisco’s skyscrapers far in the southern distance. The vines were planted in 1979 and are the oldest vines Realm sources from. Stylistically this wine is more Bordeaux in style than a typical up valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromatically on the 2011 Realm Cellars Farella vintage (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) there is a sweet note of fruit, almost candy-like in quality that envelops the glass – along with earth notes. The palate is wonderfully in balance, is elegant and the finish lingers for some time. This is a wine that should age very well.
The 2011 Realm Cellars Dr. Crane is from the vineyard of the same name. This historic site was first planted in 1858 by San Francisco surgeon Dr. Beldon Crane – he was one of the earlier vineyard pioneers in the Napa Valley. This site is also tied to the railroad tracks that were built in the Napa Valley. These tracks used to run to Calistoga, but now stop in the northern part of St. Helena – the same tracks the Napa Valley Wine train runs on. A quarry near the vineyard supplied the rock that was used as the base for these railroad tracks. The historical significance of this vineyard does not stop here – this was St. Helena’s little Chinatown in the 1920’s during the time the California Pacific Railroad railroad was being built. The property then served as a campsite for the Chinese workers.
This vintage is 97% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot. The balance on this wine is truly remarkable. It strides a fine line between elegance and being a big wine. The bouquet is lively; it’s aromas are refined and appealing showing both red and black fruit, mineralities and a hint of baking spice and black licorice. Well structured tannins anchor a rather long finish.
With a vintage of To Kalon as your first wine “out of the gate” in 2002, you set the bar high for yourself. Less than 20 producers source fruit from the Andy Beckstoffer managed part of this sizeable and historically significant vineyard. In 2002 it was extremely difficult to get fruit, today with established brands already sourcing, its next to impossible for another winery, new or established to gain access to this particular vineyard. At the time, Andy Beckstoffer took a chance on Realm and other producers with the intent that the site would make great wines regardless of who was making the wine.
The 2011 Realm Cellars To Kalon shows an opulent nose – the palate has power of flavor, structure and good acidity. The placement of the tannins on the palate is interesting and somewhat surprising – showing more on the front and sides of the palate rather than entirely on the back. Still, it is a big wine – black fruit dominates, tobacco, cassis and just a bit of toasted oak on the finish. A robust wine that still is balanced with a seamless quality that runs across the palate are trademarks of this wine.
Realm’s first ever white wine was a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc – that year it was from the Farella Vineyard. This is a wine that is varietal Sauvignon Blanc each year but rather they market it as a white wine. This allows them to play with percentages and make stylistic changes each year as needed. The 2012 Realm Cellars Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and clean; it shows notes of lemon, lime and underlying nuances of lychee. Green apple on the palate with a clean finish.
And an exciting wine for Realm is Moonracer, the first wine for Realm made from grapes growing on the property. An incredible wine that collectors will want to seek out from their allocation list. And the label for this wine is remarkable – it is computer generated from data based that Realm provided for an algorithm (based on vineyard information including temperature, winds etc). This algorithm along the creative input from their graphic designer Sergio Albiac remarkably creates a unique label for every single bottle of wine.
Realm was one of the ill fated wineries to lose a bunch of wine in a wine warehouse arson fire in Mare Island in 2005 – in fact their entire 2003 vintage was lost in this fire. What a way to enter only your second year of commercial wine-making. They bounced back from this disaster – and strong connections in the valley and access to premium vineyards allowed them to quickly recover and grow their production.
They say in the wine industry it can take at least 10 years to build a small brand and metaphorically turn that small snowball rolling downhill into a bigger one. After 10 years Realm certainly became more established and was built for the long term rather than the short. So it made sense to redo their logo, general branding and look and feel of the packaging – starting with the 2012 vintage. They have put significant time and resources into developing a stronger and bolder looking logo and a unique label for each of their wines – one that is instantly recognized regardless of which wine in question.
After 20+ vintages (at the time of our latest update to this review), it feels like Realm has been re-energized not only with their branding and presentation but also with the team and continuing commitment to details and constant striving to improve the quality of wines each year.
The wines are selectively distributed – in local premium restaurants such as the French Laundry as well as through their mailing list. Visits are for serious wine enthusiasts and collectors – visits are usually with their sales and marketing director. An educational component is part of a visit here – with more details on terroir and what makes each of their vineyards unique – as well as some interesting history of the valley. For more information and to join the list, visit: www.realmcellars.com
IMPORTANT NOTES: at the end of 2015 Realm Cellars acquired Hartwell Winery including 20 acres of land and the existing caves in Stags Leap Wine District on what is called Wappo Hill. Since the acquisition, they have transitioned their wine making operations to this winery. Several years later, Realm acquired the rest of the Hartwell property and Hartwell eventually ceased all production operations.
Construction continues on a contemporary redesign of the primary building on site along with the addition of a hospitality space and a replant of most of the surrounding vineyards including a small block of Charbono (a variety more often associated with Calistoga).
Juan Mercado is no longer involved in the day to day activates at Realm Cellars – as he is currently focusing on a wine project in Paso Robles.
We will keep a close eye on their progress as they continue to develop their Wappo Hill property. Visits should resume by mid 2022, once construction begins to wind down. Stay posted for our revisit and future significant updates to this review.
Wappo Hill Property
Beckstoffer, To Kalon Vineyard