From the Vault: Realm 2005-2018
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | MARCH 24, 2022
Realm has been one of the hottest wineries in Napa Valley for the last decade or so. This remarkable retrospective spanning more than 60 wines started pretty humbly. My initial intent was simply to fill in a few gaps in our database. I asked some friends if they had certain wines. Then the replies started coming in. Before I knew it, we had assembled dozens of wines, more than I could count, across a number of vintages, all of them purchased by mailing list members directly from the estate. It was one of the very few opportunities I have ever had to taste a large number of wines with impeccable provenance, but outside a winery. More importantly, this tasting provided an incredible opportunity to look at several key periods in Realm's history.
Benoit Touquette and Scott Becker in their Hartwell XX Vineyard just before harvest 2021.
All of the bottles were opened in the early afternoon. I spent several hours alone with the wines and tasted them at my own relaxed pace. The bottles were then taken to a local restaurant where an assembled group of about 50 or so guests enjoyed them. By that time I was drinking water, but it sure looked like a tremendous party.
The wines in this tasting run up to 2017 for the reds. Readers may also want to take a look at my reviews of the 2018s and 2019s, which really complete the picture as to where Realm stands today. That’s important for a young winery. Many times when I have done much larger vertical tastings of 25-30 vintages or more, that greater context is helpful in understanding early wines essentially as experiments and steps towards the present.
This tasting took place in the fall of 2019. Ordinarily we strive to publish articles closer to the tasting date, but this was an extremely challenging period for me personally. A few months earlier, my basement was flooded while I was in Europe. Repairs took seven months to complete, during which I was forced to live in temporary housing. I moved back just before COVID. The challenges of managing a full tasting schedule from home, running a business and dealing with the overall stress of the pandemic made it hard to find the right moment to publish this article. But, as the saying goes: Better late than never. I hope you will agree.
A remarkable collection of Realm wines spanning more than sixty bottles.
A Little Historical Perspective
I first started tasting these wines around 2010 and 2011. Realm was still in its early days. Juan Mercado and Wendell Laidley founded Realm in 2002. Mercado was working as a nurse in Oakland while Laidley had a background in finance. The two friends shared a passion for wine and decided to start a small project.
It was the beginning of the second generation of cult wineries in Napa Valley, the first having started in the late 1980s and early 1990s with wineries such as Harlan Estate, Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle, Abreu, Bryant and Colgin. By the early 2000s, the concept of making high-end wines from purchased fruit was starting to take off, largely fueled by the success of newer brands such as Schrader, Carter and Paul Hobbs that were tapping into new vineyard sources that were coming online. That model would take off big time in the ensuing years.
The gregarious and charming Mercado was able to secure high quality fruit through his connections and timing. Mike Hirby was brought in to make the wines. Like pretty much all start-up projects, Realm was a virtual winery that rented space at various facilities, bouncing from place to place and bootstrapping it along the way. That approach can work, but it is very hard financially, as there is no room for error. Moreover, winemaking is often dictated by constraints that are imposed by working in a shared environment. For example, pick dates aren’t chosen based solely on ripeness in the field, but are scheduled according to when the sorting table is available. Winemakers are allocated a certain number of days they can have wines in tank rather than having total freedom to make the most optimal choices because tanks are rotated. This, in my view, explains some of the irregularity found in the early Realm wines. Those first years were extremely challenging. A warehouse fire destroyed the entire 2003 vintage in bottle, after it had been sold and committed. Nevertheless, to their immense credit, Mercado and Laidley persevered.
The historic To Kalon vineyard in Oakville was one of Realm’s fruit sources. This map shows all owners on the left and detail of Andy Beckstoffer’s 89 acre parcel on the right. © 2022 Vinous.
In 2011, Mercado and Laidley hired Benoit Touquette to make the wines. A graduate of the University of Bordeaux, Touquette moved to Napa Valley in 2004 to work alongside Andy Erickson at his various projects, which at the time included Ovid, Screaming Eagle, Hartwell and Dancing Hares, among others. “I wanted more freedom than what was available to me in France,” Touquette explained. Friend and mentor Michel Rolland made the connection to Erickson and that was that.
Touquette eventually launched his own consulting practice and later became the winemaker at Hartwell, a connection that proved to be quite valuable a few years later when Realm acquired the Hartwell vineyards and winery. Touquette also brought Rolland in to consult on the blends, which was unheard of at the time for an upstart winery without serious financial backing.
Around the same time, though, stresses were starting to show on the business side. Enter Scott Becker, a young wine lover and entrepreneur with a bold vision for the future. Becker’s resume is impressive. Originally trained as a civil engineer, Becker spent five years in the US Air Force in various cross-functional teams, mostly in counterintelligence roles. These were the early 2000s, right after the attacks of September 2001 radically changed the world. Becker worked extensively in Asia and the Middle East. Trips back home were often routed through the Aviano Air Force Base. Becker took advantage of that opportunity to travel throughout Italy during his free time. One of those trips led to a stop in Piedmont, where Becker was exposed to the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, forever altering his career trajectory. "It was the first time I understood how small variations in site are reflected in wines,” he told me.
Becker went on to earn an MBA at the Harvard Business School. In his first month at HBS, Becker met Jack Cakebread, who also had a military background. That led to an internship offer and Cakebread became an early mentor. Pretty soon Becker was spending all of his time off during school breaks in Napa Valley doing grunt work in the cellars.
After school, Becker took a job at Global Wine Partners, a boutique investment firm that advised on a number of transactions, including the first Kosta Browne sale and Cos d’Estournel’s attempt to purchase Chateau Montelena. Cakebread took Becker to various social gatherings in Napa Valley. One of those lunches led to an encounter with Bill Harlan, who promptly recruited Becker for his new project, Promontory.
Farella, in Coomsbsville, has been a staple in the Realm range since 2003 and became an estate vineyard in 2018. © 2022 Vinous.
I met Becker during this time, on a visit to BOND with Robert Parker in early 2011. Even back then it was clear Becker had a vision. But it was more than that. Whether he learned it from Bill Harlan or not, Scott Becker shares something with his former employer, and that is a sense of purpose. Everything is done for a reason, as part of a larger plan. “Even today, when I have an important decision to make, I ask myself 'What would Bill say?'” Becker recounted.
In 2012, Becker put together a group of investors and acquired Realm. A few months later, Becker and Touquette suffered an early setback of their own when they discovered that 3,000 bottles of the 2009 Bard were tainted with brettanomyces. Down the drain they went. But Realm bounced back pretty quickly. Less than two years later, Realm made the remarkable transition from a virtual winery buying fruit and making wine in rented spaces to a true estate. “If you want to be around for several decades, it is pretty clear to me you have to own land,” Becker told me.
This is an extremely difficult transition to make, as it requires both significant capital and the managerial talent to both pull off and then manage. I can only think of a few Napa Valley wineries that have done this successfully. Paul Hobbs, Melka, Colgin, Aubert and Morlet come to mind, but, like Realm, they all rely on a combination of estate and purchased fruit, which shows how hard it is to fully control grape sources in Napa Valley. Realm purchased their first estate vineyard, a piece of Hartwell in Stags Leap plus the winery, in late 2015. Three years late they signed a long-term lease at Farella and then added the second Hartwell piece in 2020. A major redevelopment of the Stags Leap estate and a significant extension to the cellar are currently under way. That pretty much takes us to the present.
This article covers a number of vintages. Given how fast time flies a quick recap might be helpful. That said, in my view, more than vintage, the main theme in this tasting is the evolution of a young winery. The vintages matter, which is why I will spend a bit of time addressing them, but growth and evolution over that arc of time matter even more.
Two-thousand seventeen was a year of heavy rain in winter, followed by a brutally hot and dry summer. October fires were damaging to producers who still had fruit on the vine. Ripening was not even, so the paradox of 2017 is that, while it is a hot and dry year, the wines possess mid-weight structure and slightly lower alcohols because of blocked ripening. Conditions were much more favorable in 2016, a vintage where the wines are outstanding across the board.
Two-thousand fifteen shares quite a bit with 2017, specifically very hot and dry weather. Heat was especially punishing at the end of the season. I remember seeing very loose clusters and severe dehydration on the vine. Two-thousand fourteen is a dark horse Napa Valley vintage. It was another drought year. The wines are marked by a feeling of linear focus and intensity, and show less of the overt opulence typically associated with Napa Valley wines. For me, 2013 is one of the great vintages of modern times. The wines are powerful, deep and structured. It’s a vintage for readers who can be patient.
Two-thousand twelve was marked by a very long season blessed with moderate conditions the entire year. It is unquestionably an attractive vintage that falls short of being truly exciting. No doubt vintners were thrilled for 2012 to come along after 2011 and 2010. That enthusiasm, though, is rarely borne out in the quality of the wines. Mother Nature handed vintners an extremely challenging set of conditions in 2011. Cold, damp weather and botrytis, which most winemakers had never seen at the time, created a great deal of stress. Two-thousand ten started with cold weather but then a heat spike at the very end of the season pushed ripening across the goal line. I have long been a fan of the best 2010s.
Absurd is a barrel selection of the best lots in the cellar.
Wines & Main Vineyard Sites
The Realm range has grown considerably since the early days. It presently consists of three main blends, plus the white Fidelio and the barrel selection Absurd, along with a number of vineyard-designate Cabernets.
The Tempest is a Merlot-based blend and one of the first wines Realm made. Main fruit sources are Blair (Calistoga), Orchard (Oak Knoll) and Farella (Coombsville). Falstaff is a Cabernet Franc-based blend taken from sites on the eastern side of Oakville and Rutherford. Main sites are Weitz (Oakville, hillside), Fortuna (Oakville, valley floor) and Upper Range (Rutherford, hillside). The Bard is the most complete of the three and also a wine that captures the essence of the Realm style, but at a price that is more approachable than the vineyard-designate Cabernets, which makes it one of the wines here to really focus on. The Bard is a blend of vineyards ranging from Farella in Coomsbville all the up to Blair in Calistoga.
This map shows Dr. Crane and Bourn, two Andy Beckstoffer sites in historic St. Helena that are part of the Realm lineup. © 2022 Vinous.
Beckstoffer Heritage Sites
Realm’s early reputation was forged on two wines from To Kalon and Dr. Crane, two of Andy Beckstoffer’s heritage vineyards. To Kalon needs no introduction here, as it is the single most renowned vineyard in Napa Valley. The wines are characterized by inky dark fruit and a good deal of structure. Realm currently makes two wines from To Kalon: a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Cabernet Franc. Further north, in St. Helena, Dr. Crane gives lush and supple Cabernets, with silkier, creamier tannins than those found in To Kalon wines. Bourn is the latest Beckstoffer addition to the range. The wine started off as Kata, David Beckstoffer’s personal label. I tasted the first vintage, the 2011, before it even had a name, and was immediately captivated by a blend that incorporated a dollop of Petite Sirah. The first eight vintages (2011-2017) were sold as Kata, after which the wine was folded into the Realm lineup and renamed Bourn.
Houyi, high atop Pritchard Hill next to Brand and Colgin’s IX Estate, became a fruit source in 2013. © 2022 Vinous.
Run to the Hills - Houyi
Realm ventured to Pritchard Hill in 2013, for their Houyi Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the first addition to the range in a decade and signaled the beginning of a new phase of expansion. Houyi is nestled between Colgin and Brand in one of the most arresting spots in all of Napa Valley. The Houyi Cabernet can be both lush and structured, depending on what choices are made in the field and cellar.
The Realm Estate in Stags Leap is composed of the Moonracer and Hartwell XX Vineyards and is also home to the winery. © 2022 Vinous.
Realm was one of the first wineries to focus on Coombsville, with their Farella Cabernet, first made in 2003. Back then Coombsville was way off the radar. The cooler microclimate at the southern end of Napa Valley was considered less than ideal for top flight Cabernet Sauvignon. Because of that, grape prices were far more affordable than in the higher-rent districts.
Today, a combination of AVA status (recognized in 2011), a greater awareness of the potential of top sites such as Caldwell, Meteor and Paul Hobbs’ Nathan Coombs Estate and climate change have made Coombsville one of the most desired appellations in Napa Valley. The Cabernets here are always marked by strong savory and mineral inflections that are the result of cooler temperatures. Farella is also one of the sources of the Sauvignon Blanc for Fidelio, the other is Gamble in Oakville.
In 2018, Realm entered into a long-term agreement with the Farella family to farm the vineyard and control all of the fruit, with the exception of a small amount that is sold back to the family for their wines. Once again, relationships proved to be critical. Becker had worked with Frank Farella, a local attorney, on a numerous transactions over the years and knew him well.
Last, but certainly not least, is the Realm Estate in Stags Leap. Benoit Touquette’s relationship with the Hartwell family presented Realm with the opportunity to purchase a piece of the property and the winery. That acquisition closed at the end of 2015. It was the first estate site for Realm and a significant investment. But more than that, the Stags Leap property is the heart of Realm. The Moonracer Cabernet from this site marries opulence with the sleek raciness that is such a signature of Stags Leap.
In 2020, Realm acquired the upper blocks to complete their acquisition of the Hartwell estate. The vistas from the top offer stunning 360-degree views of Napa Valley. This rugged part of the ranch is characterized by more volcanic soils than the heavier terrain found at lower elevations and is planted with the Grace clone of Cabernet, one of the most prized selections in the valley. So far, I have only tasted two wines (2018 and 2019), both of which suggest that this is a very special place.
Realm Estate will be 30-32 acres of vineyards once significant replanting is completed, about 23-24 in the Moonracer section and 7-8 in the Hartwell XX piece. The property is characterized by extraordinary diversity of exposures and elevations which is evident when surveying the landscape from the top of the ranch. Understanding soils is a bit trickier, as some of them on the lower portions of the vineyard were redistributed as part of a large redevelopment that is under way.
Eight vintages of Dr. Crane, one of the mainstays of the Realm lineup.
Needless to say, this was an extremely fascinating tasting. The first wines are those of a new, start-up winery with limited resources trying to compete in the ultra- competitive world of high-end Napa Valley wines. That is especially evident in vintages like 2010 and 2011 that were very difficult in the vineyard. A combination of much more favorable vintages starting in 2012, along with greater organizational stability, vision and financial backing, resulted in wines that have been seriously impressive since then. For my palate, some of the wines around this era were a bit pushed, but that has started to change in recent years as Touquette has given the wines a little more precision and energy than they had just a few years ago. As compelling as the best wines in this report are, they clearly are a bridge to the present day, an exciting time for both Napa Valley and Realm.
I would like to thank my dear friends in New York and Connecticut for helping put together this phenomenal lineup.
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