Realm Cellars and Napa Valley’s last fairytale founding

Realm Cellars NapaBenoit Touquette (left) and Scott Becker of Realm. Credit: Realm.

The days of valley-newcomer and family-founded winery projects like Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars or Jim Barrett’s Chateau Montelena and their self-made tales of slow growth into the storied brands of Napa seem about as anachronistic today as an eight-track cassette player.

The door for such start-up wineries in Napa has been slowly closing over the last two decades, making Realm Cellars’ success seem more like a Cinderella fairy tale with each passing year. A final bugle call to Napa’s mythical founding era.

Scroll down for tasting notes and scores of 10 wines from Realm Cellars

Established in 2002 by Juan Mercado, an army medic and nurse by trade who worked stints as a cellar rat for Pax Mahle and John Konnsgaard, and Wendell Laidley, an investment banker, Realm got by for nearly a decade on early critical successes while enduring some setbacks.

But the brand slowly and quietly made its mark on Napa Valley and inched its way onto the shortlist of Napa’s upper echelon of icon producers.

Realm’s Moonracer Vineyard. Credit: Realm.

In the beginning

The Realm wines were initially crafted by Michael Hirby and produced at Sherwin Family Vineyards on Spring Mountain. Co-founders Mercado and Laidley set about trying to make great wines in Napa Valley, just not as landowners. They were part of a growing brigade of buyers of premium grapes – almost like a négociant but with a singular brand and vision.

They amassed contracts from highly reputable Napa sites, including Andy Beckstoffer’s To Kalon in Oakville, the Beckstoffer Dr. Crane in St. Helena, and Farella Vineyard in Coombsville.

They bought expensive Taransaud and Darnajou barrels and continued pouring in cash for their second vintage (2003), which was later lost in a warehouse fire. By 2007, production was moved to Chateau Boswell north of St. Helena. Then, in 2010, Hirby resigned, leaving Realm in limbo.

Mercado was introduced to Lyonnaise native and Bordeaux-trained winemaker Benoit Touqette, who agreed to finish the 2009 vintage. The fast-talking, charismatic Touquette brought his mentor – Michel Rolland – to the blending table. Later, it would become apparent that they’d crafted excellent wines from the vintage, possibly some of the best to date.

But after that blending session, Realm flirted with bankruptcy for the next two years. Mercado and Laidley needed a divine intervention. In 2011, the prodigal Scott Becker came to lunch.

Realm at a glance

Owners: Scott Becker, co-owner and CEO and Benoitt Touquette, co-owner and winemaker
Key varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot
Vineyards: Estate vineyards include the 10-hectare Realm Moonracer Estate (Stags Leap District), 8.9-hectare Houyi Vineyard (on Pritchard Hill), 0.8-hectare Hartwell XX, 10-hectare Farella in Coombsville. Estate contracts include Levensohn Vineyard, Beckstoffer Bourn, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane, and Beckstoffer To Kalon.
Key wines: Proprietary Blends: Fidelio, The Tempest, The Bard, Falstaff, The Absurd; Estate wines: Houyi, Moonracer, Hartwell XX, Farella; Single Vineyard: Beckstoffer Dr. Crane, Beckstoffer To Kalon, Beckstoffer Bourn, The Bard Blair Edition

Touquette and Becker in the cellars at Realm. Credit: Realm.

Words of wisdom

At the time, Becker was working at Harlan Estate. A former US Air Force officer and Harvard MBA, Becker looked up to Harlan and respected him for his achievements – held in the same high regard as other pioneer vintners like Colgin, Araujo and Bryant.

Becker’s admiration was also aspirational. He deeply desired to ‘do something that I could feel that I had a sense of ownership over,’ he says, ‘and more than a sense, but that I could put my thumb-print on.’ Like a younger Bill Harlan, he was eager to carve out his place in Napa’s history.

Becker recalls consulting Harlan about buying Realm. Harlan, recognising…

Source : https://www.decanter.com/premium/realm-cellars-and-napa-valleys-last-fairytale-founding-533500/