When people visit Realm Cellars today, they don’t see what we see.

To them, Realm is an established winery in the Stags Leap District, with vineyards stretching from the Silverado Trail to the top of Wappo Hill, a modern wine cellar with shiny new equipment, and wines served in elegant glasses by a staff of professionals. They see something that’s smooth around the edges, they see success...

We see the road that got us here.

A rough road with potholes and unexpected turns. A grand experiment in risk taking, a string of fits and starts with more than its fair share of setbacks. We see going into debt, begging growers for fruit, working with borrowed equipment, harvesting until three AM, selling bottles one at a time. We see losing an entire vintage to fire, divorce, debt, more debt, near dissolution, and then finally, finally... a break, a rebirth. Even with our successes, we’ve never been short of challenges, and we’re certain that more lay ahead.

When we look at Realm today, we see it in its entirety, and that’s the story we present here. It’s not short and it’s not fluffy. It’s real. If you want to understand how we got to where we are today, this is the place to do it.

January 2, 2017

Realm Estate: Year One

Realm Estate

We closed on the Hartwell property on December 30, 2015, and a new chapter began for Realm Cellars. After thirteen years of making wine, we had a home. A winery and a vineyard -- an Estate! It kind of blew our minds. Benoit had worked on this property for over ten years, so it wasn’t exactly new to him. What was new to him - and to us – was the concept of owning the place. We went from renters to owners overnight, with all the responsibility that entails. When the reservoir got clogged with leaves from a heavy rain, Andy and the team went and shoveled it out. When the front gate wouldn’t open, Eden figured out how to get it fixed. When a falling branch knocked out the electricity, Juan called PG&E. There was no landlord, no property manager. And to be honest, there’d been some delayed maintenance.

This place wasn’t exactly what you’d call turn-key; it was more of a fixer-upper. Which makes sense for Realm. We’ve always thrived on challenge. On finding something with lots of potential and then working like crazy to bring out the best in it.

- Scott

On December 31st we were already working out which vineyard blocks should be replanted. It was our first priority, the thing we knew would take the longest to fix and yield the greatest return on quality. A lot of the blocks were failing. There was disease pressure and issues with the vines’ root structure. At least we weren’t starting from scratch. Benoit knew what and where the problems were. As viticulturist for the property since 2008, he’d walked the vineyard for years, had spent his own money to bring in irrigation consultants and even a pruner from France. After Realm took ownership, Scott and Benoit walked the property every Sunday for months. We brought in more experts - soil scientists, geologists, hydrologists, water treatment specialists. We mapped soil types and searched for water. We studied, probed and consulted. No stone was left unturned in thinking about how to maximize this site’s potential.

I had ideas going in, but you need creative people - a collaboration - not just a single mind. We’re going to extract the best of this place. It was a diamond in the rough and we’re going to carve it and shape it the best way possible.

– Benoit

Realm Estate

After several months and a dozen renditions, our master plan started to crystallize. The blocks up the hill behind the winery were removed, as was the house that sat close to the road. We didn’t intend to lose that house, but it became obvious that the land it was sitting on is more valuable planted, ideal for grapes. Same with the driveway; we’ll move it to the south to make room for south-facing vineyard parcels. Eventually, we’ll replant the entire property. The vineyard will consist of ~20 one-acre blocks. Completely different row orientation, trellising, rootstock, clones. Every decision driven by the best science at our disposal.

As we made plans for the vineyard, we also did a mini “facelift” on the winery, landscaping, installing new floors, painting and sprucing up the office and meeting spaces. In May, we moved our wines to the Estate, a task that boggled the mind since the existing winery wasn’t built to store wine beyond what the Estate could produce. We turned a storage barn into a barrel chai and went from seven to thirty small tanks to make sure we could keep everything separate. In late summer harvest came along, and we learned to work together in a new space, with new systems and equipment. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ours.

Getting into our own place was a big thing. We were excited. But there was the pressure of the unknown. It’s more complicated than going to the winery and doing your work. You own the land, and you have to deal with that. Everyone’s plate got fuller. Everyone on the team took on new responsibilities. Everyone is stretched. But that’s how we do it at Realm.

– Benoit

In April 2017, we’ll start work on the winery, beginning with digging new caves. We need more room for wine work, and the caves are the natural place to expand. It’ll be a construction zone here, but we’re used to that kind of chaos. We’ll work with the existing winery. Tearing it down, though tempting, wouldn’t be practical. But we need more room for production and barrel storage.

It’s not so much about expanding in terms of quantity, but about accommodating the new model of Realm Cellars, which is now two-fold. We’re an Estate vineyard and winery, but we also work with eleven other Napa Valley vineyards. We want to keep as many lots separate as possible.

– Scott

With the new winery, Benoit can do that, and treat each one accordingly. He’s got a warm room and a cold room. He’s got hot glycol and cold glycol. The barrels will be stacked only two high to make topping and climate control more precise. He’ll have everything at his disposal. We want to preserve each vineyard’s differences and nuances all the way through to bottling, but you need space to do that.

Realm Estate

Many of the investments we’re making are not necessarily sexy, some won’t even be visible to outsiders, but they will be real, and they will make a difference. New tanks, catwalks, pumps and an entirely new infrastructure that integrates the vineyard, winery, sales, inventory and even accounting functions. We spent a lot of time in Bordeaux, and we looked at everything, even equipment that originated in the medical and dairy industries, to arrive at the best solutions for us. Again, no stone left unturned. The equipment, technology and systems are unlike anything seen here before.

It won’t be crazy, not froufrou like some places you see. It will be like Realm - practical, functional, natural and organic. It will be one of a kind; there’s nothing like it in Napa Valley. We’re not copying anyone. What we’re building doesn’t exist yet.

– Benoit

We also have big plans for hospitality. Hartwell never had a tasting room. There was never a back of the house and front of the house. And Realm is going to keep it that way. The design will flow. We’ll have tasting spaces, both inside and outside, but they’ll never be more than a few steps away from production. Guests will see hoses being moved around and barrels being topped. Things will be in motion; there’ll be a buzz. That’s going to be the hallmark of our hospitality experience. You’re not going to sit in a chair in an isolated room and sip wine. You’ll see people come and go; the winemaker might walk by and pat you on the shoulder. Who knows? We want the experience to be immersive. We want people to feel as if they’re visiting Realm’s home.

Realm Estate

It shouldn’t feel like a library or museum, but it also shouldn’t feel like Disneyland. It should feel like our home. A physical representation of Realm Cellars.

– Scott

February 2, 2016

Growing Pains

February 2, 2016. The day of our Spring 2016 release. It was not a good day, to be honest. The wine sold out in three hours, but a lot of our long-time customers weren’t happy. We had never been a wait-listed, high-demand brand that sells out in a few hours; it caught us all by surprise. We knew there was momentum, but we didn’t anticipate how quickly people would be on the computer to order wine, and we didn’t allow enough time for the customers who would normally place an order. Talk about growing pains. We felt terrible. We did a video to apologize. And we changed our allocation approach.

SPRING RELEASE 2016 OFFERING HAS CLOSED (2:53)   Video Published 2/4/2016

December 30-31, 2016

(24 Hours)

December 30, 2015: The day Realm Cellars completed the purchase of the Hartwell Estate on 5795 Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. The deal included the winery, caves and 15 acres of vineyards.

Text message from Benoit Touquette to Scott Becker (verbatim):



December 31, 2015: Wine Advocate Issue #222 is published with Robert Parker’s assessment of 2013 vintage.



Text message from Juan Mercado to Scott Becker:

(2013 Absurd, 2013 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane, 2013 The Bard)

It was an emotional 24 hours. First the Hartwell deal closed, and the next day the Wine Advocate scores came out. Juan was in tears. So was Benoit. Scott was choked up. But to understand the emotional impact, you have to go back in time. Just two years earlier Realm had been on the brink. Things almost fell apart. We could have gone belly up.

In 2013, when we published The Whole Story, I couldn’t really acknowledge how difficult things were. I couldn’t even admit it to myself. It was too raw.

—Scott

You see, when we restructured Realm in 2011, we raised capital to buy out Juan’s partner and to pay our debts. There wasn’t any extra, no big infusion of cash to invest in new equipment or grape sources. The business had to survive on its own merits. We had inventory to sell, so we knew we could turn that into cash, but even there we had problems. We had twelve barrels of 2009 Cabernet that were simply not good enough to bottle as Realm. We were trying to turn a corner, raise the bar on quality, and that wine just wasn’t good enough. We had to sell it off as bulk which meant a six-figure loss of revenue.

We were struggling. We got fired by a few distributors and our releases weren’t selling out. We were on the heels of the recession. Juan and Scott carried bags of wine all over the country knocking on doors, trying to sell it. We sold every bottle we could. Our library inventory depleted to zero because we needed the cash so badly. We could have raised more money from investors, but there would have been a cost and an impact, and it might have raised a red flag about just how bad things were.

Every day, Scott looked at a spread sheet to make sure there was enough money in the bank to make payroll. There were a lot of sleepless nights. In 2012 and 2013 Scott didn’t pay himself. The employees got paid, and the growers of course. We finally started paying Benoit, because in 2011 he hadn’t collected a salary. Out of loyalty to Juan he was willing to stick around. Meanwhile we needed to invest in new equipment and more people. Benoit wanted new equipment to make better wine, but we were strung out. There were a lot of moments when we thought, is it supposed to be this hard?

Then the 2011 wines were released. It was a tough vintage for everyone in Napa Valley– one of the toughest in decades. Benoit made solid wines, but buyers were skittish. No one wanted to stock up on those wines. It was miserable. In the depths of it Scott showed the business plan to a couple of wine industry friends, and they said he was crazy: ‘You need to be candid with yourself. Either you need a lot more capital or you should just fold it.’

They were telling me to fold. But I couldn’t do that to Juan, or to Benoit. I doubted myself, I doubted the business, but I didn’t doubt our team.

—Scott

Plus, there was the 2012 vintage. It was in barrel and every time we tasted it we knew we couldn’t give up. When Michel (Rolland) came out and tasted through the ‘12s we saw how his eyebrows raised at a few. The business was struggling and consumers weren’t buying the 2011s. There were other job opportunities for Benoit and Scott. But there was that 2012 vintage. We just knew it was special. It was the thing that made us hold on.

We put our heads down and worked on our new labels and packaging. We sold enough back vintages to be able to add more employees and we started to assemble a great team. There were some positive signs, glimmers of hope. We did well at the High Museum auction (in Atlanta) and Premiere Napa Valley, and people were saying good things about our wines. We had more sign-ups on the mailing list. But it was all forward looking. It didn’t yet translate to the bottom line.

Everything hinged on the 2012 vintage. If we could just get to that moment.

In the summer of 2014, as soon as they were bottled, we started tasting people on the 2012s. We had new wines and a new package with new labels. The brand had a new persona. We wanted to show people the new Realm. The reaction was what we hoped for. Some people missed the old label for sentimental reasons, but they loved the new packaging. And the wines.

In the fall, when we started to sell the first 2012s – Bard, Tempest, Falstaff -- we finally got a little breathing room. People had heard good things about the 2012 vintage and sales picked up. Things were starting to click. On October 31, 2014, Wine Advocate published its reviews of Realm’s 2012 vintage:

100 (2012 The Absurd)
100 (2012 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane)
99 (2012 The Bard)

They were the best scores we’d ever gotten. We’d never sold our wines on the basis of scores, but this was a game changer. It had always taken us weeks or even months to sell out of our wines, but when we released the 2012 Single Vineyards in spring 2015, it only took a few days.

It was really a confluence of things coming together: the scores, the labels, the wines getting better, plus the relationships we’d built over the years.

—Juan

There was a lot of hard work, a lot of strategy for sure. But we got lucky. With Mother Nature. You could have taken the same people, the same strategy, and if the timing had been different, if 2012 hadn’t been a good vintage, we might not have had the same outcome. The whole thing might have disintegrated. We needed the sales success with the ’12 vintage. Sales were slowly improving. It was sustaining the business. But if we’d had another vintage like 2011, we could have had a very different result.

I didn’t know what risks I was taking when we re-engineered the partnership. I didn’t start Realm, but I got to feel what it was like to be an entrepreneur. To risk everything. I never want to be that close to the edge again. I wouldn’t change the story, but I probably wouldn’t do it again.

—Scott

December 17, 2015

Finding a Home

2013 SINGLE VINEYARD RELEASE (2:53)   Video published 1/12/2016

We always knew Realm needed its own winery. It was the logical and necessary next step. We’d made wine at Boswell since 2007, and it had been a good home, but it was like sharing a kitchen - a little out of our control. We started looking around in 2014 and considered a lot of properties. But none of them were quite right. About the same time, Benoit proposed the idea of approaching Bob and Blanca Hartwell about the Hartwell Estate Vineyards property in Stags Leap. Benoit had made wine for the Hartwells since 2004, and had been viticulturist for the estate since 2008. He knew the property well and understood its potential. He also knew the family was thinking about downsizing their operation.

“I always felt there was something special here. It’s one of the only vineyards on Wappo Hill – a hill that comes up out of the valley floor in Stags Leap. What geologists call a toe formation. There just aren’t that many places like it in Napa Valley. The property goes from 100 to 600 feet of elevation with all these different slopes and facings. And the soils: I’ve seen geologists scratch their heads at them. Volcanic, landslide, valley formation. Which to me translates to complexity. It’s pretty insane.”

– Benoit

So Hartwell became our first choice. We presented an offer in late 2014, but the family wasn’t ready. Selling the property was emotional for them. They’d owned it since 1986, and it was hard to let go. The Hartwells were like family to Benoit; they’d been through a lot together, and he understood how they felt. We were patient. By mid-2015, we weren’t sure the deal was going to happen, but we also knew that harvest was coming. On the chance that the deal would work, we wanted to put our best foot forward. We put a few thousand dollars into a new shaker table and an optical sorter at the winery and sent our team in to help Benoit. We wanted the 2015 wines from Hartwell – which we thought we might own someday - to be great.

After harvest, on December 9th to be exact, the deal fell through. We were devastated. We’d had such high hopes. It was hard. We were prepared to give up, but Benoit thought there still might be a chance. He talked to the family. There was more back and forth, and at last, they came around. On December 30, 2015, the deal closed.

In the end, the Hartwells chose Realm. They had other offers. But they knew Benoit, and through Benoit, they got to know Realm. Bob Hartwell told Benoit: “I’m handing the baton off to see what you guys can do with it.”

“It was an end and a beginning. For the Hartwells, it meant coming full circle, a return to making the small amount of wine they’d started with. For Realm, it was an overnight transformation. It was emotional for everyone, to say the least.”

- Benoit

December 1, 2014

With Gratitude to our Growers

In the winter of 2014 Realm held its first annual Grower Dinner. It was the first time we were able to formally recognize and thank the growers who supply us with grapes. Some of these growers had been with us since the very beginning. They’d stuck with us through some pretty tough times. Without them, there would be no Realm.

GROWER DINNER (4:00)   Video published 12/1/2014

February 22, 2014

Starting to Get Noticed

Success in the wine business is often incremental, and the milestones can be as varied as convincing a sought-after grower to sell you wine grapes to getting a placement on a Michelin three star restaurant’s wine list. In February 2014 Realm’s showing at the Napa Valley Vintners’ annual Premiere Napa Valley gave us reason to believe we were on to something.

PREMIERE NAPA VALLEY 2014 (1:23)   Video published 2/22/2014

August 13, 2013

Developing a Vision

As the harvest of 2013 got underway, there was shared excitement at the new vision for Realm, but also a realization that there was a long way to go. The bar only got higher.

OUR VISION (1:17)   Video published 10/22/2013

March 1, 2013

The Whole Story

This is the story of Realm Cellars’ beginnings, how it got started and its first dozen years of operating in Napa Valley. It was originally published to coincide with the launch of a new website and the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the winery. At the time, Realm was heading into its 12th vintage, but it was still far from an established Napa Valley winery. For authenticity, this is re-published in its entirety (with minor edits to formatting).

It was October 12, 2005, I was washing bins, getting them ready for the next morning’s pick and I got the call. The warehouse in Vallejo where we stored our wines was on fire. Our entire second vintage – all of our 2003 wines – were in that building. I knew it wasn’t good. But I figured, you know what? There’s nothing I can do about it, and I kept on washing the bins. I was hopeful, but deep down inside I knew. We’re toast.

READ "THE WHOLE STORY" (36 MIN READ)