John Truchard’s life plan was all laid out in front of him, by fate and fortunes instead of deliberation and choice. As one of THE Truchards – the family owners and proprietors of Truchard Vineyards – John is descended from as close as we have in the US to Wine Royalty. Truchard’s history dates all the way back to the late 1800s, when Jean-Marie Truchard emigrated from a small town outside of Lyon, France, with his brother, Father Anthony Marie Truchard, a Catholic priest. They established a vineyard and winery on a 500-acre plot of land in, of all places, Southeast Texas. Through a twisted and truly American set of circumstances, the family wound up in California, where Jean-Marie’s son, Tony Truchard found an unused 20 acre plat of farmland in the forgotten ass-end of the Napa Valley, an area called Carneros. You know the name “Carneros”, if you know wine at all but it’s quite likely you wouldn’t, if not for Tony Truchard’s vision and his family’s LONG history – dating all the way back several generations into their French roots – of winemaking.
The rest is true California Lore. My own history with the label goes back 29 years, to the first bottle of wine I ever sold at retail: Truchard Cabernet Sauvignon Carneros. It’s one of the tiny handful of wine labels that I’ve always sold with utter confidence that whomever took it out of my hands and back to their home was going to get every penny’s worth of their cash outlay and more than that in drinking pleasure.
So, John’s destiny would be tending those grand acres in the very appellation his family pioneered and thus ever shall it be…right?
Not so fast, Sparky. John Truchard was a different kid; a child of the rock ‘n’ roll age, a little bit of a free-thinker. No string quartets on the veranda for young J. Truchard. His was a youthful aesthetic that told him a number of things that proper scions of Old Guard California wineries should not be thinking. But, having spent virtually his entire life as a cellar rat and winemaker, what was a guy to do? His biggest epiphany was that there is a serious shortage of really great value wines. There was literally no one making affordable wines that carried the balance, style, technical expertise, and opulence of the Truchard offerings. John sensed a Niche.
Soon after meeting and marrying Michele Crane – herself a Napa native, former nutritionist and veteran of Napa stalwarts Rutherford Hill, Chimney Rock and the Terlato Wine Group – John launched John Anthony Cellars, where his fine-wine itch was scratched, and started thinking about something more youthful, more experimental, maybe a little more rock ‘n’ roll. The eventual result was JaM Cellars – short for “John and Michele” – a name which perfectly expressed some of the couple’s basic aesthetics. The word itself suggested their passionate rocker natures and lent itself to a marketing plan that perfectly expresses the wines.
“JaM” was the root of the concept; a huge, JaMmy bottle of Cabernet sourced from Napa, Carneros, and a couple of other California appellations. Going with the word “California” on the bottles took a bit of nerve and confidence, as opposed to using “Napa” or “Carneros” or another established appellation. “California” usually connotes a cheap quickie wine; a knock-off blend of left-overs from winery stocks that is tossed together to make a fast buck. John knew that it was quite possible to create something several cuts above the usual California blend and set out to do it. With JaM, he has. JaM Cabernet Sauvignon is BIG, plush, generous to a fault, beautifully balanced, just acidic enough to let it hook up gracefully with a bewildering variety of foods, and exploding with blackberries, black currants, plums, cocoa, tobacco, raspberries, blueberries, laid-back spices, and sweet underpinnings of minerals and herbs. Somehow, this melange of sources adds up to something that, if it had the words “Carneros” or “Sonoma” on the label, would be questioned by absolutely nobody. While JaM is nicely complex and impeccably balanced, like all Truchard wines, it is designed to lose some of the family subtlety and nuance and rock a bit – HARD. This Cab is Eddie VanHalen in a bottle; a wild and soaring wine that shows a youthful lack of restraint in the best possible way. This legitimizes the notion of drinking wine – as opposed to the rote beer and whiskey – at a rock concert. Along with its two busty sisters, JaM is the perfect statement of John and Michelle’s goals in starting JaM. Like their spiritual cousin in Walla Walla, Sleight of Hand Cellars – “Punk Rock Wines For Punk Rock Minds“- JaM celebrates the differences between the Old Guard of American wine and the new, music-driven attitudes of younger winemakers. And it works…Man, does it Work! 93 Points
Hey, it’s California and there are two sexes and there are red wines and whites, so there’s gonna be a reflex Chardonnay in this mix, somewhere, right? JaM Cellars “Butter” is that Chard. One thing about the wines in this trio: they are all delicious stuff and all a very witty commentary on the wine-snob image of California wines that’s been used to dis the state for fifty years or more. Cabs that are “jammy“, Chardonnay that’s “buttery and oaky“. And sparkling wines (wait for it…) that are “toasty“. I fantasize about a meeting between John and Michele Truchard and their original winemaker/partner, Rob Lloyd, in which somebody says, “Let’s just take all those California cliches and shove’em right up all the wine snobs’ tailpipe!” None of that is true. (“Butter” was actually a suggestion from Scott Lewis, owner of V Wine Cellars in Yountville, who tried some of the Chardonnay and gave John that SMH Moment.) Butter is, in fact, Buttery. It’s silky and full-bodied and bustin’ with yellow apples, pineapple, buttermint, jasmine, a refined nuttiness that falls somewhere between hazelnuts and roasted cashews, a touch of stonefruit, vanilla for days, a distinct and very flattering toastiness, and, framing the whole thing, that superb viscosity, that Butter dripping off every sip like off a stack of pancakes. If this lampoons the fabled richness and sheer size of the classic Napa Chards, it does it with deft balance and as much crisp acidity as any good white Burgundy. It took me, in fact, several sips to put it into any kind of context, as I’ve been tirelessly preaching the Gospel of No Oak and stainless steel containers for so many years, now. I had honestly forgotten how hedonistically pleasurable a big classic Cali Chard can be when it’s properly made…which it almost never is, anymore. This wine is a Throwback and a Step Forward and it is sinfully, wickedly Delicious. 94 Points
JaM Cellars “Toast” is another throwback, but this time to a less recent style of California winemaking, when sparkling wines were scarce and many completely eschewed the Champagne model of uber-restrained fruit, minerals galore, and assertive acids. I can easily remember, back in the 80s and early 90s, when I was selling and drinking a lot of CA bubbles, when some of the wines bordered on a sweetness more fitting to a Riesling or a Gewurztraminer. And many of them, shockingly, worked. About one hair away from outright sweet, bubbly, muted acids, these were wines that appealed to the grandparent set who habitually drank Columbia Cellarmaster-style Riesling because, at the time, any American who knew wine and wanted a sparkling was buying Champagne, period. California bubbly makers, with the exceptions of one or two established houses, were flailing a bit for that good fit in the marketplace and that gradually drifted the style away from overt sweetness and into something best described as “off dry”. For me, that is when California sparkling wine began to hit its stride and this Toast hearkens back to those great, seminal bubblies that started California sparklings. This wine is a touch – just a touch! – more elegant and restrained than JaM or Butter but it is still a big, generous, expressive bottle of fruit and aroma and Body (sorry). The flavors lean toward stone and tropical fruit, with honeydew – and honey – lurking about the bottom end, topped by vivid notes of tangerine, gooseberries, pineapple, white peaches, Asian pears, and that bewitching toastiness that’s derived from Champagne yeasts and barrels. This is an exceptional value in American sparkling wine,especially at a price that’s well below (about $25 retail) what we expect to pay for other comparable wines of its type. 91 Points
Jon Truchard may not have decided to stick with the family business but his family’s business has absolutely stuck with him. The guy knows what great wine is and is moving JaM toward a level of genuine greatness in Value Wines that more than fulfills his original vision and raises the bar for every other similar label in California…and that ALL to the Good for those of us who buy and enjoy American wine.