Two Napa natives embrace simplicity to take the wine world by storm.
by Gretchen Gause
Butter. The unassuming dairy product has a surprisingly special place in the wine world: Its name is also the word most commonly used to describe Chardonnay’s smooth and creamy texture, and the sense of warmth and comfort it evokes.
It also happens to be the name of one of the best-selling white wines of all time: the delicious flagship product of a down-market brand that has taken the wine world by storm.
The brainchild of second-generation Napa Valley vintners John and Michele Truchard, Jam Cellars has doubled down on the basics at a time when other labels are trending highfalutin. Its wines are approachable and affordable, and its tasting room creates the kind of easygoing experience that brings customers back again and again.
It’s that emphasis on simplicity in the wine and the experience that has helped turn Butter into a best-seller, says John. “Butter has hit a seam in the universe where people like everything about it—the name, the price point, the packaging, and the message,” he says. “There’s this belief in the wine industry that if you want good products, you have to pay for them. But if you vow to make affordable wine, you can create wine that tastes good and … resonates with customers. That’s what we’re all about.”
Producing lower-priced wines is a departure for the husband-and-wife winemakers, who have been making high-end wines under their other label, John Anthony Vineyards, since 2003.
John Anthony Vineyards grew naturally out of Vinewerkes (later renamed Farm Napa Valley), a vineyard management business John launched about two decades ago, after years of watching his father farm his own vineyards. The business model was straightforward: John would farm the lands of local growers in the Oak Knoll appellation, then buy their grapes to make into single-vineyard wines for his own label.
He and Michele—Vintage High classmates turned college sweethearts—distributed this wine modestly for years, with Michele doing tastings at local restaurants in order to spread the word.
Then, in 2009, the recession hit, and it wasn’t so easy to unload a $660 case of Cabernet.
John was desperate to find a possible workaround for selling expensive wine during an economic crisis. The solution came after he went on a Napa Valley Vintners trip to the East Coast and heard a talk given by the owner of a New Jersey wine shop chain.
“He said all the real business was in the sub-$20 category, that I needed to find a way to make wine at that price point,” remembers John. “It definitely planted a seed.”
Six months later, John seized the opportunity. He was bottling the 2007 vintage of his namesake Cabernet and found that one lot didn’t exactly fit the brand. So he bottled it under a different label: Jam. An acronym for John and Michele, the name was apt for another reason, since the wine happened to be jammy for a Cabernet. He priced it at $20, and it sold modestly, at least for a while.
Fast forward to that winter, when the Truchards went down to the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Festival to pour their high-end wines.
A friend came over and started chatting with them, and John filled him in on the plan for Jam. He mentioned he had a bunch of Rombauer-style Chardonnay in a tank, and that he was thinking of bottling it under the same model. The friend joked that the Truchards should call the wine “Butter,” to go along with the Cabernet. John was intrigued. Soon after, the first bottles of Butter hit the shelves.
Trading on Simplicity
Packaged in bottles with simple labels and screw-top caps, Butter hasn’t changed much since its initial appearance, but sales for the wine have skyrocketed. In 2010, Jam produced only 1,000 cases of the smooth Chardonnay; six years later, that number has exploded to 840,000. And in 2016 alone, Butter notched more than $13 million in sales as the second best-selling wine of the year, behind only La Crema.
John attributes this success to the wine’s simplicity.
“People go into a wine shop and say, ‘I want a buttery Chardonnay,’ and the guy behind the counter says, ‘I have exactly the thing for you,’ ” he says. “Our John Anthony wines are for the oenophiles, the collectors, the people who want to hold on to these things for a while. Jam Cellars wines are beverages. They’re designed to drink and enjoy in the moment. That’s why people love them.”
John and Michelle also pride themselves on their downtown Napa tasting room, which opened in May 2016 and gives a third meaning to Jam. Open until midnight on weekends, it boasts an impressive collection of classic vinyl records, vintage Rolling Stone photos and art, and a recording studio in the back, and serves as a venue for weekly live music (appropriately called Jam Sessions).
Altogether, the joint feels more like a music-themed cocktail lounge than a place for winetasting—a sharp contrast to the formal atmosphere of John Anthony Vineyards’s tasting room, which is located down the block.
According to Michele, the contrast is intentional: Jam Cellars is less about tasting wine and more about having a good time.
“The wine is just something you drink while you’re here,” she says. “What you experience when you come visit—that’s what we want people to remember forever.”
Jam’s unique tasting room is certainly drawing in the crowds. It’s usually packed on any given night, especially on the weekends. And earlier this year, when Jam, which is the presenting sponsor for BottleRock Napa Valley’s three-day outdoor rock concert in May, brought in G. Love to kick off Premiere Napa Valley, the place was even more crowded.
You can also catch Jam at festivals across the nation, in a tricked-out tour bus that used to belong to country singer Alan Jackson. Its name? The Butter Bus, of course.
“It’s all a little outrageous and a little out of our comfort zone to do this kind of stuff,” Michele says. “Thankfully, though, it works.”
And how. Ask around, and it seems everyone has got something to say. People love the wine and the refreshingly laid-back vibe of the tasting room, and they get downright giddy when they see the Butter Bus in the wild.
Even heavy hitters in the wine world have taken notice. Roger Trinchero, who runs the globally renowned Trinchero Family Estates, links Jam’s success to its broad appeal. “[People] will tell you what they want,” he says. “You just have to be ready to listen to them.”
Looking forward, the Truchards find themselves in a curious position. Most wine brands constantly think about the next big vintage. For Jam, however, sales are so strong that John and Michele have forced themselves to ignore the future and instead focus on the here and now.
“Our approach is very much, ‘Hey, before we start working on Act Two, let’s let Act One play out first,” he says. “The truth is that Butter’s not even close to being played out yet.”
This isn’t to say the brand isn’t diversifying. In April 2014, Jam added Toast, a sparkling wine. And in May 2016, just in time for BottleRock, the winery added Napa Valley iterations of Jam and Butter, made from grapes grown exclusively in the Napa Valley. The more generic wines are available everywhere; the two from Napa are available only in the tasting room, creating a certain sense of exclusivity for those who go.
They have also brought in additional wines to the tasting room, including music-themed options from Ledbetter Wines.
Ultimately, John says, the goals are to make good wine and have a good time along the way.
“From the very beginning, we said, ‘If one day we can be the Vintners Reserve or the Kendall-Jackson for Millennials, we’d be OK,’” he remembers. “That doesn’t mean we have to be the biggest. We just want to be amongst the best in terms of the quality of the products, the people we have, and our commitment to having fun.” jamcellars.com.