The Story of our J Cole Blend

The Story of our J Cole Blend

And the One Named Celebrity of Healdsburg

 

James and I are often asked why we didn’t name our company Blanchard Brothers Wines, instead of Blanchard Family Wines.  After all, we are the sole founders and owners.  However, we know in our hearts that from the beginning there has been an entire network of friends and family members that have helped us make this continued dream come true.  None more vital and important than our winemaker, mentor and craftsman, Healdsburg’s own Renaissance man, Jene. 

I first met Jene in 2007 while I was working at a tasting room in downtown Healdsburg.  Jene’s best friend Karl lived in an apartment upstairs in the same building, and the two of them would frequent the tasting room.  I took an instant liking to both of them, because they were charming, older veterans of the community and wine industry.  My belief is they took a liking to me, because I gave them free wine tastings and discounts.  Eventually these gentlemen befriended me enough to start inviting me upstairs to dinner parties with their wives and other friends. 

I soon realized that Jene was quite an interesting individual, a jack of all trades sort of guy.  He was in construction, he could build or fix about anything, he was one hell of a chef, and he even made his own wine.  His label was called J Cole.  “J” for Jene, and “Cole” was actually his mother’s maiden name.  So why didn’t he use his own last name?  Well, after months of knowing Jene, I realized I didn’t even know his last name.  And despite the fact that most of the town of Healdsburg seems to know Jene personally, almost no one knows his last name.  It’s like when a celebrity is so famous, they can be known simply by one name, like Madonna, Oprah, or Prince.  He is simply known as Jene, and if you ask anyone around Healdsburg, they will have nothing but good things to say about him. 

When James and I started forming the plan to create Blanchard Family Wines, we knew we could not do it alone.  We needed someone who knew the local industry, someone with a strong reputation, someone who knew how to stretch a budget, and someone who would mentor me in winemaking.  We needed Jene.  I can recall it clearly, the day I sat down with Jene and Karl in the Healdsburg town square. I enthusiastically tried to sell them on the idea that James and I were very serious about wanting to make wine and just needed help.  Keep in mind that they has never met James, we had no real business plan yet, and I was basically just pitching a pipe dream to them.  But I’ll never forget when Karl turned to Jene with a smile and said, “Hell, what do you say Jene, want to help the kid out?” 

As it turned out, Karl owned a little vineyard property just outside of downtown and he sold us our first ton of grapes, which of course Jene helped me turn into our first vintage of wine.  The original plan was that he would help me make Blanchard Family Wines and I would assist him in making J Cole wines.  It was a perfect deal. But he did so much more than that really.  He taught me winemaking and viticulture, he loaned us thousands of dollars in equipment we couldn’t afford, and he introduced me to countless professional connections in the community. It became clear that when doing business in the Healdsburg area, all I had to do was to mention one phrase, “I’m working with Jene.” Immediately I was taken seriously, given respect and treated as a legitimate member of the wine industry.

Shortly after our first harvest began, James and his wife Sylvia came to visit, partially to witness what I was doing with my big brother’s business investment, and partly to meet this guy Jene that I had been telling them about.  After one dinner with Jene I remember Sylvia pulling me aside and saying, “Jene is amazing.  So don’t screw it up!!”  It was now clear to them what I had known all along, that Jene’s advice, guidance, connections, and over all generosity was priceless to our company. 

Now Jene’s wine label J Cole was always a passionate project, but never a full time job.  He received high acclaim for his wines, won numerous awards, but always supported himself as a full time construction foreman.  Jene is among many things, a humble individual.  He truly loves making wine, everything about it in fact, but doesn’t care about the attention or recognition.  So it wasn’t long into the partnership that we created, that Jene made the decision to throw in the towel on his J Cole label, and simply be a part of Blanchard Family Wines.  We actually had the discussions over burritos after a long day of winemaking work, when he said, “You know what, I’m in.  Let’s do this together.  I don’t care whose name is on the bottle.  I just want to make good wine.” 

This was of course the most selfless sacrifice anyone could have made for us as a company.  I’m not totally sure if the impact of the gesture really sunk it right away for us either.  I mean, it’s our names on the bottles, our pictures on the webpage, James and I get much of the glory of owning a winery.  And yet we could never have done any of it without Jene.  James and I knew that a simple thank you wasn’t enough.  Buying Jene dinner and saying, “appreciate it buddy!” wasn’t going to cut it.  We had to somehow pay tribute to Jene in a way that let him know how much we truly recognized all that he had done for us.  We had to bring back the J Cole.  So we set out to create a J Cole label within Blanchard Family Wines, a wine that would serves as a thank you letter, a tribute, and a homage to this amazing man that took me under his wing all these years.

The tricky part was making this all a surprise for him.  James and I worked with our graphic designer to create a label that represented the style of his old J Cole labels, while also serving as a tribute story.  Jene and I created a fantastic blend for the bottle, all the while me not letting Jene know what the blend was going to be called.  Then one day we were approached by the amazing webpage called Cellar Angels to be a featured winery for their site.  Cellar Angels actually films short videos of their featured wineries, and focuses on one particular wine and story for each segment.  James realized this was a perfect opportunity to introduce the J Cole to the world. 

The night before the crew was scheduled to come film us, Jene came by the winery to see me.  He said, “Mark, we’re filming tomorrow right?”  I responded, “Yup, crew should be here in the morning.”  Jene continued, “Well Mark, what the hell are we talking about?  You haven’t told me the theme of the segment.  You haven’t even told me what wine we are featuring yet.  If I’m expected to be in front of the camera, I kind of need to know these things. “ 

I realized that there would never be a more perfect time.  I walked into my office, grabbed a completely finished and labeled bottle of the new J Cole wine and put of the bar in front of Jene.  I said, “This is the wine we are featuring.  And what are we going to be talking about? Well… we are going to talk about you.”  Jene and I had a moment, the kind of moment that only two grown men trying to hide emotion can have.  Not a whole else needed to me said though.  And maybe there are no real words to express our gratitude for Jene.  Maybe there was only one way to truly show our appreciation, our admiration and our love for Jene.  It had to be in a bottle of wine. 

You can watch this short video on our webpage of course.  It still gets me a little choked up thinking about it.  And obviously Jene is still making wine with us, still fixing things when they break, and still helping us make our dream come true.   And he still hates the fact that we put his last name on the back label of J Cole.  You’ll just have to get a bottle to find out what it is.  He prefers to simply be known as Jene. 

 

How the Air Force Helped Start a Winery

How the Air Force helped start a winery

By James Blanchard

                It’s quite frequent when I host a tasting somewhere, that someone asks how we started a winery while I was still in the Air Force. I tell them, “We didn’t start a winery despite me being in the Air Force, we started a winery because I was in the Air Force.” It’s a story with both logic and luck and one that affected all aspects of our winery family.

                As Mark mentioned in his last blog post, our family didn’t come from wine making roots. At times I wish we did, as it would have made this journey a lot easier, but certainly with a much shorter story. On the contrary, neither one of us knew anything about wine or wine making until our college and post-college years. As it turns out, after graduating from the Air Force Academy and pilot training, I earned the opportunity to choose my preference of locations for my first assignment. I looked for locations that provided the best flying environment for the helicopter I was assigned to, as well as places that would be fun for my wife and I to explore as a young married couple. That location turned out to be Vandenberg Air Force Base near the central coast of California. We had no idea at the time how this military assignment would lead to the start of a family business.

                Vandenberg Air Force Base was a beautiful location, situated right on the California coast and amongst one of California’s upcoming wine growing regions. While the base was cool and foggy, a short drive outside the gate led to rolling hills, warm temperatures, and acres upon acres of strawberries, cabbage, cauliflower, and grapes. The Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys lie to the east, the Santa Barbara area to the south, and Paso Robles to the north. Within a two hour drive there were over 100 wineries just waiting to be discovered by a blossoming wine consumer. Although the area around Vandenberg AFB was beautiful, there wasn’t much for a young couple to do that wasn’t a 2-hour drive away or that didn’t cost a lot of money. Because of that, my wife Sylvia and I would spend our weekends touring and tasting. For $20-$30, we could drink dozens of wines and have a nice picnic lunch in the California sunshine. For those of you that know me, you know that wouldn’t be enough though.

                The more wineries that Sylvia and I visited, the more I wanted to know. I started reading wine books, subscribing to the wine magazines, and taking wine classes. During the day job, I would fly over the vineyards and study the topography and find places that I wanted to visit on the weekend. At every opportunity when we went to a winery, I would try to meet the wine maker, and if possible, have him sign a bottle of his wine. To me, they were mini-celebrities, putting their craft into each bottle. We started taking larger trips to Napa Valley, purchased a large wine fridge, and started a wine collection that was well beyond the income of a Lieutenant in the Air Force. We had been bitten by the bug and I knew pretty early on that this was going to be a problem.

                While this obsession was developing in my life, Mark was expanding his wine knowledge in Chicago. Unbeknownst to each other at the time, the two brothers were developing the same passion, for the same field, at the same time. This was actually a more dramatic development than it would initially seem. See at the time, and for the previous 5 years or so, these two brothers were essentially estranged from each other. While extremely tight as young children, through the high school and especially college years, Mark and I went our separate ways, developed separate beliefs and ideals, and really choose two different paths in life. We seemed to have very little in common and couldn’t agree on anything from politics to religion, heck we’d even argue about the weather. However, for some reason wine seemed to be this common ground that we could enjoy together with not nearly the disagreement. As we discussed our jointly expanding wine worlds, we made the decision for Mark to come out to California and spend a couple weekends in Napa Valley. This was not only the first time Mark had come to visit me in years, it was one of the first times Mark and I had spoken more than 15 minutes straight without a fight in quite some time. There had to be something to this fermented fruit juice! It was during one of these trips to Napa that Mark decided he was going to move to California and make wine his life’s career.

                While Sylvia and I shortly left California and moved on with our Air Force career, those foundations were never forgotten. As we traveled to other states, we would explore whatever type of wine growing industry they had. We’d explore different wine bars and try different wines from the local wine shops, but we kept thinking back to the magical time we had in California. Now we were living vicariously through Mark as he was living the dream in Napa and I was spending my time in garden spots like Albuquerque, New Mexico and Balad, Iraq (not all that dissimilar). We would frequently travel back to California to visit Mark, hoping that someday, some way, there would be a long-term reason to make wine country part of our permanent life. While the Air Force hasn’t allowed us to move to California full-time, and we’re not sure if we ever will, it was eventually the stability of this military career that gave us the confidence to take the risk and start our own business. The story of that leap though will be saved for another day. Until then, just know that if the Air Force had sent me to any other assignment options, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Washington DC, or Tokyo, I’m positive this winery would have never been started. 

Mark's humble wine beginnings

Tales from the Cellar

 

“Tales from the Cellar” is a series of stories, musings and observations by the Blanchard Brothers, that we would like to share with our fans.  We have built our company, our success and our continued dream on such stories.  Whether it be guests that come visit our tasting room, or new fans that we meet while out on the road, people always seem drawn in by our stories of how we began, where we are from, how we interested in wine. These are not intended to be a chronological account of the history of Blanchard Family Wines, as much a look into our background, our journey, and our shared passion for this life we have found in wine.  Enjoy!

 

My Humble Beginnings in the Wine Industry

(And How I Learned the Difference between Merlot and Chardonnay)

by Mark Blanchard

 

James and I weren’t fortunate enough to be born into a wine legacy, or into wealth, or even into a family from California.  So I suppose from birth we already started with a disadvantage in the wine industry.  In fact, our parents weren’t even wine drinkers when we were younger, unless you count the occasional bottle of Chinese Plum wine that might have appeared on a holiday dinner table. Our father was more of a domestic beer drinker, and as I recall his favorites were Coors Light and Pabst.  I’m sure that if you asked someone that, was raised in the Midwest, like James and myself, they will tell you how their first taste of alcohol was a sip of their father’s beer.  And to my recollection it wasn’t nearly as appealing to me at the time as Kool Aid.   

 

I suppose it is no surprise that when I reached college, attending a small liberal arts school in the Chicago suburbs, that my beverage of choice was cheap beer.  When I was about 6 months away from turning 21 years old, I decided to find a part time job over Christmas break in my college town of Naperville.  A friend was working at a liquor store and offered to get me a job as a stock boy.  As a 20 year old poor college student, the prospect of working at a liquor store sounded pretty damn cool to me.  I can vividly remember the first week there being way less romantic than expected.  Not only was I not allowed to legally drink the product that was being sold there, but I actually wasn’t allowed to sell it either.  In the state of Illinois, someone under 21 can’t even ring up an alcoholic beverage in the register.  So that meant I did all the glory work, such as sweep and mop the floors, take out the garbage, dust the bottles, and of course, stock the shelves with new deliveries.  Oddly enough, these are still regular tasks I complete to this day in our tasting room. 

 

But From these remedial responsibilities, began my first introduction into the vast world of wine.  Little did I know at the time, but this liquor store that I started working for, was actually one of the best retail outlets in town for top shelf liquors, rare micro-brew beers, and yes, fine wine.  Now I may not have been allowed to drink the wine, nor did I know even the slightest bit about wine, but I still had to learn how to read the labels.  If I could translate the label on the bottle, understand where it came from, what kind of style it was, what kind of price range it was in, then I would know where to stock it on the shelf.  So thus began my earliest education in wine.

 

I quickly realized that different wines came from different countries, that was easy, and I could tell just by looking at the bottle that it was either red or white.  But that was about all I had to work with in the beginning.  Everything else about a bottle of wine might as well been written in a foreign language (keep in mind sometimes it was).  The most confusing thing about the different wines to me was their various names, Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir.  What did these names mean?  It was quite a mystery to me.  I remember one day I got up the nerve to ask the owner of the store a few questions about wine, as he was pretty savvy and educated on the subject.  I didn’t want to sound like a complete idiot, but I also figured that this might be a job worth keeping through the rest of my college days so I might as well learn a something about the product on the shelf. 

 

My first question was about those strange and sometimes hard to pronounce names on the bottles.  Now I understood that in beer, there are various styles such as lager, pilsner, stout, etc.  These different styles are mainly due to the method in which the beer is brewed and a bit to do with the ingredients.  So by the same logic, that must be where the different names of wines come from.  Makes sense right?  So I asked the owner, “How do they determine the names of wines, is it like beer?”  He seemed very confused by the inquiry.  I continued, “You know, like Merlot or Chardonnay, is it like the difference between a Pale Ale and a Lager? What makes one wine a Merlot and one wine a Chardonnay?”  He still looked quite confused as he responded, “Mark, you know those are different grapes right?”  Imagine my surprise, I was simply flabbergasted! Different grapes, what did he mean different grapes!! I was thinking, “You mean to tell me that there aren’t just two different grapes, the red ones and the white ones?”  After all, that’s what you see in the grocery store.  You can imagine how my mind was further blown when I came to find out that wine isn’t even made from those grapes you get in the produce section at all. 

 

Not only was this epiphany, at the time in my young adult life, the equivalent of finding out Santa Claus didn’t exist, but it also became the spark that got me interested in learning more about wine.  How many different grapes were out there?  Did their respective wines all taste different?  Could you blend more than one grape into the same wine?  As I turned 21 and started working more and more at the store, I initially stuck to what I knew best, and that was beer.  I soon realized one of the great perks of working at a liquor store… the free samples.  Sales reps for alcohol companies always have a car full of samples of the products they are trying to peddle.  So I made it clear to every sales rep that walked into the store, that unless I got a free sample of a beer, there was no way I would ever recommend it to a customer.  Thus begin my journey through the world of micro-brew and import beer.  My goal was to try every single beer distributed in the Chicago area.  Sounds fun right?  And it was.  Only problem was, it’s not as hard as one might think to finish this goal.  In fact, in less than a year, my only hope was that a distributor would pick up a new product in their portfolio, because I quickly ran out of new beers to sample.

 

So the next logical step in my mind, was to apply the same practice to wine. So sales reps started bringing in wine for me to taste.  In an average week I could try a dozen new wines, on a good week maybe 20.  I was tasting wine from all over the world, different styles, varietals, producers, cheap wine, expensive wine.  I started learning where different flavor profiles came from, the influence of oak barrels, and how different climates effected the varietals. And then one day something occurred to me when a sales rep brought in a wine I thought I had already tried.  It was explained to me that it was a new year, or new vintage as it is called.  I thought, “So wait, does that mean it’s going to taste different?  Does that mean it’s almost like a completely different wine?”  It didn’t take more than a sip to confirm that this was exactly the case. So you know what that meant to me?  I would never run out of new wines to try! I could try 20 wines a week, 30 wines, even 50 wines.  I could never try them all.  I would never run out of a new style, new blend, new region or new vintage to sample.  And that was it, I was hooked.  That’s not to say that I immediately swore off beer drinking, but from that moment forward, I was a wine lover.  The concept of an endless world of wine out there for me to discover was like the prospect of heaven. 

 

So I continued to work at that store for the next few years, even after graduation, constantly tasting new wines, learning about their differences, and developing my palate.  I became the manager, the wine buyer, helped open a second location with the owner and even started taking trips to California’s Wine Country with the assistance of connections I made in the store.  And eventually this would of course lead me to the decision to make that giant leap and move from Illinois to Napa Valley.  But of course that’s a whole other story. 

 

I often times think of that moment when I asked the store owner about the different wine names, especially when a customer in our tasting room says to me, “I have kind of a stupid question about wine for you.”  My response is always the same, “There are no stupid questions.”  Many of us in the wine industry were not lucky enough to be born into a wine legacy, or in California or even into a wine drinking family.  Many of us started off quite humble in our careers, and once upon a time we were the ones asking the “stupid” questions.  I still try to taste as many new wines as possible every week, and I still haven’t come any closer to trying them all.  And I can only hope one day if I have children of my own, their first taste of alcohol will be when I give them a sip of wine out of my glass.  And perhaps, their name will even be on that bottle.