JAQK Cellars is a partnership between long time and well regarded Napa Vintner Craig MacLean, his wife Cynthia and the team at Hatch Design in San Francisco (Katie Jain & Joel Templin). You have a real recipe for success when you partner excellent vineyard sources and the winemaking skills of Craig with the top design firm of Hatch. Additional success comes from creating clever niche branding that is “different” from many labels on the market as well as appealling to large casino loving audiences. Craig has known the owners of Hatch Design for a number of years and Hatch has designed several labels for him in the past. Hatch specializes in creative marketing and branding concepts. Several years ago Joel (Hatch Design) was leaving Las Vegas and was driving home when he thought about creating an ingenious wine label that appealed to those who like to gamble. Card players will immediately recognize the acronym JAQK, as Jack, Ace, Queen and King.
Craig was interested as soon as he heard this idea and then after an intial meeting decided to start forming the company the next day. He is originally from San Diego, and earned his undergraduate degree at UC Davis in Plant Science. Armed with this degree he returned to San Diego where he ran a landscape company and it was during this time that one of his clients introduced him to fine wine. As Craig says, “I went from drinking Budweiser to Bordeaux overnight”. Normally this is not the route one takes when getting into high end wine but his client had a premium wine cellar. Back to UC Davis Craig went and completed his master’s degree in Enology.
Since graduating from UC Davis, Craig has been in the Napa Valley for 25+ years. He started at Chappellet and Markham and then moved over to the Spring Mountain appellation hand crafting wines for Cain and Spring Mountain Vineyard. Today he consults for a number of very small Napa producers and for many years ran his mostly mailing list only winery, MacLean. MacLean would produce only several hundred cases of a very Bordeaux styled Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
All JAQK’s wines are uniquely and creatively named. JAQK brought on Vinnie Chieco a freelance copy editor (who happens to be a nomenclature genius) to determine the names of each of the wines. Vinnie isn’t necessarily a household name but the famous product he named a few years back certainly is – the iPod.
We’ve known about MacLean crafted wines for some time based on our tastings with a number of the boutique producers he makes wine for. However we initially discovered the JAQK wine at one of the best tastings of the year in the valley, the Atelier Tasting at ACME Wine Shop in St. Helena. After seeing the very unique packaging and tasting the quality behind the wines, including a taste of their flagship wine, the High Roller we followed up with Craig & Cynthia.
We met them both not long after they had returned from Las Vegas. JAQK is the official wine of the World Series of Poker held annually in the summer in Las Vegas. Their wine was a big hit at the recent 40 year anniversary series in the summer of 2009. With a brand like JAQK needless to say this wine is becoming very popular in Las Vegas and other casinos. At the time of this review JAQK Cellars is merely less than a year into their first release.
We recently had a chance to walk the new cave where JAQK will be made in the future; this cave will also be home to a select few other winemakers and their projects. The winery is all about the cave as all winemaking operations including the crush will occur underground. This is located in the eastern hills in the southern part of the valley with stunning views looking up valley from the property site. During all his years in the valley Craig has always made wine at other wineries and this will be the perfect opportunity to finally centralize a number of his projects.
Craig describes his winemaking style as “having one foot in Bordeaux and one foot in California”. As a result, his wines typically are lower in alcohol, have higher acidity as well as good structure yet display that wonderful California fruit. His wines will age and he already has the history in the valley to prove this. The JAQK project is something unique and certainly different than any other winemaking projects he has been involved in. It combines very high quality wines with unique branding and packaging stressing a fun and a playful theme. We should also mention that several of these wines are extremely reasonably priced and borrowing the name from their high end wine, you don’t have to be a “high roller” to get your hands on them.
JAQK currently offers two tiers of wines, their California series and their Napa / Sonoma wines. Despite the name “California” on those particular wines a number of the fruit sources are in fact from Napa but they source as far south as Paso Robles and Lake County to the north.
The 2007 “Charmed” Sauvignon Blanc is made from wine sourced from Lake County and Napa. In fact the grapes sourced from Napa are from one of the older if not the oldest Sauvignon Blanc vineyard in the valley. They were planted in 1963 and then 10 years later were budded over to Sauvignon Blanc. Pleasant aromas include notes of ripe grapefruit and melon. The palate is crisp and clean upon entry and develops a bit of creaminess or weight about mid palate (part of the winemaking included barrel fermentation and aging on the lees). Notes of ripe apple and pear also complement the finish which ends just as this wine starts – clean and balanced. With a name like this and the refreshing quality about the wine, this is a good wine to warm up with before jumping into a game of poker!
Each of JAQK’s wines has a unique story on the back label as well as luck related gaming quotes on the cork. The Bone Dance is a tribute to dice including to the Romans who used to roll dice on their shields betting against each other for various items. The 2006 Bone Dance is 75% Merlot with the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon. The bouquet reveals fruit aromas, think cherry pie along with a nice earthiness and just a touch of cedar. This is a fairly soft (as well as inexpensive wine) that once you start drinking its hard to stop! It shows blue and black fruit (blueberry flavors) which lead to a pleasing finish showing fine grained tannins.
The 2006 Soldiers of Fortune Shiraz is 100% varietal – all Napa fruit. Shiraz can easily be over oaked with its effects showing in the bouquet and palate. This wine is not over oaked. This is not your in the face peppery smoky bouquet often found from this varietal but rather is more elegant showing much more fruit. Aromas of ripe blackberry and blueberry are intermingled in with notes of graphite and mineralities. The nose evolves more complexities even after just a short time in the glass. The palate is supple upon entry displaying red and black berry flavors as well as plum. This leads to a finish that is smooth and clean which also reveals a subtle dusty characteristic. Craig says, if he were to pick one thing in wine quality it would be “balance” and this wine is certainly already in balance at its young age.
JAKQ Cellars also has a variety of gaming related apparel as well as their popular branded playing cards for sale on their website. At the time of this review their production is about 5000 cases and they do have room to grow. They are currently distributed in a wide number of states (mostly found at restaurants as the wine pairs so well with food) – are a hit with casinos and will continue to be offered at select restaurants. Locally you can find their wines at Meadowood Resort in St. Helena. And select High Roller wines are currently available at Cost Plus World Markets (a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir).
For more information about this unique and quickly growing in popularity wine, visit: www.jaqkcellars.com