The King of Carneros: Dr. Tony Truchard

Dr.Tony Truchard came to the Carneros region of Napa Valley in 1973 with his wife Jo Ann and their kids. Originally from Texas, he was working as an army doctor in Herlong, a California town north of Reno. Despite being told he couldn't afford it, and it wasn't a suitable terrain for growing grapes, he bought a 21 acre property in Carneros at a cost of $4,000 an acre. Five years later while still living in Herlong he purchased the adjacent homestead. For eight years the family (now eight in total) would rent the house out and drive three and a half hours each way on the weekends, camping out in a motorhome.

The Truchard property is now up to 400 acres, with 280 under vine, making Dr. Truchard one of the largest landowners in Carneros (the entire AVA is 1,100 acres of planted vineyards). With land in Napa now going for between $50,000 and $300,000 an acre, his investment has worked out well. Truchard Vineyards produces Chardonnay, Roussanne, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Malbec and Petit Verdot all of which are estate grown.

Grape Collective founder Christopher Barnes talked to Dr. Truchard about his journey to Napa and his experience growing grapes and making wine.

Tony, tell us about how you got into the wine business?

Well, my wife and I are originally from Texas. I was an Army Physician in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Brooke Medical Center. We had orders to go to Korea and my wife, just before we were to go, she was nine months pregnant and she slipped on a grape in Piggly Wiggly in San Antonio, and then I asked the Army for a delay because my wife was in a cast and just delivered a little boy. The Army came back and said, "Well, we have a place out in Herlong, California, it's north of Reno, we need someone out there and we plan to send you out there."

I said, "Well it's a pretty remote place." I had just trained in internal medicine and I thought that would really not serve my training very well. I flew out there on Military standby and looked at the place, and decided I didn't want to go there. Then, I met with this general that was trying to keep young doctors in the service and I said, "With my training I would rather go to a bigger hospital." He said, "Well we really need you out in Herlong." He said that if I went out to Herlong they wouldn't investigate my moonlighting. I had been moonlighting at the hospital in Reno in nights in my time off.

Anyhow, we smiled at each other and out to Herlong I went. Within a couple of weeks we had a vacation and went to San Francisco and on the way back we drove up through the Napa Valley. I liked the farming aspect here, the vineyards and so forth. I grew up on a farm in Texas and I just liked to grow things. We started looking for property. I drove down a couple weeks later in the pickup I brought from Texas, and drove up valley and started looking at some property. I saw a property on Skellenger Lane that was only about $4,000 an acre. In Texas I had just bought a little farm recently for about $400 an acre.

We continued to look and finally found this little property here in Carneros. Carneros at that time was really a rundown place. We always say it was like across the railroad tracks.

When did you buy the property in Carneros?

It was in 1973. We started looking in the fall in 1972. It was a little problem with buying it because we had met with the foremost vineyard advisor and he suggested that this wasn't really a good place to grow grapes. A little bit too cool, the soils were too shallow and there was not really any good ground water to establish the vineyards. He really discouraged us from buying. There was 21 acres just across the road here. We put it in escrow but like I say, the advisor advised against it so we gave up on it. The real estate salesman didn't want to let the sale drop that quickly so he put me in touch with Soil Conservation Service and another vineyard manager that was running crew surveillance out here.

The manager said, "Hell, if you got two foot of soil, I got one foot of soil and we're growing grapes over here." The guy from Soil Conservation Service suggested that we build a pond in the low place in the corner of the property. We purchased the property and that's eventually what we did, and planted the vineyard in 1974. This will be forty years now that we've been working with the vineyards here.

Then as my time in the Army was up so we had to make a decision whether we wanted to go practice here in Napa or stay in Reno. They really needed an internist in Reno area. I ended up staying in Reno and we'd drive down on the weekends. It was several years later that we had the opportunity to buy the adjacent parcel. Like I said, this was really a rather rundown area. A lot of little abandoned farms, abandoned orchards. We would eventually pick up these properties as we could afford them or mortgage something. Through the years, over a thirty year period we added about sixteen parcels with now a total of about 400 acres.

We would plant these properties as money was available, and now we have about 280 acres of vineyard with a total of 400 acres, some is not planted, some is too steep to plant. Then, we sold grapes to other wineries for years. We sort of had this five year plan to build a winery but it took about fifteen years to really realize that.

Tell us about when you first came to this spot in Carneros. You were working in Reno, how did that work?

Truchard 1974

Well, we would come down when I was off call on weekends. Sometimes the first year in medical practice in Reno, I didn't have a lot of time off, and at that time there was an older gentleman managing our property and helping us get established. He lived here in the Carneros region and we would sometimes stay with him. This was before we brought the travel trailer down here and really started establishing our "Home Away From Home" here on the property. It was several years that we would stay with this older gentleman.

Then, in 1978 we had the occasion to buy this property that the winery and house is on. It was kind of an old farmstead. The barn was falling down, there was a corral where the crush pad is now, and the house was a one story house. My wife went to the accountant and they worked out some numbers that we couldn't afford it at that time. My wife presented me with that, but I was determined to buy the house and we really couldn't afford it, but we rented the house out to help pay the mortgage. We did that for about seven, eight years. We would come down on the weekends, spend the weekends in the trailer. The boys really enjoyed that. They had tree forts up in the hills.

What kind of trailer was it Tony?

It was a Terry Trailer. About a 24 foot Terry Trailer that was advertised to sleep nine, and we were eight so it did work.

How did your kids like it? That must have been an adventure.

The older girls didn't care for it too much. The boys really enjoyed coming down here, and a lot of times they would bring their friends. If the girls didn't always come down here they would bring their friends down, and they totally enjoyed it. It was a different life but it worked.

How long did it take for you to plant and actually produce wine?

We planted our first vineyard in '74 and then all the way up to 1989 we sold grapes to other vineyards. Some of the early ones, Carneros Creek, Francis Mahoney at Carneros Creek was very helpful in getting me established early on. We sold to him for a number of years and then we sold to Joe Heitz for a couple of years '81 and '82. Then we decided with all our different varieties it was probably better to go with multiple wineries. We had more flexibility and so we started going with a number of wineries including Conn Creek, Frog's Leap. Then later, Far Niente and Nickel and Nickel and so forth. That was in later years.

Tell us about Carneros.

Carneros is on the southern part of the Napa Valley, southwest of the city of Napa. It's the closest to the bay and this is what makes it such a unique area. The breezes blow up off the bay in the afternoon making it a lot cooler than some of the rest of Napa Valley. Usually the breezes come up after noon and really cool down the area. We can be ten to fifteen degrees cooler then say the St. Helena area. This really establishes what grapes can be grown here. It's probably one of the defining differences in the valley, and then the soil is another story.

Truchard vineyards

What about the soil, what kinds of soils do you have here in your area?

The soils tend to be more of a clay loam. We do, on the back reaches of our property, the ridge is all volcanic. So about 20/25% of our vineyard is in the volcanic soils; the basalt, fractured basalt and what they call tuff, it's a whitish volcanic ash that's formed to rocks over long periods of time.

Tony, tell us a little bit about the types of grapes that work well in Carneros.

When we came to the Carneros Region we realized that even at that time, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay did well here so needless to say we planted those varieties on our first twenty acre parcel. Even at that time, Cabernet was becoming well known in the Napa Valley and I said, "If I have a vineyard in the Napa Valley certainly I want to plant some Cabernet." That was a little out of line in the Carneros Region, but several wine makers including Christian brothers and Carneros Creek Winery said, if I planted Cabernet they would buy it. We planted the Cabernet and it's been very successful for us because we're in a little bit warmer part of the Carneros. We're in the hills. We have some hills that kind of block us from some of the breezes on part of our property so we have a significant planting in Cabernet.

Cabernet probably doesn't work as well on the flatter places closer to the Bay. One thing that really makes it possible for us to plant these different varieties is the diversity of our terrain. We have so many different exposures of micro climates if you will, so as time goes on we're hopefully getting better at placing the right variety in the right location. Like the Chardonnay, we tend to plant on the lower ground, maybe the ground that has a little bit more influence from the bay. The Cabernet Sauvignon and the Cabernet Franc we tend to plant in some of the little warmer areas. Pinot Noir, more on the Eastern slopes to get out of the afternoon sun, and it seems to work. It goes against the conventional wisdom that you can't do a lot of varieties in one particular area, but with such an area with so many different micro climates and soil types.

How many wines do you make?

We make twelve wines but then we make Reserve Cabernet, that's additional. Sometimes do special blocks, not on a consistent basis. Like we did a whole block of Pinot Noir one year and we're going to do a cave block of Cabernet. This is all Cabernet surrounding us here, that we just planted recently.

Napa has changed quite a lot over the time since you've been here. How do you see that change?

Some of the changes I don't like, some I don't. The change I don't like is where the larger corporations are buying up the smaller family vineyards. I guess that's a natural progression, but that is so much more enjoyment working with people who have started their wineries, that have developed their brands, then it is with these corporations that end up buying these vineyards then you're working with more of a corporate mentality. It's not as much fun.

Do you have a philosophy of winemaking? Is there something that you strive for in the wines that you make?

We really strive to let the area, the soil speak. We try to really have the variety being expressed in the wine. If a wine is, if a grape is too overripe, too high on alcohol, you lose what is really the essence of these different grapes or wine.

Whereas a lot of Napa wines have gone for these bombastic high alcohol wines, since you've started you focused on wines that have been more focused on finesse, lower alcohol. Maybe you can just expand on that a little bit.

Yeah, we tend to pick our grapes at a lower sugar to start off with. Every year on a different variety we do vertical tastings and we go back to the early nineties when we were picking at lower sugars. Even we were picking at lower sugars, but now we use the range, brix 24/25. Of course other things being considered, and we really don't want our wines to be alcohol much higher then 14, 14.1. We really strive to have like you say, more finesse in the wine.

Are your kids involved in the wine business?

Yes. Our son is involved in his own project. He has a label called John Anthony and that is totally separate from our label. He has a vineyard management company and he does help me with some of the farming things like spraying and taking the grapes to market and so forth. Then our other son, he's actually in I think North Carolina today, he's working with us and he's doing a lot of our marketing and doing a great job at it. He's been with us now since 2005.

The other kids, they've not been bitten by the wine bug?

No, not really. They're off on their own paths.