By James Laube, senior editor
She's been hailed as a genius and worshipped as a wine goddess. But sometimes first impressions are hard to shake. There are times when I flash back to the Helen Turley I met 20 years ago -- the "cellar rat" at Stonegate Winery in Napa Valley.
Sometime between then and now, she and her husband, John Wetlaufer, found the keys to unlock the secrets of success. Theirs is a philosophy distilled through years of study, research and trial-and-error winemaking. As Wetlaufer explained, courtesy of Yogi Berra, "You can observe a lot by watching."
Now Turley and Wetlaufer have arrived in a big way. Their influence reaches far beyond their magnificent new Marcassin Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, grown in the Sonoma Coast region. Whatever faults or excesses one might find with her wines, Turley's ability to deliver a deliberate style is unchallenged. She has consistently been able to make sensational wines for a long list of clients. The reasons are simple. She has vision and expertise. She knows what she's doing (and talking about). She possesses a no-nonsense, uncompromising attitude that gets to the heart of making great wine -- her way.
"If I'm going to have the responsibility to make great wine, then [the owner is] going to have to take the responsibility to grow great grapes and market the wine," says Turley. Along with the right attitude, you need the right place, ideally suited to grow a great wine. If a prospective client doesn't have the ingredients or the desire, "don't hire me," she says.
"Sometimes owners say they want to do one thing when in fact they really want to do something else," she says. That disparity has led to conflicts, but they are fewer these days because Turley is so focused on her formula and has a secure reputation. "I've gotten really selective about who I'll work with," she says. "I really look them in the eye to see if they're serious."
Turley and Wetlaufer's method begins by selecting the proper site. Although they started out as Burgundy lovers, much of their hands-on work and many of their triumphs have come with Cabernet Sauvignon, at B.R. Cohn, Peter Michael, Pahlmeyer, Colgin and Bryant Family.
Great Cabernet requires different terroir -- and a different mind-set -- than does Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, but I believe that Turley has profited by working with the Bordeaux grapes. For Burgundian varieties, you need a warm site in a cool climate. The Marcassin Vineyard is precisely that. For Cabernet, you need a cool site in a warm climate. The vineyards of Bryant Family and Colgin are two examples of north-facing, cooler areas that are suitable for Cabernet.
Rootstocks, vine spacing and grape clone selection are also crucial, particularly as they relate to crop size and grape ripeness. Turley insists on limiting the crop to ensure maximum ripeness. But many owners cringe at the thought of just 2 tons of grapes per vineyard acre; this translates into small case production, which can limit sales and profits. Sophisticated winemaking techniques, such as the natural yeast fermentations that she employs, only make sense on a small scale, she says.
Turley makes bold-flavored, high-alcohol, ultrarich and expressive wines. Not everyone enjoys that much exuberance. Wine lovers oriented toward European styles are often put off by what they perceive as excess. They favor wines with higher acidity, earthier flavors and less oak, styled to strive more for grace and finesse than for sheer power.
The emphasis on overt ripeness is controversial, but warmth is always a factor in California's best winegrowing areas. Most of the world's great wine regions are comparatively cool. In many parts of Europe, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy or even Piedmont, it's rare to find grape ripeness along the lines of what's routinely achieved in California. Most places can't rely on hot weather. In California, it's the opposite -- too much sun is more often the threat.
Though Turley and Wetlaufer have triumphantly applied their knowledge and philosophy to winegrowing, they would be the first to admit that theirs is not the only path to success. But it is working for them, and, just as importantly, it's forcing others to take notice.
James Laube's new edition of Wine Spectator's California Wine is now available.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.
(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)