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Helen Turley's Singular Chardonnay

James Laube
Posted: April 5, 2000

Helen Turley
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Helen Turley's Singular Chardonnay

Helen Turley, arguably California's most talented winemaker, has just taken the wraps off one of the best new Chardonnays ever made in the state. Her 1996 Marcassin Vineyard Chardonnay, the first release from her Sonoma Coast vineyard, is one of the most exciting wines I have ever tasted; I rate it 97 points. This wine offers tremendous intensity, richness and range of flavors.

The 1996 Pinot Noir made from the same vineyard is nearly as brilliant. It is dark, round, ripe and polished, with juicy black cherry, raspberry, plum, anise, sage and mineral flavors. I rate it 96 points. The 1997 vintage of both of these wines is just as impressive.

The story behind these and the rest of the remarkable Marcassin wines began in the 1980s, with a wild pig roast held at a ranch on the rugged and remote coastline of northern Sonoma County. That night Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer, savored a locally made and grown 1981 Sea Ridge Pinot Noir, which was one of the more successful bottlings made by a winemaker nicknamed "Vinegar Dan."

At the time, Turley and Wetlaufer were two Burgundy lovers residing in Napa Valley who knew that they wanted to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Early on, a friend suggested a long shot -- if you want to make great Pinot Noir, try the Sonoma Coast. "We knew it was a wonderful site," says Wetlaufer, now 54, recalling the first time he and Turley (also 54) laid eyes on what is now their Marcassin Vineyard. Appropriately enough, the vineyard's name means "young wild boar" in French.

Years of labor and research lay ahead of the couple. Wetlaufer worked in Napa Valley wine shops, enabling him and Turley to taste plenty of red Burgundies and California Pinot Noirs. They both paid special attention to whatever wines from the Sonoma Coast they could find.

The more Turley and Wetlaufer studied the Sonoma Coast, the more they liked its attributes -- warm enough on the right hill exposures, but not too hot, so the grapes would be able to hang on the vine to full maturity. They also liked the well-drained soils that can withstand the area's heavy rainfall -- more than 100 inches in some years.

In the end they decided to follow their hearts, and in 1986 they borrowed $65,000 from Wetlaufer's mother to buy 40 acres on a rugged ridge about 10 miles north of the mouth of the Russian River. In 1987 they began to prepare the steep, rocky, southeast-facing slope's soil for planting. In 1991 they planted the first of what today are 14 acres of grapevines, with a 50-50 mix of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The vineyard sits at an altitude of 1,100 feet.

Turley, who has a graduate degree in agriculture and botany from Cornell University, began her winemaking career at Napa Valley's Robert Mondavi Winery in 1977. She went on to work for Chappellet (1979-1980) and Stonegate (1981-1984), and she later had stints at B.R. Cohn and Peter Michael wineries before starting a consulting firm whose clients included the likes of Bryant Family, Colgin, Green & Red, Martinelli, Turley Wine Cellars, Pahlmeyer and Landmark. She and Wetlaufer founded the Marcassin label in 1990.

Turley has had striking across-the-board success with different wines from different vineyards. Her work ranges from the plush, enormously rich Bryant Family and Colgin Cabernets to the immense Turley Zinfandels to the elegant, concentrated Landmark Chardonnays. The fact that bottlings from each of these wineries are now considered among California's elite is testimony to her talents as a winemaker.

Her winemaking philosophy is simple but strict: Find great vineyards, farm them precisely, limit crops, make sure the grapes ripen fully (even if it leads to higher sugar levels than many winemakers prefer) and ferment using natural yeasts. "What you have," says Turley, "are grapes from different vineyards, all made the same way, by the same winemaker, using the same techniques, the same barrels. If they taste different, the taste is terroir."

Size is also essential to the Marcassin formula. "We knew we wanted to be small -- that allows us to have total control," she says. The perfect size, she says, is 100 barrels, enough for 2,500 cases. Eventually, the 14 acres of Marcassin grapes will produce 40 tons of grapes -- roughly 2,500 cases.

For the time being, Marcassin's wines are made at the Martinelli winery in Russian River Valley. In the near future, Turley and Wetlaufer hope to add another 5 acres of vines, along with a winery.

The two new Marcassin offerings join an Alexander Valley Chardonnay, once labeled "Upper Barn" but now called Alexander Mountain, and a Lorenzo Vineyard Chardonnay, from an area west of Santa Rosa. Marcassin also has a Chardonnay from Hudson Vineyard in Carneros, though it will be dropped and replaced by the Sonoma Coast wine. Each of the single-vineyard wines sells for $50, with 200 to 250 cases made.

Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
Founded: 1990
Owners: Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer
Winemaker: Helen Turley

97 Marcassin Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Marcassin Vineyard 1996

Release Price: $75
Current Auction Average: $NA
Production: 100 cases

Enormous depth, richness and complexity here, with layers of ripe, complex pear, fig, melon, apricot, anise and mineral, finishing with a rich, buttery aftertaste that keeps pumping out the flavors. Drinks exceptionally well now. Drink now through 2007.

-- J.L.


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