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New Wines, New Faces: Helen Turley's New Napa Cabernet

James Laube
Posted: April 20, 2001

They're back. The husband-and-wife winemaking team of Turley and Wetlaufer has taken on a new client: Blankiet Estate in Napa Valley. After firmly establishing their own Sonoma-based Marcassin label among California's elite names in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer -- who have worked wonders with Cabernet and Merlot for wineries such as Bryant Family, Colgin and Pahlmeyer -- are back in Bordeaux mode.

Blankiet is a high-end red blend made from Cabernet and Merlot grown in a 16-acre vineyard in Yountville. The first vintage, from 1999, won't be released for another year, but already there's buzz about this new project because of the Turley-Wetlaufer connection.

Claude and Katherine Blankiet, the winery's owners, had their first introduction to Turley and Wetlaufer a decade ago. In 1988, Claude, 57, walked into the All Seasons Wine Shop in Calistoga, in Napa Valley, where Wetlaufer worked. The two talked about wine, recalled Blankiet, and Wetlaufer shared a vision that he and his wife had for planting a vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation. Blankiet later bought some of their Marcassin Chardonnays and was impressed by the quality. "I couldn't believe this was Chardonnay from California," he said.

A native of Dijon, in France's Burgundy region, Claude Blankiet -- who has been involved in the commercial laundry business -- had long dreamed of owning a vineyard and making wine. After making regular visits to Napa Valley in the 1990s, he and his wife bought vineyard land there in 1996, a forested, 46-acre property. The couple -- who currently divide their time between one home in El Paso, Texas, and a second in Santa Fe, N.M. -- eventually plan to settle in Napa Valley.

The Blankiets promptly hired Turley and Wetlaufer to handle the winemaking and vineyard management. Because the team is already heavily involved with their Sonoma Coast Marcassin vineyard and with other winery clients, they've been choosy about who they work with of late. They prefer small-scale, single-vineyard projects, and if they don't think a vineyard can produce a great wine, they're not interested.

However, based on previous experience, the two believe that the Blankiet site, located in the foothills behind Dominus Estate, has the potential to make a dramatic wine. When Turley made a series of rich, opulent Merlots for Pahlmeyer, several of the vintages came from blocks of grapes grown in Dominus' vineyard.

The Blankiets' property came with 2.5 acres of Sangiovese planted on it; that was immediately grafted over to Cabernet and Merlot. "We found there were really two different kinds of soils," said Wetlaufer. On the volcanic soil, they planted Cabernet. On the gravelly portions, they opted for Merlot. So far, the Blankiets have spent $5 million on the vineyard development, and they are considering building a winery on the property. (For now, the wines are made at the Oakville Wine Co.)

When I tasted the 1999 Blankiet from barrel this winter, it definitely had the makings of a great wine. Very dark and saturated in color, it exhibited rich floral and violet aromatics and layers of currant, raspberry, black cherry and chocolaty oak.

Only 100 cases of the 1999 wine were produced, and most of that will be sold to those on a winery mailing list. No price has been set, but $100 a bottle wouldn't surprise anyone. Some 300 cases were made from the 2000 vintage, which is superior in quality, showing more depth, color and concentration. Production is expected to climb to 2,000 cases once all the vines reach maturity.

Blankiet Estate
Address: Not yet available
Phone: Not yet available
Fax: (915) 581-5120
Web site: www.blankietestate.com

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