The Zin Masters: Turley

Rediscovering Napa Valley
May 24, 2004

Owner Larry Turley (left) and winemaker Ehren Jordan are making some tof the best Zinfandels in California form Napa Valley vineyards.
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As the Ravenswood juggernaut gained momentum in Sonoma, Napa Zinfandel idled, an afterthought variety in a region where Cabernet rules. Perhaps that's why Larry Turley was the right man for the job. Six-foot-four, lean and bearded, the independent-minded Turley suits California's most Californian grape, and he welcomed the chance to move against prevailing winds.

By the early '90s, many pre-Prohibition Napa Zinfandel vineyards had been uprooted, and those that hadn't typically needed work. But Turley, now 59, saw potential, and after 20 years as a doctor of emergency medicine, he didn't shy away from a challenge. He'd started in the wine business in 1981 as a cofounder of Frog's Leap Winery in Rutherford. That winery made several varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Cabernet and Merlot. But Zinfandel was Turley's favorite; despite the variety's occasional warts, he savored its bold flavors and no-holds-barred intensity. "They were all over the board, but I liked the style and I liked that fruit taste," he says.

In 1993, having sold his stake in Frog's Leap, he started Turley Wine Cellars, north of St. Helena along Highway 29. Determined to build around single-vineyard Zinfandel as well as Petite Sirah, he secured grapes for his first vintage from three Napa sites: Hayne Vineyard, within the city limits of St. Helena and planted in 1903; Moore Earthquake Vineyard, which lies northeast of the city of Napa and dates from 1906; and the 25-year-old Aida Vineyard, 200 yards north of Turley's winery.

Turley's wines leave no room for ambivalence. Many consumers consider the rich, concentrated reds iconic, while others find the "big boys," as Turley calls some bottlings, stylistically over-the-top. There is a two-year waiting list to buy the wines, and fiercely loyal customers have been known to compose poems and name pets in their honor.

Napa Valley was only the starting point for Turley; today, Napa bottlings represent just half the production. "Once we got going, people just came out of the woodwork," Turley says. Now the winery also gets grapes from San Luis Obispo, Sonoma, Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties. Approximately 50 percent of what the winery makes comes from 87 acres of estate vineyards, with another 71 acres under long-term leases.

From the 2002 vintage, Turley Wine Cellars will bottle 18 Zinfandels, three Petite Sirahs and one white wine, which will be a blend of Rhône varieties. Total production is 11,000 cases, with about two-thirds of that sold by mailing list; prices range from between $20 and $75 a bottle. One of the most recent projects is the Pesenti Winery in Paso Robles, which Turley bought in 2000 (and which unfortunately lost 4,500 cases in a recent earthquake).

Old vines are the key to Turley's success. Their grapes can make the type of wines that Turley loves, with remarkable intensity and layered concentration. They also often have distinctive mineral character and lively acidity, which keep flavors focused even at advanced ripeness.

But it wasn't just the vineyards that made Turley wines stand out. It was their groundbreaking style, as envisioned and executed by Larry's sister, consultant Helen Turley. Her winemaking credo of emphasizing maximum ripeness is now considered gospel by many, but the first Turley Zinfandels had unprecedented richness and concentration. Other California producers had access to old-vine Zinfandel, yet no winery made such flamboyant wines. The pursuit of full-throttle ripeness can yield curious results, as in 1995, when two of the Turley bottlings topped 18 percent alcohol, with 1.5 percent residual sugar.

Helen Turley stopped consulting for her brother after the 1995 vintage. That had always been the intention, Larry explains, because Helen had a growing roster of consulting clients as well as her own start-up winery, Marcassin, in Sonoma. And she still has a hand in making Zinfandel, a wine she admires, working with the old vineyards owned by one of her clients, Martinelli.

The Turley wines are every bit as good under winemaker Ehren Jordan, 37, who came aboard in 1994. Turley is as proud as ever to be the premier Zinfandel estate in Cabernet country. Says the forthright vintner: "We feel in general that Cabernet people drink the label, and Zin lovers drink the wine."

United States California Red Wines Zinfandel