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The Snotty Young Punk of Zintown

Once the upstart, Turley is now one of the undisputed kings of California Zinfandel
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 4, 2012 10:30am ET

Back in the mid 1990s, there were three kings of California Zinfandel, the Three Rs we called them: Ravenswood, Ridge and Rosenblum. The snotty young punk in Zintown was Turley. Fast-forward almost 20 years and things have sure changed. The Three Rs continue to make fine Zinfandels—Ridge most frequently—but only Turley is on top of its game.

That's my takeaway after tasting through the winery's most-recent releases. I've been drinking Turley since the first vintage, 1993, and, taken as a group, these are some of the best Zinfandels that Turley has made. The group included 2009s from the winery's top single vineyards as well as early-release 2010 from its value-oriented blends.

Leading the pack was Turley Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard 2009 ($48), a knockout Zin that wraps a complex core inside a supple, rich texture. The Turley Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard 2009 ($75) pairs power with finesse. Winemaker Ehren Jordan calls Hayne (planted in 1903) and Ueberroth (1884) the "Grands Crus of the Zinfandel world."

"Over the arc of the vintages, year in and year out, you have to scratch your head and ask yourself, 'Maybe it has nothing to do with us (the winemakers),'" Jordan said.

I think that comment says a lot about why Turley continues to make great Zinfandel. I won't argue that for a while in the late 1990s, too many of Turley's wines were so ripe and powerful that I worried winemaking decisions were overshadowing the vineyards, but you can't really know what a Zin vineyard can ultimately give you until you push the envelope.

In addition, Jordan and his crew have become true farmers in the past decade. The winery now closely controls 80 percent or more of its grape sources, a radical change from the early years. As a result, the wines have retained much of their depth and power, but now have more balance and refinement. Anyone who writes off the Turley Zins as ripe, burly thugs is simply behind the times.

It didn't hurt that 2009 was such a great vintage for Zin producers across the state. The same can't be said for 2010, which was the vintage from hell, particularly in Northern California. It was one of the coolest summers on record in Napa and Sonoma until August, when a history-making heat wave struck. "The wild card in 2010 is what happened to you when it was 108 in the third week of August," Jordan said.

Like so many producers, Turley lost entire crops, specifically, 101 Vineyard and two others. "The grapes literally vaporized," Jordan said. "They just got fried." There was no rhyme or reason to which vineyards survived and which didn't.

Jordan called it a "farmer's vintage." Growers who were able to make the tough decisions—discarding all but the best fruit—made good Zin. "I'm probably more proud of the 2010s than I am of the 2009s," Jordan said.

Jordan is hardly alone in that. As Dry Creek Valley winemaker Clay Mauritson told me recently, if you made a good Zinfandel in 2010, that says something. I haven't tasted enough of the 2010 Zins, from Turley or anyone else, to say for sure, but I doubt they will rival the 2009s, despite how proud the winemakers are of a legitimate achievement.

That said, Turley California Juvenile 2010 ($20) and Turley California Old Vines 2010 ($25)—both blends of multiple vineyards—are loaded with delicious, fresh fruit.

Look for my full reviews of Turley Zinfandels in the coming weeks. I look forward to tasting more of the winery's 2010s. Have you tried any of the 2009 or 2010 Turley Zins? Any favorites?

Clay Mauritson
Healdsburg, CA —  April 4, 2012 12:32pm ET
Great article Tim! I thought the Turley 2009 Cedarman was spectacular as well.
Daniel Sherer
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  April 4, 2012 4:35pm ET
Tim…for over 15 years I heard about Turley Zinfandels. The problem then and now is finding them! I had the 2003 that was gifted to me by someone and the label was all ripped but intact. The wine was sensational! All my expectations and curiosity were satisfied. I remember the deep black berries and was a bit shocked on how the “forest floor” flavors did not turn me off, as most do, for my palate. The other Zin that remains in my memory bank for sensational was Miljenko’s(Grgich) 2000….a real powerhouse. You’re so right about the three “R’s” all three are still my go-to Zins. I wish I could find a bottle of Turley to add to that list (without going to an auction)
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 4, 2012 7:24pm ET
Thanks Clay, much appreciated.

Daniel, that's a valid point. Juvenile and Old Vines are much easier to find than - say - Hayne, but even those can be challenge.

Thanks for reading.
William C Strickler
DC Suburbs —  April 4, 2012 9:53pm ET

The waiting list for Turley is not a very long wait. Sign up now and you will receive an allocation within a year based on postinggs on various forums. I have been on the list for about 5 years and though my allocation is typically about a case, I regularly wish list at least another case and 98% of the requests are granted.

Better yet, make a weekend trip to visit them in Paso Robles and you can pick up all but the most highly allocated bottles the same day as your tasting.

Don't wait - do it now if you like the style (like I do).
Robert-jody Levin
Cheyenne, WY —  April 4, 2012 10:26pm ET

We are on our way to Paso next week and like it all to ourselves. With you and WS recommending it so often, all the wine will disappear too quickly. Let's keep the region our little secret!

Ron Brooks
alexandria va —  April 5, 2012 8:31am ET
Your timing couldn't be better as far as I'm concerned.I have the pleasure of selling these wines, but quite frankly had avoided them because I thought I didn't like their particular style. Then this year I decided to try a few and found my self stunned by how good these wines are from top to bottom. All you alcohol phobes out there oughta give them a try, I think you'll be impressed by their impeccable balance.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 5, 2012 10:33am ET
Ron, I think you speak for a lot of people. The alcohol phobes are missing out on some great wines. And Robert and William, you make good points.
Tom Herer
Milwaukee, WI —  April 5, 2012 11:46pm ET
Clay, completely agree that the '09 Cedarman is exceptional. Probably my favorite recent-vintage red wine right now, at least as far as anything close to its price goes. Having no trouble finding it (or other 09/10 Turleys) somehow -- maybe we just get above-average distribution in this area.

Tim, speaking of availability, was wondering if you could explain why production levels are frequently omitted from the Turley Zin reviews, e.g. all of the '09s that have been reviewed thus far. I know they're "cult" and relatively low production wines, but it would be cool to know exactly how rare each wine is...

Michael Wesson
TX —  April 6, 2012 2:07pm ET
Tim - A question I've always wondered about - Is there no such thing as the perfect zinfandel? I love the varietal, but the highest score ever given by WS to a zinfandel is a 96. Or do those ratings compare apples to oranges?
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 6, 2012 6:34pm ET

That's a good question. I'm not sure I have a good answer. Have I ever tasted a perfect Zinfandel? I don't believe so. Have I ever tasted a perfect wine? A few older First Growths and that's about it. Wine is such a living thing that even the classics have good days (bottles) and bad. I have no doubt that in the coming years I will taste 97 and 98 point Zins and yes eventually a 100 pointer. Thanks for reading.
Terrance Rooney
San Francisco, CA —  April 11, 2012 7:12pm ET
I'm 68 now and I think I'll be dead when (and if) a Zin gets 99 or 100 points in WS. Of course, Jim Laube may be dead then too and the new person will perhaps decide that zin does deserve to be ranked with cabernet and pinot noir. But don't hold your breath. It took years before Mr. Laube rated any California pinot at 95 points.
Atul Kapoor
los angeles/california —  April 19, 2012 10:21pm ET
hahaha Terence, funny stuff. We have been pouring Turley Zinfandels for the last 4 years without a break, the winery has been very generous to us. In return, we have turned new wine drinkers, Zin haters and alcohol phobes into believers. Turley represents the single most ordered wine at our establishment over this period.

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