TURLEY WINE CELLARS
Okay, they are cult wines. They're hard to come by and they do fetch
unworldly sums on the auction market. But it's odd how much misinformation still prevails
about the Turley Wine Cellars bottlings, given their fame.
For example, the winery does not belong to famed
winemaker Helen Turley, but to her brother Larry and his wife Suzanne. And
since 1995, the winemaker has not been Helen, but the very talented Ehren Jordan, who also now makes the wines for
And despite what you may have heard, the Turley Zinfandels
are not priced out of this world. Certainly not when compared to other cult
wines. But not even when compared to other high-quality Zins from Ridge or Ravenswood.
Folks who bought directly from the winery could have purchased the just-released 1997 Old
Vines Zin, for example, at about $22. (You can't blame the winery for what happens on the
after-market, can you?)
Following are three articles that track the evolution of
this winery. You can read them in order or hop to the one that interests you most:
Zins of the Century? (NEW! March 22, 1999)
The New Classics (February 23, 1998)
First Taste -- And I Do Mean First (September 8, 1995)
NOTE TO FOLKS SEEKING THE WINE: Your
email is always welcome, but please bear in mind that I am not affiliated with
this or any winery, nor do I sell their wine or anyone else's. For more information about Turley wines, call the winery at
707-963-0940 or write them at Turley Wine Cellars, 3358
St. Helena Highway, St.
Helena, CA 94574. Note too that Turley is a small outfit and not staffed
to give tours or tastings to the general public.
ZINS OF THE CENTURY?
(March 22, 1999) I love discovering off-the-beaten-highway producers.
But sometimes you have to take the highway to get to heaven --
and right now, Zinfandel heaven lies about a hundred yards off highway 29, just north of
You may not agree. Not unless you like your Zin to be
amazingly fruity and deep as the ocean, with a sixty-second finish and a taste that
reflects the site where the grapes were grown.
And maybe even then you won't agree, until you actually
taste one of the 1997 Turleys.
I dropped by Turley Wine Cellars on Monday morning to taste the
wines that will be released this spring, plus a few that won't be shipped until autumn.
It was bottling day and things (as usual?) were a little
frantic. Phylis and I were greeted by a very energetic new associate named Joplin, who ran
circles around us for about an hour, lapped up the rinsings from the barrels and wound up
somehow with a faint purple Zinfandel stain on her forehead.
GO FOR IT, Joplin. Apparently even the barrel rinsings
from Turley Zins taste great.
Human beings eventually appeared, including winemaker Ehren Jordan and his new assistant Thomas Brown.
Glasses were brought out and...
Well, what can I say?
If the 1996 Turleys showed a new sense of balance and
site-specific flavor, the 1997s possess all this, plus...POW! The remarkable thing about
these wines is how each can manage to be so black and rich, yet so utterly distinct
from its brethren.
Here's what I mean:
***1997 Duarte Zinfandel(spring release, from bottle).
If you liked the 1996 Duarte, this one's going to make your heart go bumpety-bumpety-bump.
Same intense strawberry jam flavors. But even deeper character and color -- if you want to
call it color -- like so many of the 97 Turleys, it's virtually opaque in the glass. Plus
some blackberry essence on the finish. I'd love to see this Contra Costa County vineyard.
According to Thomas, the sand here runs 60 feet deep and "it looks like a beach with
**1997 Vineyard 101 Zinfandel (spring release, from
bottle). Named for the highway that runs past it, this Geyserville vineyard belongs to
Larry Turley. So this is the one spring bottling on which the label will say "grown,
produced and bottled by Turley Wine Cellars." A Zin for Zin purists. Probably the
brambliest and blackberry-est of all the 97s I tasted. 15.9% alcohol. $32.
*+1997 Grist Zinfandel (spring release, from bottle).
Grown in Dry Creek Valley, on Bradford mountain. According to Thomas the soil here is
rocky and "electric red" with iron. Lots of cloves and cinnamon on the palate.
Fermented dry, but seems sweet. This is the only wine I tasted today where the alcohol
level wasn't totally masked by the fruit. 16.1% and showing it. $35.
***1997 Aida Zinfandel (spring release, from bottle).
Get out your handkerchiefs -- this is Turley Aida's last aria. Very much in the spirit of
the 1996, with delicious chocolate-cherry flavors, plus a hint of herbs, almost like a
Rhone. The most complex, most beautiful Aida I have ever tasted from Turley, and sadly,
the greatest I will ever taste, because they lost their contract with the grower.
$40. (On the good news side, two new vineyards have been added to the Turley portfolio of
Zins. 1997 Dogtown Vineyard is scheduled for autumn release and the 1998 Pringle Vineyard
is due out next year.)
**1997 Toffanelli Charbono (spring release, from bottle).
One man's trash grape is another's...okay, I've had good, even tasty Charbono from BV
before, but even then I used to wonder why they bothered. This is something else.
Purple-black like so many of the other '97s. More tannic than the Zins, but oozing
blackberry-boysenberry extract, with hints of black and red licorice. Very little oak
showing. 15.2% alcohol. $28.
*+1997 Rattlesnake Acres Petite Syrah (spring release, from
bottle). A new vineyard for Turley in 1997 and a goodie. Texture like blackstrap
molasses with super-blueberry flavors. I asked when to drink it and got the answer that I
usually get from folks at Turley -- their wines go back only to 1993 amd this is the first
year for rattlesnake, so quite honestly, who knows how it will age? No harm in decanting
and doing it now. $38.
Next I was handed a glass from a barrel. Sniff, taste, WHOMP.
"Oh my gosh, what on earth is this," I asked. Should have known: ***+1997
Hayne Zinfandel (from barrel). Jet black, assaults the palate, lingers forever.
Biggest Hayne yet, if you can imagine that. So enormous, that for the first time Ehren
decided to leave this Hayne in the barrel 17 months, instead of the usual 14. Had to rinse
my mouth twice and nibble a cracker before going on to the next. 17.1% alcohol, scheduled
for autumn release.
***1997 Black-Sears Zinfandel (from barrel). This is
the coldest vineyard in the Turley portfolio -- high up on Howell Mountain. The wine shows
a very distinctive peppery flavor, in addition to truckloads of brambly fruit and
licorice. Scheduled for autumn release.
I ended my session with the **?1997 Hayne Petite Syrah (from
barrel), a wine I honestly can't fully fathom at this stage. It was certainly the
biggest, richest, densest wine of the tasting -- and literally stained my lips for 24
hours! Scheduled for autumn release.
I regret I could not taste the 1998 Turleys, but there was a
very good reason. They're still fermenting.
Some are still in primary fermentation, in fact -- a result,
says Ehren, of working with 100% indigenous yeast. "Listen, you can hear them at work
in the barrels.
"They tick over in their own good time," he added.
"You have to patient." He didn't seem to be worried, so why should I be? But I
couldn't help getting a mental picture of these microscopic little artisans, looking kind
of like the seven dwarfs, slowly going about their business, making no wine before it's
I also wish I could have tasted the 1997 Turley Zinfandel
Port. (No wisecracks, please. They've heard them all.) The fruit for this came from
3-year old vines planted on the land around the winery.
But that's okay. I'd had a great morning.
You can argue all you like about the 1997 Cabs, but today I
tasted my personal picks for Zins of the decade, Zins of the century -- aw heck, I may as
well call them Zins of the millennium.
ZINS NEW CLASSICS (February 23, 1998)
The last time I visited Larry Turleys winery was during the 1995 crush. The barrel
room was the size of a large garage and the "estate" was a small stand of
Sauvignon Blanc. Few folks outside of St. Helena even knew how to spell winemaker Ehren
Jordans name and Dr. Turley himself was still pulling shifts as an Emergency Room
No more! This crew has been busy. In a little over two years,
- Built a big new barrel room, giving them total control over
- Ripped up the diseased Sauvignon Blanc...
- Purchased 5 adjacent acres, putting in tightly spaced
plantings of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Viognier...
- Bought 2 acres of 80-year-old Zinfandel out in Geyserville
(now called Vineyard 101)...
- Expanded their portfolio of wines to an even dozen for 1996
(with more due in 97)...
- Pruned back the estates formerly derelict grove of
130-year-old olive trees, with the expectation of eventually producing some 300-600 cases
of oil per year...
At the same time, a few wine-geeks are finally learning how to
spell E-h-r-e-n. And I guess even Larry Turley has limits to his energy, because he
finally retired from his 23-year medical practice last year. ("When Suzanne dropped
the pruning shears on her foot, she thought I was running for my bag -- I was going for my
So what else is new?
Well, the wines. I had the pleasure, last week, of tasting
through the 1996 releases. Every vintage is different, of course, but this one marks a
Vintages 1993 through 1995 make a statement about the power
and depth that Zinfandel can achieve. Folks have tended to brand them all as blockbusters.
By contrast, the 1996 Turleys are harder to stereotype.
Oh, sure, fans of the Sumo Zins -- like Hayne -- wont be
disappointed. But thats just the beginning. Theres a dazzling variety to the
full line of 1996 Turleys that Ive never tasted before, in any other line of Zins
from any other producer.
The 1996s show a kaleidoscope of flavors and different
intensities. A real statement about how amazingly site-dependent Zinfandel can be, if
its handled with respect and without much intervention.
Low intervention. Youve heard about how Turley Zins are
made from physiologically ripe fruit, with wild yeasts, no fining and no filtration.
But heres a myth-buster -- they use relatively little
new oak. Only 25% new oak, on the average. Some get only 10%. And contrary to what some
have said, its not just French oak. About 40% is American.
We started tasting with the *OLD VINE 1996 ZINFANDEL.
Its a blend from five different vineyards -- including Mori and
sandy-soil sites where the vines are self-rooted. Lovely aromas of flowers, cherry and
strawberry, almost like a Pinot Noir. I remarked on the strawberry and Ehren said it seems
to be a characteristic of Zinfandel grown in sandy soils. Has a carload of fruit, but, as
Zins go, this is a wine of grace and balance. At 14.9% alcohol, should be quite
food-friendly. Never tasted anything quite like it. If you like the St. Francis Old Vines,
youve got to try and get some of this.
Next, *DUARTE 1996 ZINFANDEL. Another
sandy-soil vineyard, also with those marvelous strawberry flavors. It had just been
bottled and looked a little paler than the OV, but was playing a beautiful tune.
Tree-fruit, game, many things going on. Gorgeous wine. 15.4% alcohol.
The **BLACK-SEARS 1996 ZINFANDEL (15%
alcohol) has flavors very similar to the 1995 -- peppery, brambly and noticeably more
tannic than the Duarte. The vines grow in gravelly soil 1200 feet up on Howell Mountain.
Theres a bear who hangs out in the vineyard and likes to nibble on the grapes, which
proves, as I have always believed, that bears are very smart. Another terror to pickers
are the rattlesnakes who like to crawl to the top of the vines and sun themselves. We
chatted about snakes a bit. Larry treated his share of snake bites at the Santa Rosa
hospital. Turns out the average blood-alcohol of a bite victim is .22%! (You have a few.
You think, Hey, I can take on that old snake...)
My favorite of the tasting may have been the ***AIDA
1996 ZINFANDEL. This has been an interesting cuvee to follow. 1993 seemed
well-proportioned to me...1994 a little light...1995 very powerful and super-ripe. It
seemed to me as if they had been trying to get a fix on this vineyard over the last 3
years. I mentioned this to Ehren and he confirmed its a tricky site. The vines are
"only" 30 years old, so they green-harvest to get more concentration. Because
1994 turned out light, they decided to drop more fruit next time -- and they may have
overdone it a tad in 1995. So they backed off some in 96 and I think they hit it
just right. Big but not overpowering at 15.4% alcohol. Focused cherry flavors with a
beautiful kirsch aftertaste. Perfect Aida. Greek goddess.
**MOORE 1996 ZINFANDEL (15.1% alcohol) comes from a
cold site with heavy clay, and the flavors takes off in a different direction too. Grapey,
with blackberry notes, lots of spice and noticeable tannin.
The *1996 GRIST ZINFANDEL was fermented dry
this year -- unlike the 1995, which would have been 18.7% alcohol if dry! They picked
earlier in 96 and the wine weighs in at 16.3%. Classic, brambly,
plummy, spicy Dry
Creek flavors. Yummy wine, but probably my least favorite of this ethereal bunch.
However, I l-o-v-ed the new ***TOFANELLI 1996
ZINFANDEL (15.9% alcohol). Supple, chocolatey, just oozing sweet blackberries.
Drenches your mouth with flavor. Showiest wine of the tasting. Impossible to spit! Comes
from a vineyard at the corner of Silverado trail and Dunaweal, near Calistoga. You might
call it the "Eisele" of Zins.
***VINEYARD 101 ZINFANDEL (15.8%) is
Turleys first Estate Zin, from their Geyserville site. Theyre not calling it
"Geyserville" for obvious reasons -- so decided to name it for the highway that
runs by. This is a big un. Very dark. Berry jam. Incredibly thick, even taking the
alcohol into account. And what a finish! Just wish there were more of it.
And the ***HAYNE 1996 ZINFANDEL is, well,
imagine a ballet about Hercules. Not as loud today as the 101, but even darker. Dense,
cocoa-flavored, plummy, with its own extraordinary finish. Highest alcohol of the all the
Zins at 17%, but, as with previous Haynes, you dont feel the heat.
We then tasted the **HAYNE 1996 PETITE SYRAH.
Blackstrap Wine. Cassis with a hint of soy. A meal. Opaque. Chew it.
We asked Ehren how the 1993s were coming along -- I had no
idea myself, as my own are long gone. He obliged us by opening an **AIDA 1993
ZINFANDEL, and oh, is it singing! Best its ever tasted, even following
after the PS. If you still have one, open it soon and get very, very happy.
Finally, the subject swung around to Turleys 1997s.
Right now, they are practically ecstatic about these infant wines. It wasnt chuckles
all the way -- they had 5 stuck fermentations. So what did they do? "We pulled an
ostrich. Barreled em at 4% RS and eventually they all fermented out."
Result? I tasted a barrel sample of "Purple
Haze"...the just-racked MOORE 1997 ZINFANDEL. Geez! This isnt
purple, its black as the Hayne Petite Syrah! Still very grapey, but very intense,
with a very long finish.
Upstarts no more, the Turley Zins are demonstrably
Californias new classics. And -- cross your fingers -- the best may be yet to come.
FIRST TASTE AND I DO MEAN FIRST.
(September 8, 1995) When Phylis and I showed up today for an appointment with Larry
Turley, all heaven was busting loose at the former Frogs Leap winery. Weather had
been hot all week, the grapes were saying "pick me", and the Aida and Hayne
Vineyards Zinfandel crush was happening all around us.
We watched with approval as Larrys two big Zin Hounds
snuck off with a few luscious grapes that had fallen beside the forklift. Billie (the one
who barks when you drive up) and Duke (the fearless face-licker) seem to share
Larrys passion for Big Old Vine Zin, and theyre almost as charged-up as he is.
Today all three seemed to be in perpetual motion.
As action paused between truckloads, Larrys vineyard
manager [and soon-to-be-winemaker] Ehren Jordan produced a glass and said the magic words
"Want to taste the juice?" So it is that I now stake my claim to first
taste of the 95 Turley Zins.
Aida was already in the tank and Hayne was halfway there. The
tanks were even narrower than I expected theres not much of this stuff! But
this was no time for pangs of guilt. I did my duty and sipped a few ounces of nectar in
The 1995 AIDA ZINFANDEL looked like a frothy
pink smoothie and tasted like the most slurpable cranberry-strawberry drink that you ever
sucked down. The 1995 HAYNE ZINFANDEL was noticeably darker and already
giving a lot of raspberry flavors.
I asked, "Whats the brix?" Ehren estimated
Aida would be 26+ degrees brix by next morning and Hayne would hit an other-worldly 27+.
Is that ripe enough for you? The celebrated 1993s were "only" in the high 25s!
But is 27+ too high? Not according to the Turley philosophy.
They watch the pH like vineyard hawks waiting for the peak of ripeness when acid
levels start to drop. "We get acid levels that Chardonnay growers would kill
for," Ehren explained. "Some folks would rather pick earlier, get less sugar and
keep the alcohol down at 13.5%. But then youll get a bland wine."
In a later conversation, he added that "One problem
people have when picking Old Vine Zin at 23.5 degrees brix is excessive acid, making for
lean, tart wines that dont want to go through malolactic." But what about the
issue of balance in a higher alcohol Zin? He commented, "My feeling is that if
youve got the concentration old vines, low yields and so on it masks
the alcohol. A young vine Zin at 14% alcohol can taste quite hot next to the 1994 Hayne at
It makes good sense to me. Let the grapes tell you how much is
enough! You might say that Im prejudiced, because I like big Zins but if you
like them smaller, fine. Sell me your allotment of 95! They dumped another load of
Hayne into the destemmer. I noticed a few slightly wrinkled berries in there with the
round ones, and watched as they snaked through a big clear hose to the tank. They ferment
the whole berries, pumping the juice over gently with the same kind of "cap
irrigator" that Larrys sister Helen Turley favors for her Pinot Noir. A screen
ensures that no berries go through the pump. They ferment until the juice is dry, then add
the press fraction and finish fermentation in the barrel.
The Turley aging program seems tailored to emphasize the fruit
of these old vine Zins. Twenty percent of the barrels are specially coopered Kentucky oak.
The remainder are French, from Francois Freres twice used to make white Burgundy.
You certainly cant argue with the results they achieved
in 1993. They poured some 1993 Aida Zinfandel for me to taste and, well, all the good
things youve heard are true and I found it more accessible and friendly than
some others have. It was a deep cranberry red even in the bright outdoor sun, with rich
aromas of red raspberry and bittersweet chocolate. I tasted tannins but didnt care a
lick, because the fruit is deep as a diamond mine.
Yields in the vineyards were way, way down in 1995 60%
of normal, at best, So the bad news is that there will be even less Aida and Hayne to go
around. But Turley has been on the trail of additional ancient Zinfandel vines. Several
"new" ranches are already providing fruit for new single vineyard
even as we stood there at crush, a grower drove up to talk with Larry. She told me her
vines were planted by her grandfather in 1906!
Additionally, theyll be planting their own St. Helena
vineyard with Zinfandel, ripping out the AXR-rooted Sauvignon Blanc. And it might wind up
being the tightest planting of Zinfandel in California as dense as nature allows.
The problem is that close-spaced vines have to be kept very low, so the sunlight
isnt blocked by neighboring vines. But Zinfandel clusters are much longer than Pinot
Noir or Chardonnay, and theyd scrape the ground! The vineyard will probably wind up
at something like 0.75 x 1.75 meters, possibly planted with a combination of Hayne and
We departed with a bottle of 1994 Turley Sauvignon Blanc,
which Ill report on later. The label is a stunner and Larry Turley deciphered the
symbolism for us. Sun for him, Moon for his wife, four stars for his four daughters, all
framed by signs for the four elements fire, water, earth and wind. He also pointed
out the secret place on the label where a Flash Gordon-style rocket ship is hidden. I hope
he uses it for the 1994 reds as well.
You had best believe I put my name on their mailing list
before leaving. Larry Turley is a big guy Id want him on my volleyball team
but his Zins are bigger still.
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