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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 Neyers.

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What's happening at Turley Wine Cellars? Click here to see more photos...

     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.


(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 St. Helena.

     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.

Joplin Discovers the Good Stuff
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 grapevines." $28.

     **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 time.

     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.

ZIN’S NEW CLASSICS (February 23, 1998) The last time I visited Larry Turley’s 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 Jordan’s name and Dr. Turley himself was still pulling shifts as an Emergency Room M.D.

     No more! This crew has been busy. In a little over two years, they have...

     - Built a big new barrel room, giving them total control over storage...

     - 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 estate’s 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 camera.")

     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 turning point.

     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 -- won’t be disappointed. But that’s just the beginning. There’s a dazzling variety to the full line of 1996 Turleys that I’ve 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 it’s handled with respect and without much intervention.

     Low intervention. You’ve heard about how Turley Zins are made from physiologically ripe fruit, with wild yeasts, no fining and no filtration.

     But here’s 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, it’s not just French oak. About 40% is American.

     We started tasting with the *OLD VINE 1996 ZINFANDEL. It’s a blend from five different vineyards -- including Mori and Spenker, both 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, you’ve 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. There’s 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 it’s 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 Turley’s first Estate Zin, from their Geyserville site. They’re 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 Turley’s 1997s. Right now, they are practically ecstatic about these infant wines. It wasn’t 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 isn’t purple, it’s 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 California’s 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 Frog’s 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 Larry’s 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 Larry’s passion for Big Old Vine Zin, and they’re almost as charged-up as he is. Today all three seemed to be in perpetual motion.

     As action paused between truckloads, Larry’s 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 — there’s 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 raw.

     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, "What’s 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 you’ll 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 don’t want to go through malolactic." But what about the issue of balance in a higher alcohol Zin? He commented, "My feeling is that if you’ve 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 17.2%."

     It makes good sense to me. Let the grapes tell you how much is enough! You might say that I’m 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 Larry’s 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 can’t argue with the results they achieved in 1993. They poured some 1993 Aida Zinfandel for me to taste and, well, all the good things you’ve 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 didn’t 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 bottlings, and 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, they’ll 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 isn’t blocked by neighboring vines. But Zinfandel clusters are much longer than Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and they’d 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 Aida budstock.

     We departed with a bottle of 1994 Turley Sauvignon Blanc, which I’ll 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 — I’d want him on my volleyball team — but his Zins are bigger still.

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