Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Turley Wine Cellars

Turley Wine Cellars, which has three widely scattered wineries – Napa Valley, San Luis Obispo County and the newest in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County – has built its standing in the California wine trade in large part by searching out generally old vineyards and then making hearty wines from the grapes they yield.

Doesn’t matter where the vineyards are, Larry Turley wants their fruit. This has been his mantra since he founded Turley Wine Cellars in 1993. Thus, from this harvest Turley and his winemaker, Tegan Passalacqua, are making 32 wines from about 40 vineyards scattered from Mendocino County to Paso Robles.

Most of the wines are specific to a particular vineyard and carry their name – Dusi in Paso Robles, Dogtown in Lodi, Hemingway in Napa Valley, Fredericks in Sonoma Valley, and so forth. Most are zinfandel, a couple are petite sirah.

For 25 years, Turley was an emergency-room physician, but he grew up on farms in Tennessee and Georgia and yearned to return to agriculture. He got his chance after moving to Napa Valley in the 1970s. There he met winemaker John Williams, and in 1981 they teamed up to establish Frog’s Leap Winery. As Turley geared up to found his eponymous winery, he sold his interest in Frog’s Leap to Williams.

Over the past two decades Turley has developed an enthusiastic following for its deeply colored, highly alcoholic and blustery zinfandels and petite sirahs, though occasionally the winery will surprise its clientele with something lighter, such as its youthfully charming cinsault from the old Bechthold Vineyard at Lodi. And Turley is one of just a handful of family wineries to continue to make white zinfandel.

A little more than a year ago, Turley bought Karly Wines in Shenandoah Valley, founded by Buck and Karly Cobb in 1980. The Cobbs were ready to retire, and Turley, who has been buying grapes in Amador County since 1996, was eager to sink his roots deeper into the area.

“There are tons of good grapes up here. They’re dry-farmed in the old style. So many places are tearing out these old zinfandel vineyards and planting cabernet sauvignon,” said Turley with a degree of disgust.

At the time of the purchase, Ehren Jordan was Turley’s director of winemaking and general manager. Amador’s zinfandels are so distinctive, Jordan said, that the acquisition would add diversity rather than redundancy to the Turley portfolio. “Amador has totally different soils. They’re granitic, and that’s the only place (in California) you find them. Climatically, it’s much more rugged – hot in the summer, cold in the winter, with huge diurnal swings in temperature. You get power in the wines from the sunshine, but they also have tremendous acidity,” Jordan said.

Jordan left Turley earlier this year to focus on the growing brand – Failla – that he and his wife, Anne-Marie Failla, founded in 1998.

Passalacqua, who began working for Turley in 2003 and assumed the winemaking role upon Jordan’s departure, shares his predecessor’s enthusiasm for Amador fruit.

Both Passalacqua and Turley are keen on letting each vineyard express itself with little interference from them. Amador’s zinfandels, Turley says, have a distinctive “brambly” character that they hope to save and showcase with such techniques as using only native yeast to ferment the juice, eschewing the addition of acid, and aging wine in no more than 20 percent new oak barrels.

Turley just now is releasing its first vineyard-designated zinfandel from the area. The Turley Wine Cellars 2011 Amador County “Judge Bell” Zinfandel ($32) combines the area’s telltale deep color, ripe fruit, spice and warmth (15.4 percent alcohol) with unusual suppleness and tang.

Judge Bell is a new name for an old vineyard, the Picnic Hill block of Story Vineyard, head-trained and dry-farmed since 1907.

Amador grapes also are in the more effusive and spicier Turley Wine Cellars 2011 California “Old Vines” Zinfandel ($28), along with fruit from Mendocino, Contra Costa, Napa and elsewhere.

At the opening, Turley also poured barrel samples of three Amador County vineyard-designated zinfandels that won’t be released until next year. As a group they were surprising for their light color and lean structure, a departure from the Amador standard, which in recent times has run to density and mass. Their fruit wasn’t as ripe and jammy as it often is in Amador zinfandels but nevertheless was bright with suggestions of blackberries and raspberries dusted with brown baking spices.

All were from the 2012 vintage. In addition to the ext version of the Judge Bell they included the concentrated Sadie Upton, long a staple in the Karly Wines lineup, and a newcomer, the lithesome and zesty Cobb Vineyard.”

Grapes for the Cobb Vineyard come from 15 acres of vines that the Cobbs didn’t include in the sale to Turley.

In Amador, Turley will retain its focus on zinfandel, but Passalacqua also indicated he will explore barbera and wants to experiment with some green grapes, feeling that white wines in the foothills haven’t yet been adequately exploited.

“The whites up here are what most excite me. I want to work with grenache blanc and vermentino. What the foothills need is for people to take whites seriously. No one is focused on them, but I think the foothills can make some great white wines,” he said.

Passalacqua, who grew up in Napa, graduated from Sac State with a degree in health science in 2001. His intent was to go into social work and then education, but while applying for work as a social worker after returning to Napa he took a job as a winery lab technician. “I fell in love with wine after a few months, and took a job at another winery in the lab, then went off to New Zealand to work harvest.”

In Amador, Passalacqua will be helped by newly hired winemaker Nick Finarelli, who has been working for Benovia Winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley.