In September 2003, I wrote my first wine article for the inaugural edition of AV Lifestyle magazine. It was titled: “A California Zinfandel Tour,” featuring good zinfandel wines from Paso Robles, Sonoma County, the Napa Valley, Lodi,
Mendocino County and others. Today, you can almost go on a 2017 California zinfandel tour just by tasting wines at the acclaimed Turley Wine Cellars in Templeton, near Paso Robles.
From their menu of thirty-one wines, Turley produces twenty-five different zinfandel releases, twenty-three vineyard designated, all organic and sourced from some of the oldest and finest vineyards throughout the state. That many wines may seem a bit ostentatious, but, according to winery representative Steve O’Brien, they are all unique and different.
Turley has placed a different release on Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 list in the past five years including single-vineyard zinfandel from Ueberroth, Dusi and Pesenti, a blend of young vineyards called “Juvenile” and a Petit Syrah from Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley.
“With such a broad range of soils and terroir, how could the wines not be different?” said O’Brien, as he led me through some current releases.
Larry Turley was an emergency room physician in Santa Rosa for over twenty years before purchasing property north of St. Helena in the Napa Valley and beginning
Frog’s Leap Winery with a partner.
In 1993, he followed a dream to focus on zinfandel and began to secure grapes from some of the oldest vineyards throughout California. One such vineyard was the Pesenti Vineyard in Templeton, which was actually founded in the 1920s during Prohibition. During negotiations, the Pesenti Family expressed a desire to sell and Turley bought the entire winery and re-located to the Paso Robles area.
His grapes are sourced from the oldest and finest zinfandel vineyards in California from Dogtown in Lodi to Whitney Tennessee in the Alexander Valley and Dragon atop Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley. The same élevage(everything between fermentation and bottling) and viticultural practices are used for each, yet they are all different like the sandy loam, volcanic, clay or gravel soils that produce them.
Among all the single-vineyard designate releases, our tasting began with a unique blend, using eighteen different vineyards. When it is necessary to replace old vines with new ones, they are tagged and used in a wine Turley calls, “Juvenile.” The Turley Zinfandel “Juvenile” California 2015 ($20), while not considered a “fruit bomb,” has nice red fruit flavors with complex herbal and savory notes. The young vines vary in age up to a quarter century.
The 2102 vintage of “Juvenile” was designated #46 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2014. They were impressed by the 91-point rating and $20. price tag.
A proprietary blend from two vineyards high atop Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley, the Turley Zinfandel “Cedarman” Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2014($45) is sourced from heavy volcanic soils with grapes that ripen later due to the cooler average temperatures at higher elevations.
The “Cedarman” has a savory, “garrique” feel with herbal influences. Garrique is a
term used to describe when the flavors of the wine take on those of the natural flora and vegetation. Zinfandel vines, grown among cabernet sauvignon in the prestigious Howell Mountain appellation, combined with a pinch of petit syrah, results in one of Turley’s biggest and boldest wines. It has robust, expressive flavors, but is accessible to most palates.
The petite syrah added to the “Cedarman” zinfandel comes from the
Rattlesnake Ridge Vineyard on Howell Mountain in the northeastern slopes of the Napa Valley. The grapes for the acclaimed Turley Petite Syrah Howell Mountain Rattlesnake Ridge Vineyard 2013 (95-pt./$45), designated as #17 on Wine Spectator’s 2015 list, also come from that vineyard. The deep inky color and balanced bold flavors make it one of the best of the varietal in California.
Cities and towns have grown up around many of the surviving vineyards in places like Antioch and Martinez, east of San Francisco. These are pure stock, old vines that produce such varietals as carignane, mourvedre and zinfandel.
Comprised of fruit from three historic vineyards in the area, the 2015 Turley Zinfandel “Duarte Vineyard” Contra Costa County ($20), is a tribute to local patriarchal grower, Joe Duarte. A distinctive creamy mouthfeel and soft
tannins are the result, according to O’Brien, of the deep sandy soils that have built up over time. For rich texture and a long, soft finish, I selected this wine as one to take home to my cellar.
Less than a mile from the intersection of Vineyard Drive and Highway 46 inn Templeton, the Pesenti Vineyard soils are filled with fossil matter and limestone, like the appellations in Burgundy and the Rhone Valley in France.
The Turley Zinfandel “Pesenti Vineyard” Paso Robles 2010 ($38), awarded 93-points, was placed among Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 Wines of 2012. The current release, the Turley Zinfandel “Pesenti Vineyard” Paso Robles 2014 ($40) expresses red fruit flavors, not the typical dark fruit. There is a sweet tartness to this wine, like red licorice.
The nearby Dusi Vineyard next to Highway 101 in Templeton, has produced
premium zinfandel grapes for several wineries for over half a century.. I had an opportunity to meet Dante Dusi at a 2012 Father’s Day tasting hosted by his granddaughter, Janelle Dusi. He passed away in 2014 but his legendary vineyard continues to support great wines like the rich, luscious Turley Zinfandel “Dante Dusi Vineyard” Paso Robles 2010(95-pt./$42), the #12 wine on the Top 100 Wine list of 2013.
Years ago, the now-defunct Martin-Weyrich Winery’s annual zinfandel release from the Ueberroth Vineyard was my favorite.
Families have been growing grapes in this vineyard since 1885 and they are the oldest vines used by Turley. Now owned by the family of Peter Ueberroth, former 1984 L.A. Olympics chief and Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Turley
secured a partnership years ago and produces the same luscious, concentrated flavors and rich mouthfeel that I remember.
The Turley Zinfandel “Ueberroth Vineyard” Paso Robles 2013($48)
caught the attention of the critics and Wine Spectator named it the #20 Top Wine of 2016 with a 94-point rating. We tasted the current release, the Turley Zinfandel
“Ueberroth Vineyard” Paso Robles 2014 ($52) and it lived up to its reputation for rich mouthfeel and deep flavors. It was the second bottle that I purchased for my cellar.
I would love to continue my Turley zinfandel tour at a later time, whether at the Templeton or Amador tasting room. There are many remaining releases to taste from Alexander Valley’s “Vineyard 101” in north Sonoma County, the Kirschenmann Vineyard in Lodi or the century-old Rinaldi Vineyard, available in the Amador County tasting room on Shenandoah Road in the town of Plymouth.
Wine is about stories and Turley’s is a good one that involves passion, experience and the will to pair great stock with the perfect terroir. The zinfandel grape is native to California and it continues to showcase the state’s bountiful diversity.