The makings of California’s top cult Zinfandels…
My back to the wall, a victim of laughing chance
This is for me the essence of true romance
Sharing the things we know and love with those of my kind
Sensations that stagger the mind…
– Steely Dan’s Deacon Blues
Among California’s prestige producers of Zinfandel, Turley Wine Cellars is undoubtedly the one accorded the most “cult” status: coveted with almost religious fervor by zin lovers to the point where they often pay ridiculous prices for them (although Turley releases its wines at suggested $30 to $50 retail prices, demand is such that they are often traded or re-sold for twice those prices, and more).
What makes Turley Zinfandels so special? No matter what you may have heard, this much is true: these are very, very intense Zinfandels, yet extremely well balanced; which is why people “follow” them, and why they get the high scores – accompanied by the descriptors all those 100 point critics love to use (like “big,” “juicy,” “opulent,” “hedonistic,” “sumptuous,” etc.) – which drive up the demand even more.
Case in point, a barrel tasting of the 2010 Turley Dogtown Vineyard Zinfandel, coming from the Clements Hills AVA on the east side of the greater Lodi AVA, this past weekend at the Turley winery: an enormously rich, dense, black spice box of a wine – inundated with black Asian tea, tobacco and cracked pepper encasing raspberry/black cherry and smoky embellishments – with a mouth-filling yet satiny, seamless texture.
Since being founded by Larry Turley in 1993, Turley Wine Cellars has been sourcing from Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and most recently, in Paso Robles. Not in the least, Turley is also big on Lodi –absolutely bullish and bonkers for Zinfandel grown in Lodi. According to Tegan Passalacqua, the Turley vineyard manager and grower liaison who spent three days in Lodi this past week supervising the hand harvesting of all their Lodi plantings, “every vintage our Dogtown Vineyard Zinfandel is among one of our best – we love its grip, the classic loaminess you expect in Lodi Zinfandel, and the black and green tea spices also associate with the region – which is why we’ll always be high on Dogtown, and all our Lodi vineyards.”
Besides Dogtown, originally planted in 1944, Turley also draws from Schmiedt Ranch (planted in 1918) on the eastern side of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA, and from younger vines in Bokisch’s Vista Luna Vineyard (Borden Ranch AVA). In the late ‘90s Turley also made a number of extraordinary vintages from Jessie’s Grove’s 100-plus year old plantings, which is what originally inspired Greg Burns and his family to go into production of their own ancient vine Zinfandel.
Is there a “secret” behind the quality that has made Turley so successful – something for which Larry Turley may have to commit homicide after telling you? Not really. In fact, Turley freely admits, “we’re pretty lazy when it comes to winemaking. We never crush, we press whole berries. We never use anything but wild yeast, we never filter or fine, we rack occasionally, and we’ve stuck with our long fermentations – taking 30, 40 days, sometimes four to five months, to finish in barrel.”
While standing with Turley at the sorting table this past Saturday, watching their crew meticulously remove any and all clusters with any sign of rot or excess raisins amongst the incoming 2011 Dogtown bins, Passalacqua quips, “for Larry, it’s always been a choice between buying shoes for his four daughters or yeast for his Zinfandel, and shoes always won out.” “Hell, why buy yeast when you can get it for free?” adds Turley, referring to the fact that he’s never had any trouble with his fermentations despite the common assumption in the industry that usage of the natural flora found on the grape skins is an open invitation to “stuck” fermentations (i.e. wines finishing sweet due to the inability of wild yeasts to ferment wine to complete dryness).
If there’s been an evolution in the Turley approach to Zinfandel over the past 18 years, it’s been in the vineyard because, according to Turley, “that’s where you always make the wine. All of our time and energy is put into vineyards.” Describing the “formula” his boss has established over the years, Passalacqua tells us: “We’ve always preferred to get our vineyards on long term leases in order to farm them ourselves, with our own crew. Dogtown is a good example – a vineyard that was in very poor condition when we started working with it in 1997. There were a lot of dead spots, which we replaced with new plantings on St. George rootstock in 2004 and 2008. Out of the 29 acres total, 9 of the acres consist of the new plantings.
“Every one of our vineyards – in Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, and here in Lodi – is dry farmed. Historically, Dogtown was always dry farmed – you can tell it’s never been furrow irrigated by the fact that it’s never been leveled… it’s full of dips and knolls – but the vines were debilitated, so we had to nurse it back to health through aggressive composting (Turley farms all its vineyards organically, including over 300 acres certified by California Certified Organic Farmers). Plus, we never ask these vines to produce more than they want to – in good years we’ll get about ¾ of a ton per acre out of a vineyard like Dogtown. In many years (like 2011), less than that. But these are small vines that produce tiny clusters with little, tiny berries – looking more like Pinot Noir than anything associated with Zinfandel. The flavors we get are tremendous. If you want to produce big time Zinfandel, you have to be willing to go all the way.”
Why the dogmatic stance on dry farming, when judicious amounts of water (i.e. “deficit irrigation“) might also help resuscitate a dying vineyard? “In our experience, it’s dry farmed vineyards that produces superior wine,” says Passalacqua. Going by Turley’s track record, it’s hard to argue with that. “After working with old vineyards up and down the coast, we know that it’s dry farming, combined with composting, that works for vineyards with problems like nematode infestations. We get healthier, stronger vines by this approach, and it also brings other issues, like leafroll virus and disease pressures, under control.”
In an earlier, separate conversation with Turley’s winemaker, Ehren Jordan, we learned that “by the time Turley was launched in the nineties, many of the great, old Zinfandel vineyards in California had already begun to disappear, and along with that a lot of the knowledge and passion of the old growers. What we’ve done over the years was take what we’ve learned of the old ways of doing things. The ways that have historically sustained old vines, giving them the advantage of deeper root systems, and better chances of withstanding the heavy rains and winds, the droughts, all the variables of the growing seasons, year in and year out. We’ve often had to fight to get vineyards to where we want them to be, and more than a few times, our relationships with growers ended up not working out. Today we make about 23 different Zinfandels, each from vineyards very different from each other.”
Going back to the subject of winemaking, Passalacqua shares some of the Turley methodology: “We don’t crush, we simply destem and hold the whole berries in cold soak – usually in the tank for about five days at 55° F. (Turley employs temperature controlled 11, 10 and 5 ton stainless steel tanks). After that, we raise the temperature and let fermentation begin by itself, usually taking 7 to 10 days, before going into barrel (for Turley, about 89% French oak, 20% American oak, and only 20% new barrels each year).
“Wild yeast fermentation gives you more complex wines, with more terroir distinctions,” adds Passalacqua, “and the key to that is starting with healthy, clean fruit. We’re always in the field three days before harvest, dropping anything with signs of rot. We sort in the field when we pick, and we sort a third time in the winery. pH is not a big issue for us, although we prefer it in the 3.5 range. To avoid stuck fermentations, you really want the fruit to come in about 25°, 25.5° Brix, which will normally give you finished alcohols around 15.2%, 15.4%, 15.7%, depending.”
Says Jordan, “if you wait to pick at 27° Brix, which might be well over 30° by the time it hits the fermenter, then you risk alcohols pushing past 17%. Then, sure, you’re likely to get stuck fermentations, unless you add a boatload of water… and you never want to add water, or have to send wines out to get dealcoholized, if you want to make Zinfandel worth a damn. We know that for a lot of wineries, especially those without a lot of control of their vineyards, there’s not much choice in the matter – they’d rather err on the side of waiting for ‘optimal ripeness,’ as opposed to getting green or unripe flavors, and end up fixing the problem later. We’d rather get it exactly right the first and only time.”
Adding this tidbit about Lodi grown Zinfandel, Jordan tells us that “there’s just so much misinformation out there, especially among so-called experts, and many of the wine journalists. Anybody who says Lodi is a hot Central Valley growing region just doesn’t know his stuff. This year might be an exception, but I can’t think of a single year when our Lodi fruit wasn’t picked after our vineyards in St. Helena (i.e. mid-Napa Valley), which is always a warmer growing region than Lodi.”
Says Turley himself, “over the years we’ve learned to never listen to what other people say. We don’t pick grapes to get high alcohol, we pick them when they’re the most balanced and intense. If we can get a Hayne (one of Turley’s choice, single vineyard Napa Valley Zinfandels) to taste exactly like a Hayne, a Dogtown tasting like a Dogtown, I say it’s working, and we’re doing just fine by that!”