Wine lovers of a certain age will recall when red Zinfandel was the big thing in the American wine world, when we talked about the “Rs” (Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenbloom) and felt a little smug that we knew Zinfandel wasn’t always pink. From the late 1980s through mid-1990s, Zinfandel popularity and prestige exploded, leading Wine Spectator to pronounce in 1995:
“Zinfandel is back in a groove again. Never before has it been this popular or well made. Buoyed by its recent successes, Zinfandel has quietly caught up with and in some cases inched ahead of Merlot and Pinot Noir in the California red wine sweepstakes. Today you can make a strong case that Zinfandel, with all its spice and exotic wild berry flavors, has positioned itself behind Cabernet Sauvignon as the Golden State’s second-best red table wine.” – Wine Spectator 1995.
Larry Turley Enters the Zinfandel Boom
Into the middle of the Zinny boom came Larry Turley. An ER doctor in the Bay Area, Larry had gotten into the wine business with John Williams by creating Frog’s Leap winery on what is now the Turley Estate property. The winery was a success, but by the early 1990s Larry was looking to start something new and embrace his growing love of Zin. So he and Williams split, with John taking the name and moving south to Rutherford and Larry hiring his sister, Helen Turley, to make four wines with purchased Zinfandel fruit from the 1993 vintage.
The rest, as they say, is history. Robert Parker tasted the 1993s and wrote, “This new winery, with its bevy of spectacular releases due to hit the marketplace in April 1995, is sure to create rabid consumer reaction. These are boldly-styled, dramatic Zinfandels. Quantities are limited, but the quality is spectacular.” And Wine Spectator made Turley’s 1993 Hayne Zinfandel number 11 on the 1995 Top 100 list.
The 90s: The Hard-to-Find, Big Zin
By the time I was getting seriously interested in wine in the late 1990s, Turley’s Zins were legendary and something you “had” to try. The problem was finding them, as they were almost all gobbled up by mailing list customers. Bell’s on M Street, NW, would occasionally sneak some Turley onto their shelves (the owners were close to Ehren Jordan, then Turley’s winemaker), and between grabbing a bottle or two there and wines shared by members of my tasting group, I got to try a few.
My verdict? Really. Really. Big. Like 16-17% alcohol big. Impressive, but too much for my then tender palate (which had not yet fallen in love with Chateauneuf du Pape).
Small World: From Beaujolias to Turley
Flash forward to 2013, when after a few years of searching, I’d managed to secure an allocation of Cru Beaujolais from Jules Desjourneys (a long story there, too). We’d listed the wines on our website for a class, but were not yet offering them for sale.
One day, I came into the store to find an email from a guy named Mike Schieffer asking if we’d be willing to sell him a few bottles before the class. It took me a moment to notice his email address ended “@turleywinecellars.com.” So I wrote him back something a little snarky about the incongruity of someone at Turley hunting out obscure Beaujolais – low-alcohol, low/no oak Gamay from France.
“When was the last time you tasted a Turley Zin?” Mike wrote back. “Next time you’re in Napa we should get together so you can try what we’re making now. I think you’ll be impressed.”
So the next summer I met Mike on the crush pad of the Napa winery in St. Helena and we tasted some 2011s and 2012s.
Which is when I learned that Turley Zinfandels are pretty damn good wines. Mike explained the farming changes Larry had been making and the softening of winemaking approach. I mostly listened, but mainly – wine after wine – kept exclaiming, “That’s delicious” and then consistently guessed alcohol levels that were 1-2 points too low.
As we were winding down, all 6 feet, 5 inches of Larry Turley galumphed onto the crush pad after a day in the vineyards. After a friendly “Hello” and hearing Mike’s explanation of what we were doing, he noticed the open bottles, grabbed the 2012 Estate, poured himself a glass, and took a gulp. “Hey,” he said, “That’s pretty good. I was thirsty.” And then off he went.
Since then – courtesy of some good customers and friends who are long-time Turley buyers – I’ve had the chance to taste more Turley wines, including some shockingly good (to me) 2008s over the past year or two. And I’ve come to appreciate Larry’s summing up: “Hey, that’s pretty good. I was thirsty.”
We have four 2018 Turley Zinfandels on offer at special discounted prices right now – Much of our allocation of 2018 Turley Zinfandel was destined for restaurants, now closed because of covid0-19, so they could well be restricted to on-premise sales in future vintages.