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The Snotty Young Punk of Zintown
Once the upstart, Turley is now one of the undisputed kings of California Zinfandel
Posted: Apr 4, 2012 10:30am ET

Back in the mid 1990s, there were three kings of California Zinfandel, the Three Rs we called them: Ravenswood, Ridge and Rosenblum. The snotty young punk in Zintown was Turley. Fast-forward almost 20 years and things have sure changed. The Three Rs continue to make fine Zinfandels—Ridge most frequently—but only Turley is on top of its game.

That's my takeaway after tasting through the winery's most-recent releases. I've been drinking Turley since the first vintage, 1993, and, taken as a group, these are some of the best Zinfandels that Turley has made. The group included 2009s from the winery's top single vineyards as well as early-release 2010 from its value-oriented blends.

Leading the pack was Turley Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard 2009 ($48), a knockout Zin that wraps a complex core inside a supple, rich texture. The Turley Napa Valley Hayne Vineyard 2009 ($75) pairs power with finesse. Winemaker Ehren Jordan calls Hayne (planted in 1903) and Ueberroth (1884) the "Grands Crus of the Zinfandel world."

"Over the arc of the vintages, year in and year out, you have to scratch your head and ask yourself, 'Maybe it has nothing to do with us (the winemakers),'" Jordan said.

I think that comment says a lot about why Turley continues to make great Zinfandel. I won't argue that for a while in the late 1990s, too many of Turley's wines were so ripe and powerful that I worried winemaking decisions were overshadowing the vineyards, but you can't really know what a Zin vineyard can ultimately give you until you push the envelope.

In addition, Jordan and his crew have become true farmers in the past decade. The winery now closely controls 80 percent or more of its grape sources, a radical change from the early years. As a result, the wines have retained much of their depth and power, but now have more balance and refinement. Anyone who writes off the Turley Zins as ripe, burly thugs is simply behind the times.

It didn't hurt that 2009 was such a great vintage for Zin producers across the state. The same can't be said for 2010, which was the vintage from hell, particularly in Northern California. It was one of the coolest summers on record in Napa and Sonoma until August, when a history-making heat wave struck. "The wild card in 2010 is what happened to you when it was 108 in the third week of August," Jordan said.

Like so many producers, Turley lost entire crops, specifically, 101 Vineyard and two others. "The grapes literally vaporized," Jordan said. "They just got fried." There was no rhyme or reason to which vineyards survived and which didn't.

Jordan called it a "farmer's vintage." Growers who were able to make the tough decisions—discarding all but the best fruit—made good Zin. "I'm probably more proud of the 2010s than I am of the 2009s," Jordan said.

Jordan is hardly alone in that. As Dry Creek Valley winemaker Clay Mauritson told me recently, if you made a good Zinfandel in 2010, that says something. I haven't tasted enough of the 2010 Zins, from Turley or anyone else, to say for sure, but I doubt they will rival the 2009s, despite how proud the winemakers are of a legitimate achievement.

That said, Turley California Juvenile 2010 ($20) and Turley California Old Vines 2010 ($25)—both blends of multiple vineyards—are loaded with delicious, fresh fruit.

Look for my full reviews of Turley Zinfandels in the coming weeks. I look forward to tasting more of the winery's 2010s. Have you tried any of the 2009 or 2010 Turley Zins? Any favorites?

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