ST HELENA — Standing beside a vineyard filled with short, squat green vines, Larry Turley gestures towards another field. He then describes in precise detail how he meticulously expanded his renowned California winery over the years famous for its red zinfandels, one vineyard at a time.
“When I bought the place, I owned five acres,” he says. “We gradually added a vineyard through lot line adjustment and then I finally bought from a young Frenchman the rest of this property here. I built a house for my in-laws, a Japanese pole house. Then I started replanting. I pulled out all the chardonnay and merlot. I pulled out some of the cabernet. Then I planted zinfandel.”
Attention to detail has been the key to Turley’s success throughout his life — whether he was operating on a patient in an emergency room as a surgeon at a nearby hospital, flying an airplane, cultivating his prized grapevines or preparing mouth-watering barbecue on one of several, large grills strategically placed throughout his property.
But don’t expect the guy everyone calls Larry to call attention to himself or brag about the success of Turley Wine Cellars. He lists his job title on his business card as “Debtor.” He often jokes about everything. And he still has a slight Southern lilt in his voice from growing up in Georgia and Tennessee, where he spent several years as a child on a tobacco and dairy farm without electricity.
Then again, don’t let Larry’s down-home charm fool you. While he might not seem to take anything too seriously, he and the rest of his hard-working team at Turley Wine Cellars produce some of the best red zinfandels and petit syrahs in California or frankly anywhere in the world. That’s why I made a point of making a pilgrimage to Turley Wine Cellars in California’s Napa Valley earlier this year.
What has impressed me over the years is how consistently outstanding Turley’s wines are year in and year out, especially since so many of them are so affordable (roughly $25 to $50 a bottle in most cases). I can honestly say I have never had a bad bottle of Turley wine — and I’ve definitely had my fair share of them over the years. Or to put it another way, Turley’s wines consistently have intense, powerful flavors that seem to burst out of the glass and linger after each sumptuous sip.
Just how good are Turley’s wines? I still vividly recall having one of his red zinfandels with my family on Christmas years ago. At that dinner, several people who love and know wine, including my grandfather, saidwithout a doubt that the Turley was better than the other wine we had with Christmas dinner. The other bottle was a1982 Chateau Haut Brion, one of the greatest Bordeaux wines from one of the greatest vintages ever.
That’s why I wanted to meet with Larry and learn more about the secret to his success. What does he do to make such mouth-watering wines? Who is he? And how did an emergency room surgeon become such a great winemaker?
Below, you’ll find excerpts of my conversation with Larry Turley earlier this year at his winery in St. Helena, California. Let me add that I could have filled pages and pages with Larry’s entertaining stories about his childhood, his winery and many of his other passions. All I can say is his wines reflect his personality. They’re complex, entertaining and a joy to be around. Hope you enjoy reading about him and his wines as well.
Larry doesn’t remember much about the tobacco or dairy farm without electricity that his family lived on in Tennessee. “My dad used to tell stories about trying to get the gasoline power to start in the middle of winter at four o’clock in the morning,” he says. “I don’t remember much. I was real young. But it didn’t sound like a lot of fun. Then we got brucellosis so we had to slaughter the whole heard. So that’s when we moved to Georgia.”
Larry’s family moved to Georgia in 1948 or 1949. There, his father worked in the civil service teaching teachers how to teach. Larry’s mother was also a teacher.
Larry adds that neither one of his parents were interested in wine, which is even more surprising since Larry’s sister, Helen Turley, is one of the best winemakers in the world. (Both have been featured individually on the cover of Wine Spectator magazine.)
“We grew up as Southern Baptists so it (wine) was demon alcohol,” Larry says. “I got kicked out (of church) at an early age because I wore tennis shoes — it was the only shoes I had — and they asked me one day at Sunday school, ‘Would you drive a beer truck for $40 a week or dig ditches for $30 a week?’ And I said, I would drive a beer truck. ‘Well what about our creed?’ Well, I knew the lingo. I was 10 years old. I said, ‘Our Lord changed water into wine.’ And they said, no, it was grape juice. And I said, no, it was not. And out I went.”
Emergency room surgeon
“I did that for 24 years,” Larry says. “The average career is 11 years.”
“When I did it, I started in 74 to 97. I was only doctor in the hospital at night. I handled all the codes, anything that came in through the E.R., any baby that was delivered if the O.B. guy didn’t show up. Anything. It was busy.”
“I like what I do now,” Larry says. “I still keep my (medical) license active. So when I travel long distance, I tell the captain on the plane that I’ll see any emergencies but no sore throats. And I get put to work about half the time.”
Interest in wine
“I moved out here in ‘74,” Larry says, referring to Napa Valley. “I always liked the land. I hiked. I was always interested in the outdoors. I like to eat and drink. So in 74, it was pretty sleepy, but the wine industry was here.”
“I was making beer at the time and I had made beer all through medical school. So I kept on making beer here. Then I met John Williams from Frog’s Leap (winery). Well, it wasn’t Frog’s Leap yet. But we made a little bit of homemade wine. Then in 81, we started with 700 cases of Sauvignon Blanc.”
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History of winery
“We kept growing Frog’s Leap and then I sold my share,” Larry says. “I wanted a smaller winery — four girls, a young family. So I sold the label and my half to him (John Williams) and I started Turley in 1993. All organic. We started with just a couple of vineyards, had a little sauvignon blanc here, Aida across the creek and the Hayne vineyard in town and we were off to the races.”
Helen Turley helped Larry make the wines the first year at Turley Wine Cellars. “We took the wines to Greens in San Francisco,” Larry says, referring to famous restaurant in the city. “We labeled the vineyard. Not many people were doing that in 1993. They were a big hit. There were very different wines from what people were making. Within 24 hours, all my growers had been contacted by other wineries. So after a while, we lost some vineyards. People offered them more. They got sold. So I realized the only way I can do this long term is to own the vineyards. So then I bought a fair number of vineyards and gradually added on here. We have about 75 acres here now. I bought a few other vineyards.”
“You can’t control things you don’t own,” Larry says, adding, “I don’t want to get any bigger but I do want to control what I have.”
“We now make 47 different wines, 50 vineyards, 125 different picks,” Larry says. By picks, Larry explains that he picks the grapes sometimes at different times from the same vineyard, resulting in slightly different tasting wine.
Love of old vines
“We specialize in old vine zin,” Larry says. “We have 14 vineyards over a hundred years old,” Larry says. “The Ueberroth vineyard is 1885. It’s in great shape. It has been managed well. It depends on how it’s managed. If people have come in and tried to irrigate and fertilize and really push them, they will peter out... It’s sort of like an athlete. You can pump them up but not for very long.”
Interest in zinfandel
“We made zinfandel at Frog’s Leap,” Larry says. “It was a little different style, but of all the wines we made, that’s the one that I preferred. It’s the most food friendly. I have a lot of grills and a lot of smokers. I thought it balanced the best with grilled foods or anything cooked over a fire.”
“I met my wife in 1989, Suzanne. They (the wine importing company she works for) had a lot of European wines and a lot of single vineyard wines. So it got me thinking, we at Frog’s Leap we put everything together on the individual varieties. So Helen helped us get started at the Hayne vineyard” with making single grape zinfandel wines.
Turley Wine Cellars’ approach to making great wine can be summarized in one, simple sentence. “We make delicious, authentic, affordable wines,” Larry says.
To do that, Turley Wine Cellars’ focus starts in the fields. For inspiration, they looked to the past and the method many winemakers used to plant and grow grapes. Specifically, instead of planting vines close together, Turley now spaces its vines further apart.
“We looked at all the old vineyards and they were this way so we went back to old style,” Larry says. “So we plant everything now 10 by 10, head trained, dry farmed. We farm all organic. We farm over 14 different vineyards that are over a hundred years old. This works fabulous for zinfandel. We can cross cultivate so it’s much less labor intensive. No irrigation. No wires. We don’t drop half the crop.”
Turley Wine Cellars often uses grapes from a single vineyard when making a wine. That way, the wine expresses the unique characteristics of the soil and the climate for a particular vineyard.
Turley’s technical approach
“We do everything the same at each vineyard and at each winery so everything you have is the expression of the soil, the exposure, everything,” Larry says. “Pretty much the same oak regime. When we get the fruit, we pick it cold. It’s all hand picked. No added yeast. Cold soak it. We don’t crush it. Just destem it. Pretty long fermentation, sometimes 30 days.”
“So when we press it after it ferments, because there are so many whole berries, there’s like a point, point and a half of sugar that’s released from the whole berries. So it finishes primary fermentation in the barrel. Sometimes, it takes months to do that so it gives the wine a softness and accessibility.”
“It’s about 14 months in oak, 20 percent new oak. And of the total number, 20 percent is American oak. We buy the wood and have them air dry it for three years and cooper it. We find it’s a little less harsh, a little less vanilla taste than if you kiln dry it.”
“We don’t filter. We don’t fine. We’re pretty lazy in the winery,” Larry jokes. “We spend a lot of time in the vineyard.”