Turley Zinfandel Lightens Up

A blushing beauty steps back onto center stage

On September 5, the first zinfandel grapes of the 2012 vintage arrived at the crush pad of Turley Wine Cellars. But these weren’t just any grapes. Oh no, these grapes are not destined to become a burly Turley Zinfandel. Picked at just 21 Brix, the fate of this grapes is of a lighter hue. A pinker hue to be precise.

All the while that Christina Turley was living in New York City — studying at Columbia; working as a sommelier at Momofuku Ko — she was urging her father, Larry Turley, to make one wine: White Zinfandel. “I was sitting at Terroir,” Paul Greico’s riesling temple in the East Village, “one night and realized I had never had white zinfandel.” That’s actually probably pretty normal for most serious wine drinkers, but it is ironic considering her last name: How could a woman whose name is practically synonymous with “zinfandel” have never tried one of the most popular and most-produced wines in California that is made from that very grape? The answer, of course, is because most of it is shit. And there is just no reason for that, says Turley.

In 2010, after she returned to Napa Valley to claim her birthright, Turley and newly appointed winemaker Tegan Passalacqua set about planning the first ever Turley white zinfandel. But you won’t find it in the cooler at Safeway nestled between Beringer and Sutter Home. It sold out almost immediately, for starters, and is featured on wine lists in the Bay Area and in New York City. While the 2011 release retailed for just $19 at Turley’s tasting room, it fetches a much higher price on restaurant lists — as much as $100 at some area establishments.

“Are they just doing it to be pretentious? I don’t get it,” said one clearly confused Napa Valley-based winemaker we spoke to recently. If pretentions are involved, they are certainly not Christina Turley’s. “It’s so fun to show up to a snobby wine gathering hauling a white zin,” she says. In a world where the “right” wine and the “wrong” wine are often only skin (or label) deep, Turley is challenging people’s perceptions — forcing them into uncomfortable territory. And hopefully, breaking down boundaries and preconceived notions about just what good wine is.

This wine is also about reclamation — something that the Turley name is also known for when it comes to vineyards. But the younger Turley is looking to the past in deeper ways even than saving old vines. She, along with Passalacqua, who is a member of the Historical Vineyard Society, are looking to how zinfandel used to be grown and made.

The new vineyard they planted at the estate, and from which the white zinfandel is sourced, is head trained — something rarely done anymore. Because zinfandel ripens unevenly — meaning there can be raisins and green berries on the same cluster, vertical trellising has been, for years, seen as ideal. But Turley believes it makes flabby, one-note wines. The range of ripeness, she believes, — from under-ripe to slightly overripe — gives the Turley wines greater depth, balance and complexity.

What does this mean for the White Zinfandel? It all adds up to a serious wine that is also fun to drink.