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Three Words You Never Thought You'd See Together

Turley. White. Zinfandel. I don’t know why some wines get no love. It’s not just because many of the type are made badly. That can be said of just about any wine. We always urged people to embrace the idea that any wine made with care can be good. But there was always something about White Zinfandel that made it difficult for it to be embraced in that sensible position.

I think it had to do with its popularity. Heaven forbid that the unwashed masses find a wine they’re comfortable drinking. So if you liked it, snobs quickly pegged you as someone of poor taste and, even worse, poor breeding. The last time we gathered enough for an extensive tasting for The Wall Street Journal, we literally had to get on the floor to locate them because so many White Zinfandels were stocked on the lowest shelves of wine stores. We felt as though we were buying pornographic magazines, you know, kept behind the counter, wrapped in brown paper, out of view of decent people.

That’s why Christina Turley laughed when she told me last week: “The best thing is to show up at a gathering of a bunch of fancy winos hauling a White Zin.”

Turley is, of course, the California winery that’s famous for brilliant, big Zinfandel. It was founded in 1993 in Napa Valley by Christina’s father, Larry. Larry’s sister Helen, the famous winemaker and consultant, set its style as its first winemaker, but left after about a year. Larry still owns Turley Wine Cellars and guides its production of 28 different wines, mostly Zinfandels, from 35 vineyards.

John and I discovered the 2013 Turley Zinfandel with a white cap and white label last month when we arrived early at Corkbuzz Wine Studio for a Chardonnay tasting with the amazing Laura Catena and decided we should have dinner first. It was not one of the charming, sometimes ethereal pale pinks that have taken the U.S. by storm, but a wine of gravitas, a dark, full-bodied rosé. Respectable. Solid. It had enough bright acidity to dance with John's crispy pork belly with sweet chili glaze, red cabbage slaw and cilantro, and enough zesty, red-berry fruit and a dash of black pepper to sing with my earthy bacon-wrapped quail with watermelon and Korean chili. John ordered a half case the very next day and I began researching it.

The first thing I discovered was that it was the brainchild of Christina, the oldest of Larry’s four daughters, and that she is a graduate of Barnard College (BA in Art History, 2006) as is our daughter Media (BA in French Literature, 2011). Let’s hear it for strong, smart, awesome Barnard women!

Christina said that after graduating, she stayed in Manhattan and worked briefly for an art gallery before becoming serious about wine. Part of her education, she said, was reading our first book, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Wine.

“The WSJ book was the very first wine guide I ever picked up, and it’s remained seminal ever since. Informative but enjoyable, your voices have deeply influenced my own exploration and subsequent wine career; and of course, I loved that White Zin article! The fact that you enjoyed our White Zin at Corkbuzz, and are now reaching out to me about this project that is indeed very close to my heart, well, I’m so happy I could spit,” she wrote in response to my emailed request for an interview. My subject line was “Barnard Mom, White Zin Interview Questions.” Her dad, who was an emergency room physician for 24 years in California, was born in Tennessee and raised in Georgia, and I could hear him in the language she used, having grown up in the South myself.

The article she referred to was our 2003 column about Warrant Officer Laquitta Joseph, who at the time was stationed in Iraq. Officer Joseph had told our then-colleague Helene Cooper that she had always tried to like the better Merlots we recommended, but she hadn’t “managed to acquire a taste for much beyond White Zinfandel.” So to honor her, we had done a tasting of White Zinfandel, to find one we could recommend to her. It will tell you something about the depth of disdain for White Zin among the gatekeepers that even a column written with that purpose elicited outraged howls of “how could you dignify this wine?”

While in New York, Christina became a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and passed the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Advanced professional certification program with honors. In time she became the beverage director for the Momofuku Restaurant Group, the dynasty of Chef David Chang. One night after work, while sitting at the bar at Terroir, a charming wine bar in her old neighborhood in the East Village, it struck her that she had never had a White Zinfandel, despite the fact that her last name is synonymous with Zinfandel in American winemaking and she’d had all of those wine classes. So she called her dad with her brainstorm. “What if we made it dry?” she suggested. “For a lot of folks, it’s their first interaction with wines, period,” she said in its defense. Her dad’s response was “profanity-laden,” she told me, laughing.

She had spent summers at the winery north of St. Helena and now she had the certifications and serious work experience in other important areas of wine. So going home in 2010 made a lot of sense. Showing her true Barnard core—those women never give up—she looked at it this way: “Going back home I could be more annoying on a daily basis” in pushing the White Zinfandel idea.

Christina, 29, who is now the winery’s director of sales and marketing, calls the White Zinfandel her “passion project.” She is quick to say that she has no hand in the making of it -- Tegan Passalacqua is the winemaker -- but that she and her dad and Tegan “definitely collaborated” on it and that her dad “has really gotten behind it.

“He sees the value in it as a sort of extension of our roots,” she said. “To me, the White Zin is what the red Zin was for a long time -- not taken seriously, a slightly underdog variety that does have real roots and ties to where we are and were we’re from.”

The first release, about 150 cases in 2011, sold out in less than two hours to restaurant wine buyers and sommeliers she knew. “I told them in emails that I could give them three cases, five cases and they all said, ‘I’ll take it all.’ It was a huge success.”

The following year, they made “a little bit more” and it kept growing so that now it’s up to 500 cases. While the wine is still mostly available at restaurants and at the winery’s tasting rooms, a small amount was distributed to a handful of wine stores. The wine is made from organically grown, single-vineyard estate grapes, with the juice staying “only a couple hours on the skins,” she said. It’s aged in neutral French wood, which adds some richness and complexity. It’s a modest, accessible 11.9 per cent alcohol.

It wasn’t until we were well into the second bottle one night—it’s that easy to drink--that we noticed that nowhere on the label did it say White Zinfandel. The white cap and label were the key. “Better made and more charming than a lot of American rosés,” we wrote in our notes, adding, “They should be more upfront about it.”

I asked Christina about the omission of the words White or Rosé. She said some at the winery were concerned it could end up on a shelf somewhere years later and it might be the only exposure someone might have to Turley. “White Zinfandel,” she said, “still has a strong connotation, much stronger than Turley.” Others, she said, felt that since most of the wine was sold in restaurants, that left wine directors with the ability to label it on their wine lists as they pleased. “They know their guests better than we do,” she told me.

Gatekeepers trashed White Zinfandel because a lot of the wines were sweet dreck. But there was never any reason Zinfandel couldn’t be a fine Rosé, and now the geeks have their proof. In any case, the popularity of White Zinfandel means that a lot of vineyard owners haven’t pulled out their Zinfandel vines and for that I’m grateful.

Dorothy J. Gaiter conceived and wrote The Wall Street Journal's wine column, "Tastings," from 1998 to 2010 with her husband, John Brecher. She has been tasting and studying wine since 1973. She has had a distinguished career in journalism as a reporter, editor, columnist, and editorial writer at The Miami Herald and The New York Times, as well as at The Journal.



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