Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tasting in the Napa Valley: Turnbull Cellars

"Turning heads since 1979," proclaims the Turnbull Cellars website. The estate was named Johnson-Turnbull at that time, and I bought the Cabernet in 1980, 1981 and 1982. Most of my bottles were consumed 20-plus years after the vintage, and all were very good.

Now, as then, Turnbull Cellars is not as well known as it deserves to be. Its vineyards are located right across the road from Robert Mondavi's acclaimed To Kalon Vineyard, from which the Mondavi Oakville Cabernet is produced. And the Turnbull Cabernet has many of the qualities that you expect from the better known and higher-priced wine.

The tasting started with the 2010 Viognier, which reminded me more of the Rhone Viogniers I've had than the usually overly sweet and oaky New World versions. Smells of musky melon, white peaches and honeysuckle make you think you're going to get a sweet wine, but the mid-palate and finish tell you otherwise. It's a bit hot on the finish, as Rhone Viogniers usually are, but there is good strength and concentration. For $30, though, I would prefer to buy two bottles of the Domaine Sainte Anne Cotes du Rhone Blanc, which is 100% Viognier.

The 2007 Merlot tastes more like Cabernet to me, and the wine clerk tells me it has some Cab in the blend. Fortunately, it lacks the green bell pepper smells and flavors I get from many New World Merlots. The 2007 Cabernet Franc is probably my favorite of the tasting. It has bright red fruit smells and flavors with soft tannins and some vanilla on the finish. It's similar to a Loire Valley Chinon, but without the earthy qualities.

The star of the tasting, of course, is the estate 2009 Cabernet blend. In addition to Merlot and Cab Franc, the cuvee contains Petit Verdot (a nice addition) and a small amount of Syrah. The result is a very Australian-like Cabernet: big and fruit forward with lots of minty eucalyptus character. These smells, I was told, come from the eucalyptus trees that border the vineyard. It's a controversial topic, but the eucalyptus quality is unmistakeable, as it is in Cabernet wines from Mondavi's To Kalon vineyard across the road and in wines from Australia where eucalyptus is even more prevalent. In the 1980s, this quality was highly prized, but many winemakers today try to cover it up because it is not a "classic" Cabernet trait. It's to Turnbull's credit, I believe, that the winery still turns heads with eucalyptus and strong fruit...just as it did in the early 1980s.


  1. Fred, I'm loving your Napa write-ups, particularly the Turnbull and Clos Pegase reviews as those are two of my faves. One of the first "good" wines I ever had was a 1986 Johnson-Turnbull Cabernet that my future father-in-law opened for me when he made dinner for me and my then-girlfriend. This would've been back in the early 90s. I recently enjoyed Turnbull's "Old Bull" red blend - a zesty Syrah-Cab blend that sells for about $20.

    Sounds like you had a great trip!

  2. Thanks, UGA Wino. That's all for Napa; I will finish up with Anderson Valley Pinots later this week. The woman at Groth told me about Turnbull's Old Bull; I'll have to look for it in the shops. The same woman insisted that I visit Saddleback Cellars and Miner Vineyards (but I wasn't able to make it to either place).
    I had two other Napa wines--in restaurants--that I thought were notable: Madrigal Cabernet and Keenan Merlot. These were wines by the glass for only about $8 to $10--one of the fringe benefits of traveling in wine country. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that, at age 73, this was my first trip to Napa and Mendocino.