Larry Turley is pursuing his true passion: old-vine Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. He calls them "Big Reds," a phrase that aptly describes their sheer magnitude. But his winery also fulfills another of his dreams: Turley Wine Cellars is a cozy brother-sister act, co-starring his sister, winemaker Helen Turley, proprietor of Marcassin, California's hottest new Chardonnay brand. Turley, a bearded 49-year-old emergency room physician, has long loved Zinfandels made from California's old vines. But his attention was directed elsewhere for years. He co-founded Frog's Leap Winery in 1981 and co-owned it until 1993. Turley parted with the venture, amicably, after deciding that production -- nearing 50,000 cases at that time -- had leaped too far.

A surprising number of the old-vine vineyards that Turley is now focusing on are still producing in California, and many of them date to the late 1800s and early 1900s. They have survived because their owners have held onto the properties and planted new vineyards from scratch, which is easier than uprooting the old vines.

The catch is that many of these vineyards are under contract to sell their grapes to wineries that produce white Zinfandel. That may make Zin purists cringe, but it's a fact, says Turley. As the contracts expire, small producers scramble among themselves to buy the grapes -- often at three times their original price.

Turley believes that older vines offer more character and a better, naturally achieved balance than younger Zinfandel vines, which tend to be prodigious producers. "I think [old-vine] Zinfandels are the most soulful of wines," says sister Helen, clearly echoing her brother's sentiments about California's unique variety. In 1993, Turley Wine Cellars released three Zinfandels, two Petite Sirahs and a Sauvignon Blanc, The Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel 1993 (95, $22) is rich and dramatic. As popular as the Zinfandels are, Turley says that the Petite Sirahs sell out faster. Both have dark, saturated, inky color, intense fruit flavors and the requisite tannins.

In 1994, two more Zinfandel bottlings are planned, and, so far, the barrel samples are promising. The Hone is big, ripe and plush, pushing 17 percent alcohol, but wonderfully balanced, with rich chocolate and berry flavors. The Sears Vineyard Zinfandel has a chewy texture and is loaded with peppery aromas, even showing a whiff of jalapeno pepper. The Whitney Vineyard wine is thick and concentrated, with intense berry, pepper and briarlike nuances. Aiba Vineyard produces a tight and tart wine that's dense but not overly tannic. Turley was amazed at the distinctive flavors his vineyards produced. "I thought I'd never do what the French do and put vineyard names on the wines," he says. "But after I tasted the wines I realized why the French do that."

James Laube - Wine Spectator

Turley Wine Cellars / 3358 St. Helena Highway / St. Helena CA / 707-963-0940

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