Standing on a grassy slope in rural Templeton, Karl Wicka stooped to examine one of the gnarled, waist-high grape vines spiking the field around him.
After nearly a century of growth, these zinfandel vines can still produce some of the varietal’s finest expressions, but the elderly plants require extra care and attention. That TLC is Turley Wine Cellars’ mission, with Wicka leading the effort on the Central Coast.
“Each plant is an individual, and you have to treat each one differently,” said Wicka, who serves as the Paso Robles area winemaker for the Napa-based winery.
Founder Larry Turley, after co-founding and selling his stake in Napa’s Frog’s Leap Winery, went from reviving patients as an emergency room doctor to resuscitating some of the first vines of what’s often considered the state’s first wine.
The zinfandel-focused winery now has vineyards across the state, including four in the Paso Robles area — almost all organic, dry farmed and head-trained with free-standing plants rather than trellised vines. The unique characteristics of each location are showcased in primarily single-vineyard bottlings.
“We handle everything the same,” at the three wineries in Templeton, Napa and Amador County southeast of Sacramento, Wicka said, including picking, processing and aging. “That allows you to say the reason it tastes different is the vineyard.”
Wicka’s wines are prime examples of how far zinfandel has come since the varietal’s days as a cheap jug wine. Three of his zins have made Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list over the past few years — a tally unmatched on the Central Coast.
“With more and more producers treating it seriously, the market is treating it more seriously, too,” Wicka said, noting that some zinfandels have started cracking the $100 mark. “It’s finally getting its place at the table along with the noble varieties.”
Turley’s first foray into the Paso Robles area came in 2000 with its purchase of the Pesenti vineyard off Vineyard Drive. Planted in the 1920s and farmed by three generations of the Pesenti family, the 44-acre limestone vineyard imbues the wine with floral and mineral attributes not usually found in zinfandel.
A couple years later, Turley acquired a long-term lease on the Ueberroth family’s 17-acre vineyard on Willow Creek Road. Planted in 1885, it’s Turley’s oldest vineyard — and the closest to the ocean.
“Those vines have been there 130 years. The roots are really, really entrenched in that shaley, calcareous stone,” Wicka said. “The wines always have a laser-like backbone of acidity.”
Some of Turley’s softest, most approachable zins come from 15 acres in the oldest section of the Dusi vineyard, planted by Dante Dusi in 1945 and still farmed by his family today. “They tend to be the most suave, with the broadest appeal,” Wicka said.
Turley’s latest local venture is rehabbing a 6-acre vineyard — interspersed with cherry and other fruit trees in the old Italian fashion — tucked on a ridge in the Templeton area. The property can be traced back to the Amadeo Martinelli family winery, which started in the early 1920s.
While the Turley team has plans to restore the derelict winery and a home on the property for future potential use, the focus so far has been nursing the long-neglected vineyard back to health. After a few years of working to improve the soil, the vines are slowly but surely coming back; Wicka produced the first Amadeo’s Vineyard bottling last year.
The Turley team members see themselves as stewards of some of California’s oldest vineyards, producing wines that reflect their heritage. And with vines from the 1850s still producing fruit, it remains to be seen how long that legacy will stretch.
“If you take care of the soil, who knows how long (those vines) can last,” Wicka said.
Sally Buffalo writes about wine, beer and spirits. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@sallybuffalo.
Turley Wine Cellars
2900 Vineyard Drive, Templeton
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
The scene: A spacious tasting room featuring a recently excavated 420-pound whalebone fossil with views into the barrel rooms and an inviting patio outside.
The offerings: Mostly vineyard-designate zinfandels along with petite syrah and a couple blends for tasting or by the glass or bottle.
Expect to spend: $10 to taste four wines, waived with purchase of two bottles. $32 to $50 per bottle.
Vintage Paso: Zinfandel Weekend
Celebrate zinfandel with events at venues throughout Paso Robles at Vintage Paso: Zinfandel Weekend, presented by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. The fun kicks off Friday with a special Zinposium seminar and after-party at the Paso Robles Inn Ballroom, paired with a movie screening at Park Cinemas in Paso Robles. Find the full schedule of events at pasowine.com.