Helen Turley – The Woman Behind California’s Finest

In the distinguished world of fine wine, certain individuals stand out as originators who redefine the industry's standards. Helen Turley, an iconic figure in the California wine scene, has not only shaped the trajectory of winemaking but has also elevated wineries to new heights. From her early days in Georgia to the establishment of the renowned Marcassin Vineyard, Turley's journey is a testament to her unwavering commitment to excellence.

From Roots In Georgia To Vines In California

Helen Turley's journey into the world of wine is a fascinating tale that began far from the vineyards. Growing up in Georgia in a non-drinking family, Turley's introduction to the world of wine occurred while pursuing her education in New York. Her educational background in chemistry and biology, acquired at Cornell University, set the stage for a career that would fuse science and artistry in the pursuit of exceptional wines.

In 1968, Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer, embarked on a transformative journey to California and a few years later, in 1977, she began working in the lab for Robert Mondavi Winery followed by a short time at Chappellet Winery. Despite facing initial challenges finding a winery willing to hire her in the cellar, Turley's perseverance and ambition led her to a winemaking position in Kentucky. In 1984, she returned to California as the winemaker for B.R. Cohn, marking the beginning of a series of influential roles in some of the state's most esteemed wineries. Turley's tenure as the founding winemaker for Peter Michael Winery in the Knights Valley wine region showcased her ability to define and refine the emerging style of California Chardonnay. Notably, she played a pivotal role in the development of Les Pavots, a Cabernet Sauvignon blend that further solidified her reputation as a winemaking maestro.

The Marcassin Vineyard

I have come to think this [Marcassin] may be the greatest chardonnay in the world.” -Robert Parker

In 1991, Turley's forward-thinking approach led her to plant a vineyard in the Sonoma Coast, a region largely undiscovered at the time, as it was considered “too cold” for planting grapes of quality. The Marcassin Vineyard, founded with her husband, became synonymous with some of California's most respected Pinot Noir and Chardonnay labels. Renowned wine critic Robert M. Parker hailed Marcassin's Chardonnay as "the greatest in the world."

In the cellar, the Chardonnay undergoes whole-bunch pressing, while the Pinot Noir is destemmed and subjected to a cold soak before fermenting with wild yeasts. The aging process transpires in new French oak, without any fining, filtering, or cold stabilization before bottling. Subsequently, the wines mature in the cellar for approximately five years before being released.

Consulting Excellence

Helen Turley's influence extends far beyond her own vineyards. She has served as a consultant for esteemed wineries such as Colgin Cellars, Martinelli Winery, Kapcsándy Family Winery, Blankiet Estate, Pahlmeyer Winery, Landmark Winery, and Bryant Family.

In addition to making the wine, Turley and Wetlaufer helped Bryant Family with the replanting of the vineyard. Bryant also constructed a $9 million gravity-flow winery, designed according to Turley's concepts. Her keen insight and commitment to excellence have left an indelible mark on the California wine landscape. Some of California’s finest wines have benefited from Turley’s unique and refined style that have made them the world-renowned fine wines they are today.

Accomplished Beyond Compare

Turley's contributions to the industry have been widely celebrated, earning her prestigious awards such as the Wine Spectator Hall of Fame (2004), Distinguished Service Award (2010), and a Lifetime Winemaker Achievement Award from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate in 2017. Marcassin, under her guidance, received the Extraordinary Winery Award for Best Sonoma County Winery in 2017.

Shaping California’s Wine Industry

Helen Turley's visionary approach to winemaking, from her early struggles to her illustrious career and the establishment of Marcassin Vineyard, has shaped the very fabric of California's wine industry. Her dedication to quality, innovation, and the pursuit of excellence serves as an enduring inspiration for winemakers worldwide, ensuring her legacy as one of the most influential figures in the history of American winemaking.

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