Helen Turley the greatest? Don’t get me started
I almost hurled when I saw Wine Spectator’s latest cover story anointing Helen Turley “America’s Greatest Winemaker.” (Yes, I know they posed it as a question, but with the triumphant cover shot of the Pink Lady, and the worshipful tone of Jim Laube’s panegyric, you just know what Wine Spec’s answer is.)
Laube has spent the better part of two decades promoting Turley and her brand, Marcassin. He lavished praise on her in his 1995 book, “California Wine.” Ten years ago, he called her “arguably California’s most talented winemaker”. (Going from “California’s most talented” to “America’s greatest” is a pretty big leap, don’t you think?) And, just last month, Laube devoted his blog to her. I can’t think of a critic in the world who has spent so much time and energy building up a winemaker. Both sides seem to have profited by this pas de deux: Laube has near exclusive access to Turley and her wines, while Turley receives deified scores from Laube in America’s most famous wine magazine. To call a relationship like theirs “elitist” is an understatement (and, by the way, Marc Aubert’s slap at Turley is a real howler. Talk about egomania!)
I haven’t tasted the wines of every winemaker in America (has anybody?), so I’d be afraid of singling out any of them for “greatest” status. I haven’t even had the wines of every winemaker in California (has anybody?). But even if I had, I would never dare call one of them “California’s greatest.” That’s not only absurd, it’s an insult to all other hard-working winemakers. It’s illogical to even postulate that somebody could be the “greatest” winemaker. Maybe in a little region you could do it. Maybe Josh Jensen is the greatest winemaker in the Mount Harlan AVA. But in all of America? Talk about hype. No, this is beyond hype. It’s nonsense, and should be seen that way.
It is true that Wine Enthusiast gives out a Winemaker of the Year award, to recognize a particular winemaker for his or her achievements. But that’s a far cry from saying that a winemaker is “the greatest in California” or “America” or (what’s next?) “The World.” How could anyone read something like that and not wonder what’s going down?
I don’t review Marcassin wines, because I don’t go out of my way to find them, and Turley doesn’t reach out to me. The times I’ve tasted her Pinot Noirs, I thought they were awful. I remember once, at World of Pinot Noir, thinking they were the worst wines in the whole event. Maybe they were bad bottles, I don’t know. I’ve liked some of the wines of Turley’s client wineries, for whom she consults or used to, but wineries aren’t required to take their consultants’ advice, although they still have to pay them; and I think some wineries hire these famous-name consultants just for bragging rights, and then don’t even bother to listen to them.
At any rate, if you see that Spectator cover story and feel sorry for yourself because you can’t get Marcassin and never will, don’t. Feel sorry instead for Wine Spectator for this self-indulgent puff piece.
Look, I understand the thinking behind cover stories. They’re not picked at random; they’re the ultimate expression of a magazine’s metabolism, linked to every vital organ that keeps the magazine alive, from sales and advertising to reputation to internal considerations and outside personal relationships. There’s both more and less to Spectator’s Turley cover than meets the eye. More, because we’ll never really know exactly why they did this, although we can reasonably assume almost anything; and less, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter to normal people. Helen Turley is not “America’s greatest winemaker.” She’s not California’s greatest winemaker, or Sonoma County’s or even the Sonoma Coast’s. I’ve seen right through lots of wine magazine covers, but this is one of the most pandering and cynical ever. The California wine industry is laughing at it, and you should, too.