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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.

  1. Dude, you win the award for The Hundredth Commenter!

  2. Wayne,

    I call bull on that story 😉

  3. ” Of course, no wine critic would ever become prominent by living off extravagant lunches and dinners to taste wines and telling us all about it. ”

    Wow. Missed this until today. Had me rolling on the floor laughing. Great tongue-in-cheek line. Kudos.

  4. Smiley Quick says:

    I’m not here to say Helen is America’s greatest winemaker, but Mr. Heimoff may have swolled his own vomit. There are very few winemakers who can put up a resemue quite like Helen’s. She has had her hand in crafting some of the finest California wines in the last twenty five years. It’s easy to throw stones when your pants of full of rocks. Wake up Steve, let’s see your list of great wines that you have crafted.

  5. Tom Brock says:

    And this is where you show your true colors. I understand that you may not like that style of Pinot Noir. You may prefer to spend $10,000 buck for a subtle (ie no flavor or muted ones with some weedy and barnyard flavors of La Tache and think that is great)- well – just go to it. However having had almost every Chard and PN she has done at Marcassin, as well as older PN, Chard and Zin at Martinelli that she did, as well as almost every vintage of every wine from what she started at Peter Michael- you have some other agenda to say the wines are terrible. I would respect your view, (although I think she is the greatest on the planet- personally and have been drinking wine longer than you are old) if you said they were not your style, but to say they are awful or as some have said not well made- that is like calling the President a traitor to his country. Is Rush Limbaugh your wine advisory??? So what is your agenda- you are a chauvinist? You were born with less taste buds than other people or you are paid by some wine group to sponsor Rombauer? I think that if CA had made PN for a 150 years the question might if France would be trying to compare their wines.

    How do they explain the following extract from the late Richard Olney’s book, “Romanée-Conti – The World’s Most Fabled Wine”, published in 1995 by Rizzoli International Publications, New York, New York. Page 79 contains this passage regarding the diary notes of the estate’s proprietor:

    This is from the diary notes at Romanée-Conti by the proprietor J.-M. Duvault-Blochet, who published vintage notes for 47 years, from 1822 to 1868. He defined quality as, “At 11.5% one makes barely passable wines, at 12% one makes decent, marketable wines, at 12.5% above average, at 12.75% lively, firm and ruby, at 13% and 13.5% one makes great wines, at 14, 14.5, 15 and 15.5% one makes altogether exceptional, incomparable wines.”

    Why is it that nearly 150 years ago the proprietor of the world’s most famous vineyard then (and probably now) knew more about quality than today’s neo-intellectuals and extremists?

  6. Reviving a 5 YO blog post? Why?

    Kinda like reviving those DRC notes from 200 years ago, which is one of the most manipulated and overused theories on how wine ought to be made.

    Back then, everyone was making those types of wines, but selective history is always helpful to win an argument! 🙂

    You want the Marcassin Chards…have at it…but they typically age poorly. You want the Pinots? Fine. But they are not varietally correct. I even had to return one at a restaurant as I found it undrinkable.

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