How ‘Turley’ went from $7 to $45 a bottle

Featured Posts — By KF Louis on October 7, 2009 at 12:21 pm

There are times when your trusted wine retailer can’t do everything for you. Because they can’t be everywhere and stock everything, it’s important that you do your own scouting of up-and-coming regions for good values. And besides, it’s fun!

This is a story about how the Pesenti zinfandel vineyard, that once turned out wines at $7 a bottle, shot up to $45 in a just a few year’s time.

Only 15 years ago, the Central Coast wine region of California was barely known. It had great dirt, but it was making shlocky, uninteresting wines except for a few early stars like Eberle, Chalone, Tablas Creek, etc. A region in this state of development is a perfect place to scout for value wines, as long as you have some patience — and a designated driver.

My first visit to the Central Coast was in 1998, in pursuit of quality zinfandel under $15. Our first three stops were uneventful. No keepers. The fourth was Pesenti, an old, family-run winery in the heart of Templeton. The plainness of the tasting-barn was refreshing, but not promising. There stood Frank Nerelli, in a Carhartt jacket and John Deere baseball cap, pouring wine into thick shot glasses.

We stepped up to try a few of the wines. The first three (jug wine varietals!) were a total bust, at which point I looked at another 10 bottles on the counter and asked, “So which wines are you most proud of here at Pesenti?” That question put a smile on Mr. Nerelli’s face. He bent down below the bar and came back with two things: a zinfandel wrapped in a blue label and an oddly shaped 500ml bottle with gold writing. “I’m proud of these two. The rest just sort of pay the bills.”

The blue-label zin: totally solid. The one with gold writing: the best zinfandel port I’ve ever tasted, still to this day. He then told me that both wines came from a few dry-farmed rows of 80-year-old vines behind the house, which he cared for meticulously. And here was the best part: the case price of the blue-label zin was $85 ($7 a bottle) and the 500ml zinfandel port, $17.

We loaded up the trunk that day and many times over the next two years. The prices climbed to a ‘whopping’ $11 for the zin and $35 for the port as the awards started rolling in and folks outside the region started to discover Pesenti’s gems.

Then in 2001, a mostly happy ending occurred. Word spread that Helen Turley bought Pesenti and the Nerelli family would see a nice payday.

In my usual, “love-’em-when-they’re-underpriced” style, I quickly forgot about Pesenti until I went to a tasting that included the 2003 Turley Zinfandel, Pesenti Vineyard.

When I tried it, I thought it was about 80% the same wine I remembered–bolstered by more finesse and a superior winemaking style that just made the grapes taste better. But, as you may have guessed, the Turley price was $45.

Was I a buyer of Turley/Pesenti at $45? Absolutely not. I already had a short list of other compelling zin values, and meanwhile, the Southern Rhone and multiple Spanish regions were exporting new value wines to U.S. by the hundreds.

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