When I teach my students to write personal narratives, I discourage elongated stories about day or even week-long experiences that turn into lists of things one might have done, rather than focusing on a single point. “On Monday we climbed Pike’s Peak, and on Tuesday we went fly fishing, and then on Wednesday we…” Just tell me about Pike’s Peak, I encourage them. I understand, of course. They’ve done many wonderful things, and picking just one to focus on feels almost like a betrayal of the other experiences. So with this, my own advice in mind, this week as I enjoy the Napa Valley, I want to focus daily on just one experience I have that stands out, whatever or wherever it may be. And while I had many truly exceptional experiences yesterday on my first day of the excursion, the one I’m going to dwell on for a moment this morning was my visit to Turnbull Wine Cellars.
I was heading northbound on Highway 29, the congested artery that flows up and down the Napa Valley, dividing the Mayacamas Range to the West from the infamous Howell Mountain to the East. Just past Robert Mondavi’s famously hyperbolic Tuscan archway, I turned right and entered Turnbull Wine Cellars. Set back from 29 and secluded by trees, it has a peaceful, country vibe about it, with antique trucks and tractors parked about the property, and composed of numerous beautiful wooden structures seemingly from another age.
William Turnbull had just built a beautiful barrel room for Jack Cakebread in the late 1970’s, following the boom of attention that Napa was getting after besting the French in the now infamous Judgement of Paris on America’s bicentenary. Realizing he was surrounded by unparalleled natural beauty, Turnbull seized an opportunity, purchased land, and built his own, very similar barrel room right next door to Cakebread’s. Both of them remain today, frequented by lovers of incredible wine and separated by only a few trees and grapevines. Eventually, Turnbull and his partner sold the winery — but thankfully to people, rather than a massive corporation. Today, Turnbull Wine Cellars is owned by the O’Dell family, who carry on the legacy of making exquisite, small-production wines, and who have graciously let William Turnbull remain the eponym for his visionary Napa property.
While I waited for my tasting to begin, I thumbed through books on winemaking and the Napa Valley, and admired a collection of black and white photography that I later learned is the largest collection of original Ansel Adams photographs in the world. I remembered the Ansel Adams print I had purchased from a sidewalk vender at the student union on my first day of college, and wondered whatever became of it.
Carey, a composed and knowledgeable young lady who has worked at Turnbull Wine Cellars for many years, gave me a tour of the property and then walked me through my tasting. Paired with locally sourced artisan cheeses and herbs picked fresh that morning on the property, the wines showed stunningly while Carey explained to me the various vineyards that are part of the Turnbull estate. From the home vineyard they source their Sauvignon Blanc, an exceptional wine that is aged in Italian clay pots and takes on beautiful minerality and bold texture. From the Fortuna Vineyard came a Merlot that was a tour de force of what the varietal can be — smooth, balanced, yet big and robust. The tannins were so fine that they lingered upon my palate indefinitely, a dusty sensation even more pronounced that that of the oft-referenced “Rutherford dust” frequently found on Cabernets from Rutherford.
I also had the privilege of tasting Cabernet Sauvignon from the Amoenus Vineyard, and their Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, a stunner of a wine, sourced from their 38-acre Leopoldina Vineyard situated on the Oakville Bench. It quickly became apparent to me that in a place full of talented winemakers and terrific fruit, winemaker Peter Heitz and his wines stand out. I met Peter only briefly as he was preparing for bottling, but was immediately drawn to his easy-going and affable personality. Even more, I was truly impressed by the undeniable quality of the wines he is producing — only around fifteen thousand cases a year. With the exception of the Sauvignon Blanc, we sampled wines from the 2014 vintage, which showed brilliantly yet were clearly age-worthy and desired to lay down for years to come.
To expound upon the rest of my day would inevitably get listy, but I do need to jump to the end. After other winery visits that will surely feature in my writing somewhere later, after meeting other talented winemakers, after dinner at Mustard’s with some wonderful friends, and after “test driving” a Tesla Model S which, frankly, has ruined all other cars for me forever, after all of that I was left with the gorgeous patio of the guest house where I’m staying, with the fountain gurgling softly in the background and the sun dropping down behind the Mayacamas and illuminating the vineyards. Left to my thoughts, I opened a bottle of Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon and took time to appreciate the beautiful things that surround me. This is easy to do when one is traveling, I’ve found, constantly surrounded by new experiences that pique curiosity and inspire examination. But I believe also, equally, that it can be done at home, and I look forward to a time soon when I can sit on the patio under our pergola with Sonja, watching the sun dip down behind the Silver Maples that line Poppleton Avenue, and sharing a glass of Turnbull Cabernet.
Cheers to the beautiful things in life, wherever we may find them,