Here’s a life lesson, Grasshopper—and especially if you are a grasshopper: Never turn down an opportunity to interview a man named Turnipseed.
If he happens to be socially engaging, well-versed in the art of enology and willing to pick up the tab at a Birmingham bistro while pouring exclusive, big-shouldered Mt. Vedeer reds, well then, Grasshopper, a plague of locusts shouldn’t keep you away.
Charming as the name ‘Turnipseed’ is, it’s also well-respected in California, albeit under a slightly different spelling: ‘Turnupseed Electric’ appears on many a motor in the automotive, agriculture and food industriesAnd odd as the name ‘Turnipseed’ is, Jay Turnipseed—the Franciscan Estate winemaker who breezed into town to pour his wares—is not the first one I’ve interviewed. I tracked down a relative of the late Donald Turnupseed when I was writing a book on Paso Robles. Although Donald Turnupseed was the man who put Turnupseed Electric on the map, that’s not why I wanted to interview his nephew. Beside owning the electric motor company, Uncle Don Turnupseed was also the guy who broadsided James Dean in the latter’s fatal car crash outside Paso.
Whether or not there is any family ties between the Turnupseeds and the Turnipseeds, I didn’t ask. I did, however, ask a lot about Napa wines.
Jay didn’t just fall off the turnip truck—he has been with Franciscan since 2004; before that he was an enologist with E&J Gallo. He rocks a sort of Walter White look, with the chrome dome and goatee, and like White, he’s adept at the chemistry behind controlled substance production. He entered that profession along a circuitous route that began as a stint as a back waiter in a Sand Diego restaurant, where he picked up extra cash by helping the wine captain do inventories. Though that experience, he learned so much about the organization of the cellar that when the sommelier moved on, he was tapped for the job. During his stewardship, he had a chance to taste a 1953 Chateau Margaux, and it proved to be a transcendental experience. No longer content with selling wine, Turnipseed enrolled in the Viticulture and Enology program at UC Davis and learned how to make it.
“I couldn’t have landed at a better winery for the kind of wines I wanted to make,” he says. “Old school, invested in success. Oak Knoll produces some of the most nuanced wine in California; Mt. Vedeer, some of the most intense and age-worthy.”
Intensity and nuance are words that get tossed around with frequency in conversations with Jay Turnipseed, and so is ‘Justin’. In fact, ‘Justin’ is uttered with a sort of deep-seeded reverence that reminds you of that old Warner Brothers cartoon when the big-haired conductor entered the symphony hall and everyone began a gutteral, whispered chorus, ‘Leopold… Leopold…’
In this case, ‘Justin… Justin…’ refers to Justin Meyer, a former monk who left the Christian Brothers in 1972, about the same time I joined them—at least, by attending a Christian Brothers parochial school. Like me, Meyer had a better time ex-Christian Brothers. He partnered with Colorado entrepreneur Ray Duncan on a 750 acre plot of land in the Napa Valley, formerly the Oakville Dairy farm, and put the skills he’d learned as a winemaker at Greystone Cellars, a church-owned winery from 1945 to 1989 and today home to The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, to work. The goal was to focus entirely on Cabernet Sauvignon and produce the finest incarnation of that varietal in the world. This singular fixation was explain by Meyer at the time: “It was kind of a reaction to my days at Christian Brothers, where we made so many wines it was hard to do them all right, and it was kind of in keeping with what I thought—that Cabernets were what Napa and Sonoma did best, so why not devote our attention to that? This is a pretty common concept in France.”
What wasn’t a common concept in France was the use of American oak in barrels, a decision Meyer made because he believed that the classic barriques of Burgundy and Bordeaux imparted too much wood tannin in a wine. In one of the most brilliant analogies to emerge from the early wave of California vintners, Meyer likened tannic wine to tough steak.
Nothing tough about his tradition; the wines that Jay Turnipseed poured were supple and firm, and those with tannins showed none of the bitter qualities that Justin Meyer deplored, but ripe grape tannins that strutted beautifully with the fruit. Even the wines meant to age, the Reserves and the small production lots, show well today; indeed, to Brother Mr. Meyer’s point, many young Bordeaux from top châteaux are virtually undrinkable in their infancy.
Although Justin Meyer died in 2003, the legacy he built at Franciscan remains at the forefront of the mission statement (no pun).
With one noteable exception: Meyer’s Cabernet complex is shattered, with a wide range of varietals now in the portfolio. Take the Sauvignon Blanc, the first of the line-up poured, vintage 2014 ($17). Grown in the heavy clay soils of Oakville, the grapes were picked early (August 7) because of low-rain condiditons, but the methoxypyrazines—the chemical compound responsible for the overtly grassy quality of many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs—are evident, but not overpowering. The wine finds itself in a delightful limbo between Marlborough and the Loire, with a balance of stone fruits and herbal freshness. The wine might have been named ‘Equilibrium’, except that they already had one.
Equilibrium 2014 (2014) is a blend of 72% Sauvignon Blanc, 17% Chardonnay and 11% Muscat, left slightly sweet and jazzed up by a percentage of barrel fermentation. Like all Franscican wines, despite a foreward, friendly feel, it’s meticulously produced, with precisely monitored skin contact during fermentation and careful vineyard management during the growing season. “I’m in the vineyard constantly,” says Turnipseed. “The trigger on these grapes has to be pulled at the right second.”
Both wines are bottled beneath Stelvin ‘Lux’ stoppers, a neat twist on the twist-off—more elegant looking and perfectly suited to this style of wine.
We shifted attention to a trio of Chardonnays: Entry level Napa Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($23) is grown in the Larsen Vineyard in Carneros, the coolest region in Napa. The vintage was warm and dry, so the fruit developed optimally, and the wine is luscious with lemon curd and ripe pineapple notes and a nice buttery finish. Malolactic is a given with these high Carneros acids, and lees stirring helps build the richness. That’s redoubled in the upper-end Larsen-designated Chardonnay, made from select blocks in the same vineyard. Retailing for $35, Larsen offers lush tropical aromas, toasted almond, and syrupy pear notes.
Particularly intriguing, and the best of the white lot, is Cuvée Sauvage 2013 ($45), produced using purely native yeasts. According to Jay, “We put the juice in the barrel and let the native vineyard yeasts start a wild and unpredictable fermentation. It begins slowly. And when it finally takes off, it moves at a leisurely pace and at cooler temperatures. As one strain of wild yeast slows, another comes forward, adding even more complexity and body to the wine. Each successive fermentation adds a new dimension, and each barrel develops its own personality with unique flavors and nuances.”
In fact, the wine feels both restrained and foreward, a dichotomy explained by the many layers of complexity, running the full spectrum of citrus and apple with a restrained perfume and an explosive texture underscored by a silky, oaken sheen.
Then Jay raised the red flag, and as much as his whites displayed the multifaced terroir of Napa, the original Franciscan raison e’tre, and Bordeux blends especially, display the foundational organoleptics. Not sure if Brother Jeremy stirred a little Merlot or Petite Verdot into his Estate Cab, but the 2012 ($29) is 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 3% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot and 1% Syrah and is filled with brambly, dusty summer black fruits, berries, currants and plums and opens opulently into cocoa and coffee.
Napa Merlot 2012 ($23) which blends in a touch of Malbec, is filled with juicy red cherries and cinnamon, surprisingly chewy with supple tannins and a good, broad finish. Later, Jay poured a limited edition Reserve Merlot—less than a thousand cases produced—of which he is justly proud; it showed ambition and fruition, a California Merlot with breeding born of the varietal’s spiritual home in Saint-Émilion on Bordeaux’s Right Bank while offering the lush forwardness of Napa’s fertile warmth.
Then the pick of the litter: The Mt. Vedeer label, made in the Fransciscan winery, relies on top fruit from that most rugged of Napa sub-appelations. Located in the southwest corner of Napa, ranging in elevation from 600 to 2500 feet, Mt Vedeer has the longest growing season in Napa, and also the lowest yields—according to Jay, the grapes are often the size of frozen peas. But the wine is magnificant. Mt. Vedeer pushes viticulture to the limits, but when the wines are successful, they are outstandingly so; it’s a combination of perseverance and patience are required to wait out the risks of the growing season, but Mt Vedeer Reserve Cabernet 2013 demonstrates stature in the struggle: Both brooding an ebullient, the wine shows cassis, black licorice, eucalyptus and deep, serious fruit. Tannins are beautifully integrated, vibrant and gripping, and the wine in clearly crafted to settle in for the long haul.
In 1999, Fransican Estate Winery was purchased by the great global wine firehydrant, Constellation, and I recall, at the time, being skepical. Shored up by workhorse brands like Woodbridge and Vendange, I assumed that corporate directives would take Fransciscan away from the tight, hand-crafted intensity of small production lots and wedge the winery into the mass-production fold based on reputation. Well, now I’m willing to toss Constellation a bone, here: Jay Turnipseed poured a harvest of prizewinners and there’s wasn’t a dog in the bunch.
“Constellation allows us to produce the quality of wine we always have, the best of what the appellation allows, “he say. “But we have deeper pockets now, and can take advantage of economies of scale when it comes to purchases—tractors, barrels, stuff like that. So, we keep prices reasonable.”
I can see it.
What I can’t see is the hallowed patriarch Frère Justin being particularly enamored of the move; after all, he made his mark in the world by leaving the tribe, not by joining it. Still, the seeds were sown nearly two decades ago, and as far as I can tell, from those seeds, Fransciscan’s quality and stature has grown.