Serious Eats: Drinks

What Are You Drinking, Christina Turley?

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[Photo: Studio 13 Designs]

Turley Wine Cellars is a storied California estate, known for beautiful single vineyard old-vine Zinfandels and Petite Syrahs. Christina Turley is the director of sales and marketing, but it wasn't always clear that she'd find herself working for the family business in St. Helena. We asked her a bit about how she found her way into wine...and what she's drinking now.

What are you drinking these days, Christina Turley?
I drink a lot of California wines by default, since they're the most readily available locally. Recently I started to feel a bit boxed in, so decided to expand my horizons somewhere tough—namely, the consonant-heavy grapes and regions of Eastern Europe.

I ordered a bunch through ACME Fine Wines in St. Helena and have just started working my way through them; so far, the 2007 Čotar Vitovska from Slovenia is my favorite. It's a dark, rich, white wine that spends a fair amount of time on the skins and in the bottle before it's released. I took it with me to a party with a bunch of winos, including Cory Lane (now GM at Resto & Cannibal in NYC, owner of Frith Wines), Steve Matthiasson, Alex Kongsgaard, and a host of others. Everyone's kind of off in their own little worlds with all the various wines on the table when Cory comes bursting through the gathering like the Kool-Aid man with a glass of this in his hand, hootin' & hollerin' about it. So then everyone else grabs some, and just like that we're focused on this one thing all together as a group. I love when wine can do that to you; you think you're going in one direction when all of a sudden a wine forces you to sit up and take notice; just like that, a fun moment can also become a contemplative one, however fleetingly.

What's in your fridge for summer drinking?20130720turleyzin.jpg
I've been drinking more beer recently...nothing special—Modelo, Pacifico—sometimes it gets so hot even I can't drink wine. Thankfully the heat wave is starting to subside, in which case, I've got lots of other options. Bugey Cerdon, a bubbly and faintly sweet rosé from just outside the Jura in France (I DARE someone to be unhappy when they drink this; it's basically impossible). I also love Txakoli in the summer; it's a light, slightly saline and subtly fizzy wine from the Basque region of Spain. And of course, the quintessential postmodern hipster wine of the summer: Turley White Zinfandel!

Tell us about your wine journey. When did you know you wanted to be in the business?
I grew up working summers in my family's winery in Napa Valley, but never really thought it was something I'd want to do full time. I moved to NYC for college and worked as a hostess in a couple of restaurants during school and LOVED it: the energy, the people, everything. I studied Art History and worked at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea after I graduated, in no small part because it proved to my parents I COULD do something with my degree. However, I found myself constantly drawn back to food and wine; devouring NY Times Dining sections, all manner of food blogs, and scrolling through restaurant menus online. Somehow I came across that Oscar Wilde quote ("It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it") and I knew it was time to surrender.

I returned full-time to restaurants starting as a junior manager at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in the Four Seasons hotel. I also decided it was time for me to get serious about wine, mostly because I was embarrassed when people assumed I was some kind of wunderkind (my stepmother is an importer & distributor, specializing in Burgundy; between her and the winery, I was certainly exposed to a lot, but that doesn't mean I knew my ass from Assyrtiko). One day in early 2008 I convinced my father to go to Momofuku Ssam Bar for dinner while he was in town. (It didn't take much--"Dad, they have tons of meaty things, like pork bel-" "WHY AREN'T WE THERE ALREADY??").

Their GM and wine director at the time was Cory Lane, and he recognized my father and insisted on pouring wines for us. So we ate this meat-heavy meal but drank, of all things, high acid, light bodied whites. At first I thought the guy had lost his damned mind, since it went against what (admittedly little) I knew. However, by the end of the meal, I was hooked; to the new experience, the feelings, the flavors. I started taking classes at the American Sommelier Association, and pestered Cory until he offered me a job. The advantage of being green (I was 23) in a situation like that is, I had NO idea what I was getting myself into, and was therefore not as terrified as I probably should have been. I went from being a glorified hostess to a "Junior Woodchuck Sommelier" at Momofuku Ko, their three-star, tasting menu-only spot.

In an effort to prove both to the restaurant and to myself that I deserved to be there—and, let's be honest, I certainly didn't deserve it, at least not in that moment—I threw myself into my studies. I finished the Viticulture & Vinification class at ASA, then took their Advanced Blind Tasting course as well as the Advanced Level of the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, which I passed with honors. I passed the first two levels (Intro and Certified) of the Court of Master Sommeliers. I learned by leaps and bounds in the restaurant as well; they were not afraid to make mistakes, as long as the same ones were never repeated. I left the floor of Ko to help them open Ma Peche, and eventually became the wine director of all four restaurants. It was one of the craziest, busiest, most soul-crushing and ridiculously fun few years of my life.

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Turley Estate Vineyards [Photo: Jordan Coonrad]

Once I'd gotten into wine, working with my family began to feel inevitable. In late 2010, Ehren Jordan, then the GM and Winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars, called me up. Dad had bought a Cabernet vineyard and they decided that rather than pull it out and plant Zinfandel, which is what the winery is known for, they would instead make a new wine under a different label. The opportunity was huge, and I knew enough to know one like it wouldn't come around again anytime soon.

At first I was only sort of peripherally involved; working the harvest and designing the new label was work, yes, but once harvest was finished I didn't have much to do. I filled in for a sales representative at my stepmother's distribution company who'd gone on maternity leave, trying to sling wine in Sacramento. This was an unbelievably humbling experience; I came in, mistakenly thinking that having lived and worked in restaurants in NYC would automatically grant me success somewhere else—"make it anywhere," etc. Instead, I had my ass handed to me, and it was a crushing blow to my ego. I instantly felt sorry for every sales rep I had (unknowingly!) jerked around during my time as a sommelier. Luckily the gig was temporary, and soon after the Director of Sales at Turley announced he was moving on. After such a miserable experience and feeling like I had failed in my attempt to come home, I was nervous at first, not wanting to be further humiliated. Eventually I decided giving up was worse than failing again, and now I couldn't be more grateful that I stuck with it. After a sputtering start, I finally feel like I'm hitting my stride—exactly where I'm supposed to be.

We'll have more from Christina Turley later this week...

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