With a name like Turley, you can't hide from the wine world for long.
I first met Christina Turley in her short, but celebrated, pose as the sommelier of several of David Chang's New York restaurants. She got a lot of attention during that time, as only a beautiful woman with a winning personality holding a bottle of wine can. Last year, she returned to the family farm to take up her part in the Turley wine dynasty. (Her father is vintner Larry Turley, her aunt Helen.) Here's a profile I did of the young turkess for Imbibe.
Back to Her Roots
By Robert Simonson
When Christina Turley was nine, she drew a picture of the perfect wine. “It was a Lancers-shaped bottle,” remembers her father, famed California Zinfandel vintner Larry Turley, referring to the sweet Portuguese wine that was ubiquitous in American liquor stores in the 1970s. “On the label was a picture of herself. And the wine’s name was ‘Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate.’ ”
Now 26, Christina is back at her father’s side in Napa Valley, after a high-profile stint as wine director at David Chang’s Momofuku restaurant empire in New York City. And she’s still coming up with peculiar names for wines. The first-ever Turley Cabernet Sauvignon, which she’s crafting along with her father and Turley winemaker Aaron Jordan, will be called The Label. The name is a crow-eating reference to an infamous verbal dart Larry Turley once tossed at his fellow Napa growers. The jibe was something to the effect that Cabernet people are reputation junkies who “drink the label,” whereas Zinfandel lovers drank the wine. “I wanted to acknowledge the hypocrisy that we had said we’re not Cabernet people, and here we are doing Cabernet,” Christina says. Her voice is soft and polished, yet kittenish, with no trace of accent, either West Coast or East Coast. It's the professional voice of someone who greets strangers with a smile all the time. “I also like the simplicity of the name.”
The grapes for The Label come from a Cabernet vineyard that has long sat next door to the Turley estate and is now part of the family’s property. She emphasizes that the wine, which will be released later this year, will not be like so many other California Cabs. “It’s a throwback to the classic Cabs of Napa in the ’70s,” Christina says. “It’s a little bit lower in alcohol, not as punch-you-in-the-face. The bottle itself is the same sort of flat-bottomed, green, lightweight bottle that those wines came in. The big bottles of today are so heavy you can’t tell when the thing is empty.”
A year and a half ago, Turley was as far from the family business as possible, while still remaining in the contiguous United States. She was wine director of the Momofuku restaurants in New York, overseeing, with fellow sommelier Kristina Sazama, the wine programs at Ssäm Bar, Ko and Ma Peche. The high profile position, combined with Turley’s famous name, youth and Audrey Hepburn-like good looks—long dark hair, short bangs and dark eyebrows frame a pale, elfin face—combined to transform her in a very short time into one of the most visible sommeliers in New York. (She kept her hair style in California, though she jokes its grown longer and more "vigorous" in the Pacific sun.)
It also helped that she was good at her job. “She ran the whole thing,” says Momofuku’s David Chang. “She overhauled the wine list at Ssäm Bar, helping Ssäm reach the ‘S. Pellegrino Top 50 Best Restaurants,’ and her work on Ko’s wine list helped the restaurant to initially earn its two Michelin stars.”
“I was always impressed with the unusual meals and wine pairings that she and the chef at Ko would pull together at the last moment,” says Sazama. “She’s got a great palate for acid. She’s a big Riesling fan. That was one of her go-to regions. She loved going for unusual wines and demanding that the distributors bring those in.”
Before Turley got busy turning Momofuku patrons into Riesling fans, Momofuku inadvertently turned her into one. In 2008, while Christina was still trying to figure out what to do with her life, Larry Turley took his daughter to Ssäm Bar. General manager Cory Lane was on duty that evening. “He recognized us and came over,” remembers Christina. “This was a bit of an epiphany moment for me. He did wine pairings for us. He poured all these dry and off-dry white wines. We were eating all this pork. I was like, ‘Who is this weirdo pouring these weird, off-dry, white wines? Do you have any idea who you’re pouring for? That my dad’s the master of big, red wine?’ But it blew my mind. Not only were the wines delicious, but they went with the food really well. It was the first time I saw how effective wine and food pairings could be.”
A couple months later, Turley met Lane by chance in Terroir, the East Village wine bar known for its vast Riesling selection. She boldly hit him up for a job. Luckily, there was a spot open and she got it. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say my name helped get my foot in the door at certain places,” admits Turley. “I realized how green I was experience-wise. But, like anything, it’s up to you to keep that door open. I worked really hard, and studied really hard.”
Turley began her tenure at Momofuku as assistant manager at Ssäm Bar. But when the wine director departed, she quickly shifted to that department. She became junior sommelier at Ko—whose 12 seats are fought over by New York foodies—where she managed to sneak a few Turley bottles onto the wine list. She was studying at the American Sommelier Association all the while, building on the informal education she’d received as a member of a family that includes star winemaker Helen Turley (Larry’s sister). Even Christina’s grandmother was a wine buff. “I’d always sit next to her during tastings, because she was the most spot on,” remembers Christina. “I’d go after her and whatever she said, I’d agree with.”
Turley’s determination and fun-loving personality put her over with her new colleagues. “She’s really good at connecting with patrons,” says Sazama. “She’s fabulous, outgoing and friendly.”
“We just hit it off as friends,” says Joe Campanale, beverage director at L’Artusi and dell’Anima in Greenwich Village. He didn’t take much notice of the famous handle when he first met Turley at a wine tasting. “I thought it was some weird wine coincidence,” he said. “That wasn’t impressive to me. What was impressive to me was her down-to-earth personality and how fun she was. She’s a total goofball. She doesn’t take the wine business too seriously.”
Turley and Campanale formed a tasting group with Jeffrey Tascarella of Scarpetta (and now with Tenpenny), Tanya Roqueta at Corton and a few others. They gathered weekly, each bringing a wine, and tasted them blind. “We were all such close friends that a lot of times it would go from educational to just hanging out with your friends,” says Campanale. “We weren’t as productive as we could have been, because we liked each other so much.”
Turley helped Chang open his much-hyped midtown restaurant Ma Peche in May of 2010. But despite her rapid climb in the New York wine world, she was receptive when a call came from out West beckoning her home. “I’d wanted my own project for a while,” she says. “David Chang knew that.” For a time, she thought that project would be a wine bar. But the opportunity to launch a new wine was too tempting to pass up. “Our winemaker, Aaron Jordan, is an extremely convincing guy,” jokes Christina. She tendered her notice at Momofuku and moved to California in late summer of 2010, back to the winery where, as a teenager, her dad made her clean all the barrels and wash the floors and walls. “They’ve got a power washer,” recalls the petite Turley. “Christ alive! You accidentally point that thing at your toe and it will take it off!” She arrived just in time to see the Cabernet grapes harvested.
Recently, Turley also took on a position in the winery’s sales department. That will mean a lot of traveling, tastings and wine dinners, but this is where Turley shines. “She is so at ease at dinners and events and tastings,” says her father. “We’ve never traveled during harvest, so she’ll do that. She’ll be very busy in September. ”
Christina doesn’t object. “It’s fun. It made me happy to see how happy my dad was to have me back here. He and I are very similar. I feel more involved, closer to my family. It means a lot to me. This is my family’s name. I’m happy to be a part of it in this way.”