Last spring, former Memphians Robert and Shirley Turner returned home for an extended stay, and they liked what they saw. "We'd always come back to spend a long weekend or a week or two at a time, but this spring we spent over three months visiting family and friends and absolutely loved it," Robert says. "Over the last five or 10 years, Memphis' restaurant quality and interest in fine wines have increased dramatically."
The Turners are founders of Robert Turner Wines, a boutique winery in Northern California. During their visit to Memphis, the Turners formed a relationship with Kelly English, chef and owner of Restaurant Iris, which, in turn, led to the creation of "Iris Cuvée" Chardonnay, to be sold exclusively at the restaurant.
Robert Turner, a dentist for 37 years with a practice in Palo Alto, California, was bitten by the wine bug decades ago.
"We started visiting wineries and collecting wine in the early '70s around Northern California," he says. "I had my picture taken with Robert Mondavi shortly after he opened his winery in 1977 at a Dental Society dinner we hosted there. He poured wine and chatted with all of us. That led to a deeper interest in wine, and, in 1986, I, with a group of five friends, started making wine together. We converted part of a garage into a winery on a property in the Santa Cruz Mountains and called it 'Rancho Diablo.' We hired a winemaker as a consultant, and I took classes at UC-Davis in everything from wine chemistry to sparkling-wine production. I still have a bottle of our original 1986 Cabernet!"
In 2004, the Turners founded Robert Turner Wines. As winemaker, Turner handcrafts Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a red blend, selling only 500 cases a year. (By way of comparison, some wineries produce as much as 250,000 cases a year.)
"I try to make wines that are varietally correct and express the terroir where the grapes are grown," Turner says. "I structure the reds to go well with food at an early age without heavy-handed tannins or heavy oak that require years in the cellar to smooth out and yet have good depth of fruit flavors and richness. The Chardonnay is aged only partially in new oak, so the fruit flavors come through, and fermentations are done in stainless steel. All my wines are made with food in mind so as to complement, not overpower, a meal."
While the Turners don't own their own vineyards, they source from some of the most highly sought after vineyards in California.
"The two major vineyards where we buy grapes — Dutton Ranch in Russian River Valley and Beckstoffer Vineyard in Rutherford — both practice sustainable, green farming practices, with very rare use of chemicals. This type of viticulture is very important to the long-term future of the vineyards and to the quality of the grapes we buy," Turner says.
Needless to say, the Turners aren't making simple plonk. They are painstakingly crafting some of the most sublime and ethereal wines coming out of the Golden State right now, which makes the Iris Cuvée all the more special.
"It was a happy miracle that this unique cuvée came to fruition," says Chef English. "Mr. and Mrs. Turner came in for dinner a number of times over the spring, and we would talk about food and wine. It just fell into place. We are honored to have this partnership considering how little Turner Wines produces. Most of their production goes to their wine club with the remainder selling to restaurants in San Francisco."
Tasting the care and love inside the bottle of a wine made by a son of the Bluff City should be very intriguing to Memphis wine lovers.
"Mr. Turner personally blended just a few cases of the Iris Cuvée Chardonnay for us, keeping in mind our style of cuisine," says Jeff Frisby of Restaurant Iris. "It's not much wine, but it's something we are very proud to offer our guests."