A Garagiste in Our Midst: Turtle Creek Winery
The gently sloping field bathes in the late-September sun. In laser-straight,
trellised rows, Vitis vinifera, with perfect v-shaped clusters of deep
purple globes dangle tantalizingly at eye-level. The grapes capture the
last bit of this season’s sun and continue to sweeten. All over
the Northern Hemisphere, grapes like these await the harvest and the winemakers’
calculated decision of when to pick. In the Val d’Orcia and the
Languedoc, in the Mosel Valley and the Cote d’Or, the Penedes, and
the Russian River Valley, the decision when precisely to pick the grapes
rests on the winemaker’s expert palate, sensory analysis, and experience.
Is this the moment of perfect balance between sugars and flavors? Will
the grapes get sweeter if we wait; will there be a frost; will it rain
for the next few days? It’s a big decision, even in this tiny vineyard
in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Kip Kumler, owner of Lincoln’s, Turtle Creek Winery, and Tracy Ebbert,
vineyard manager and assistant winemaker, pull off one of the soft, pinot
noir grapes from the cluster and taste. They suck on the skin, chew on
the pits, experience the fruit’s ripeness, judge its readiness.
The time is now, they decide; time to pick the grapes. It’ll take
at least a year before the consumer concurs, or not.
But of course, there is so much more that goes into producing a bottle
of fine, hand-crafted wine than the timing of the grape harvest, and Kumler
knows a lot about what that is.
Started in 1999, Turtle Creek Winery consists of a one-acre vineyard and
winery at Kumler’s home in Lincoln, plus a two-acre vineyard he
established on land leased from the town of Lincoln. The winery has a
capacity to produce about 1000 cases of wine per year (by comparison,
a large California winery might produce 80,000 cases or more in a season).
The wines made are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel,
Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. A former consultant
to Arthur D. Little with training in electrical engineering, Kumler began
Turtle Creek with a business plan, his own money and a passion for wine.
He read all he could about winemaking and viticulture and talked to lots
of other winemakers. In his winery he applies traditional techniques and
cutting-edge, sometimes innovative technologies to produce the wine he
wants. “We are a boutique winery that is really determined to make
a world-class wine in a location people have every reason to be skeptical
about. My wine is worth tasting,” Kumler asserts.
What designates the diminutive winery as artisanal is the effort that
goes into caring for the grapes themselves. “Everything is done
on a small scale by intention to maintain the integrity of the grape,”
Kumler explains. He restricts the number of vines planted to 2000 vines
per acre to minimize disease and maximize yield; a typical Burgundian
vineyard, for example, will pack in 4000 vines per acre. The grapes are
hand-sorted then crushed gently by a finely-machined, Italian press. He
experiments with yeasts: in addition to ubiquitous yeasts found on site
in the vineyard, Kumler adds yeast to the barrels experimenting with how
it will effect the finished product. “We experiment with two batches
[of the wine juice] with two yeasts to see what we want in the finished
wine. We do a huge amount of experimentation here,” he says. Viticulture
is an intensely experimental type of agriculture—every grower strives
for cold-hardy, disease-resistant, complex-tasting fruit. At Turtle Creek,
a state-of-the-art lab and small additional plot devoted to trial-and-error
planting, allow Kumler exquisite control over the quality of his wines
from plant to bottle. Temperature, too, is precisely controlled using
a computerized temperature control unit he designed himself.
Making wine is about growing grapes—it’s an agricultural,
nature-driven cycle and one that Kumler loves. He says, “Each year
presents you with a whole different set of things. My philosophy of winemaking
is informed in large part by the mistakes.” In the beautiful, vaulted-ceiling
barrel room, stand 500-liter oak barrels, twice as big as standard barrels.
In barrels of this size, Kumler feels his wines age more slowly and develop
more complexity. As the juice in the barrels acquires age and complexity,
after a couple of months, Kumler and his assistant try to sample the juice
at least once a week—is the wine developing the desired layers and
depth of flavor, the flavor profile, he’s looking for. This could
take up to twenty months before bottling. He explains, “A lot of
this is about developing a palate. It’s not like an engineering
thing where you’re constructing the outcome. A lot of it is just
paying attention to what these things are telling you and to say, ‘all
right, it’s been in there long enough, we’re going to bottle
Kumler is confident and realistic. Every step in the winemaking process
bears his mark of intelligence, passion, and an uncompromising commitment
to quality. “I don’t think the business is ever going to be
a money-maker,” he admits, “but I’m determined to make
a world-class wine.” Despite a very loyal following, he says “the
hardest challenge I have is to get people to taste the wines. People assume
that because the wine is from Lincoln it can’t possibly be good.”
Turtle Creek wines have consistently garnered awards at international
wine competitions: several silver medals at the San Francisco International
Wine Competition, bronze medal awards at the Finger Lakes International
Wine Competition, and both silver and gold awards at The Tasters Guild
International Wine Judging.
Turtle Creek wines range in price from $10-$18 per bottle. For Thanksgiving
this year, why not try a local, world-class wine. Kumler suggests his
Turtle Creek 2005 Pinot Noir, or 2005 Cabernet Franc both pair well with
Thanksgiving dinner; after all, he says, “there’s terroir