A Garagiste in Our Midst: Turtle Creek Winery
Rosie DeQuattro
November 2006

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 it now.’”

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 everywhere.”

 

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