“I’d be bored making just one varietal,” explained Ehren Jordan, the proprietor of Failla Wines and winemaker/GM for Turley Wine Cellars, as we talked about the disparity between Turley’s big Zinfandels and the restrained Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, and Syrahs he makes for his own label.
“If you’re making huge wines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” he continued, “you’re still going to enjoy drinking Beaujalais. I really think that more people who make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay should make 16 percent Zinfandels for their day jobs.”
It was an interesting thought. Perhaps consumers would see fewer of what San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné describes as “inky, oak-loaded Pinots made for flash and impact,” if more California winemakers could split their time between labels like Turley and Failla.
Then again, there aren’t many Ehren Jordans. So it probably wouldn’t work out that way.
It’s no secret that I love the wines from Failla. So when Kathy Berez, Failla’s director of sales and marketing, scheduled an interview with Ehren while I was out in Napa for the annual Wine Writers Symposium, I hoped to nerd it out with a conversation exactly like this.
Ehren Jordan’s wine career began in Washington DC, while he was studying art history and classical archeology at George Washington University. Like many college students, Ehren needed a part-time job. So he walked just a few blocks away to Bell Wine & Spirits, where he convinced the owners to hire him as a stock boy. He enjoyed his time at Bell’s and learned a thing or two about wine, but didn’t yet realize that wine would become his life’s work.
After graduating in 1989, Ehren headed to Denver – working that first summer and fall as a sales rep for a large wine distributor. Like many 20-somethings in Colorado, he headed to the ski slopes that winter, figuring he’d ski all day and work at night. He landed a job at a restaurant in Aspen, and by the end of that first season, he was both managing the restaurant and heading up its wine program.
In case you’re wondering, Ehren is still a dedicated skier. The morning we got together, he was getting ready for a weeklong trip to Aspen.
When the 1990 ski season ended, Ehren headed to Napa Valley with some of his friends from Aspen, figuring he’d be back within just a couple of months. But money was soon running low, so he decided to look for a job, applying for a temporary position with Joseph Phelps as a tour guide.
That’s when his wine career really got started. Shortly after starting at Joseph Phelps, he decided against moving back to Apsen. Three years later, after working his way up at Joseph Phelps from a tour guide to the retail sales manager, he left California for the Rhône Valley to try his hand at making wines — working two harvests with famed French winemaker Jean-Luc Columbo.
“While in France, I learned that winemaking isn’t that hard,” explained Ehren, who has no formal training in viniculture. “They have phenomenal vineyards there – and that’s what winemaking is about. For small-scale, artisanal winemaking, the skill sets you need are really basic. It’s all about finding great vineyard sites and not manipulating the fruit.”
It was also in the Rhône Valley that Ehren reconnected with a childhood friend, Anne-Marie Failla, who was traveling.
While away, Ehren’s former boss from Joseph Phelps, Bruce Neyers, had become the national sales manager for Kermit Lynch Wine and decided to start his own Napa Valley winery. So when Ehren returned to California in 1994, Bruce offered him a job as the winemaking partner at Neyers Vineyards.
Although the Neyers project was going well, Ehren needed a paying job. So he linked up with Helen Turley, who brought him onboard to help out at both Marcassin and Turley Wine Cellars, her brother’s small Zinfandel label.
Larry and Ehren hit it off. So upon learning that Ehren had experience with vineyard management, winemaking, and retail work, Larry offered Ehren a full-time job. Ehren said yes, taking the reins in 1996. He’s been the general manager and winemaker at Turley ever since.
Also in 1996, Anne-Marie Failla said yes. They had reconnected, again, when Ehren returned to California. They were married in 1997.
Around that same time, Ehren and Anne-Marie started developing a plan for Failla.
“Failla grew out of asking myself ‘what do I drink at home that I don’t make at work?’” Ehren explained. “When we decided to start Failla, Anne-Marie and I were drinking a lot of Chablis — so I wanted to start making wine like that.”
The topography, climate, and weather of Marcassin’s Sonoma Coast estate reminded Ehren of the northern Rhône – so when a “gorge-laced” 40-acre parcel with just five plantable acres went up for sale, he bit.
“Syrah should taste like it does in the northern Rhône,” explained Ehren, as we talked about Sonoma Coast Syrah. His favorites include the usual suspects – labels like Peay, Arnot-Roberts, and Copain.
In 1998, they planted the property – which is now Failla’s estate vineyard – with a small crop of Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. That same year, they purchased fruit for their first two releases – an Alban Vineyard Viognier and a Que Syrah Vineyard Syrah.
Ever since, Ehren has been dedicating all his efforts to Turley and Failla. Critics adore Failla’s wines — Wine Enthusiast Magazine named the 2006 Phoenix Ranch Syrah it’s “ wine of the year” — and Turley is, well, legendary. Customers who sign up for Turley’s waiting list have to wait more than two years, on average, to purchase wines.
When we started talking Zinfandel, the conversation quickly focused on the topic du jour, “balance” in wines. For me, at least, purchasing a bottle of Zin is like a playing a game of Russian roulette – with most of the chambers full. Some producers, Mike Officer at Carlisle, Mike Talty, and Ehren himself, are making excellent Zinfandel. But most Zins are pruney and Port-like, and go down like cough syrup.
Ehren agreed — first talking about how “awesome” the wines from Carlisle are, and then describing what he’s observed with picking times.
“Fifteen years ago, we were the last to pick our vineyards by about two weeks,” he explained. “Now, we’re the first by about two weeks.”
Interestingly, Turley’s alcohol levels have barely budged. “Our Zinfandels have always ranged from 14.8 percent to 16.4 percent. I’ve got all the spreadsheets and numbers, and the alcohol level hasn’t changed.”
Jordan does admit that his Zinfandels are more acid driven then they used to be, but he attributes that to healthier, sounder fruit, crediting vine age and better vineyard management.
The success of both Turley and Failla isn’t just the result of good winemaking – it’s also the result of good business sense.
Consider the location of Failla’s winery and tasting room. Although all of Failla’s fruit comes from the Sonoma Coast, it’s right along the Silverado Trail in St. Helena. The decision to purchase there in 2004 was influenced, in part, by Ehren’s desire to offer Napa visitors a top-quality Pinot House.
“Sonoma is sprawling,” Ehren explained. “And in Napa, everything is much closer together, and everyone is making Cabs. So at virtually every tasting room, if someone says, ‘where do I go to get some good Chardonnay and Pinot,’ there’s a good chance they’ll end up at Failla.”
All those people who “end up” at Failla are certainly in for quite a treat.