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Chris Turkovich: Building A Legacy Through Wine

wine grapesDrive three short miles northeast of Winters, just beyond the bustling historic downtown, and you’ll come to a barn that overlooks a field of ever-rotating crops, stretching beyond the view of the natural eye, dancing in the evening when the cool Delta Breeze whistles through. Depending on the time of day, the structure can appear a romantic fire hydrant red, bringing to mind the types of farms you see in big budget Hollywood films or in children’s picture books.

Or it can come across as a soft brown, blending in with the dry side of the westward Vaca Mountains, which funnel the Lake Berryessa watershed to farmers all over Yolo County down through Putah Creek. At sunset, light plays a trick on your eyes and the barn emits a sharp yellow as the massive almond tree from a neighboring property casts a shadow over the rustic brown gate that reads: “Turkovich Family Wines.”

Farming love at first sight

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Turkovich vineyard property in the charming town of Winters

Out here, it’s a world away from the various corners of the globe where Chris Turkovich studied wine, but it’s just a few feet down Road 90A where he fell in love with agriculture as part of an ever-evolving third-generation farming family. Their father, Tony, managed the farming operations for the Button & Turkovich farms after following in the footsteps of his own father, Walter, who settled in Winters in 1958.

The elder Turkovich put his boys—Chris, older brother Mike, and younger brother Danny—to work early and often, redirecting the youngsters’ rowdy energy in the summers into producing a variety of wind-dancing crops like alfalfa, tomatoes, sunflowers, prunes and oranges. Like the crops, the kids moved through the family operation from the ground up, hoeing fields as 12-year-olds before moving into irrigation, then to operating the heavy machinery with the first transition proving the most difficult.

“We got like 10 cents an hour more, but it went from eight hours a day, five days a week to 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” Chris said. “It wasn’t much of a promotion.” Unlike his brothers, Chris knew from the moment he stepped out on the dirt on that first hot, dry summer, that this would be his life’s work. The backbreaking summers came and went but Chris never stopped picking the brains the experienced farmhands at Button & Turkovich until it was time for college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

By his senior year in 2006, Chris had developed a business plan to start a winery on the family farmland, earning an “A” on the plan after submitting it as his thesis in Cal Poly’s Wine and Viticulture program. But passing college with flying colors is different than asking your family to invest in a business that frequently loses money. “I didn’t even show (the plan) to my dad for six months and kept working on it, because I knew he was going to rip it apart,” Chris laughed. “And he did.”

That’s when Chris took the first of his three major trips abroad to study wine and work the harvest. It was out on the west coast of Chile in 2007 that Tony and mother Joanie finally approved Chris’ business plan, giving Chris two more years before he would be needed back in Winters to manage the day-to-day aspects of Turkovich Family Wines. So he departed on two more trips to learn as much as possible, using extended stays in Auckland, New Zealand, and a small town in South Australia, to perfect his expertise.

Growing the Turkovich Family

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Chris and his wife, Luciana, tasting the family wine

Chris expected to return from the 2009 visit down under with a new outlook on his business. What he didn’t expect was to return in love.

On the same hill in the valley Chris lived on that harvest was a second winery, where Luciana Moreno, daughter of famed Mendoza winemaker Norberto Moreno, worked while obtaining a degree in microbiology and chemistry. Their immediate relationship proved to be as ironic as it was unexpected: Luciana came to Australia in hopes of learning about new wine-making technologies, but arrived at a winery with the equivalent of Stone Age instruments.

Meanwhile, Chris came to learn about the business but ended up at a high-tech winery with state-of-the-art technology. While Chris honed his acumen with the spreadsheets, Luciana toiled away crushing grapes by hand. “I had big muscles,” she recalls. Added Chris: “It was easy hours for me, tough hours for her.” Only when their two wineries took work breaks for barbecues did Luciana get her reprieve, immediately warming up to Chris who is every bit as laid back as Luciana is fiery. “We make a perfect blend,” she likes to joke. More fortune followed the couple upon Chris’ return to the United States—Luciana was offered a position at a winery in Napa.

After alternating harvest seasons between the US and Argentina for several years, she married Chris and joined up with Turkovich Family Wines full time in 2012 to become the head winemaker. But none of this would have been possible without a successful launch back in 2009, when the couple were still unmarried and Chris’ wine still unknown. The goal wasn’t just to launch the wine though, it was to pull out all the stops and leave people with a lasting impression.

Brothers in Business

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Crafting cheese for Winters Cheese Co.

To achieve that lasting impression, Chris felt he needed to pair the wine with something edible, enlisting brother Danny to hand-craft a few different cheeses as his expertise allowed as he currently worked part time at the creamery in Cal Poly while attending Chris’ alma mater. What started as “a couple wheels of cheese” for an inaugural tasting quickly evolved into Winters Cheese Co. with Danny moving back to the area after graduating to head the operation. “Chris called me up and said, ‘Danny, you better think about this whole cheese thing because there’s more people in Winters that are excited about the cheese that we’re making rather than the wine,’” Danny says. “At that time I didn’t have a plan for when I graduated.”

With all three brothers now united (Mike helps manage the farming operation) and Luciana in the mix, Turkovich Family Wines exploded onto the scene as everyone brought something different to the table. Chris’ expertise in viticulture resulted in several popular oak-aged wines while Luciana’s background in science pushed the business forward, most recently adding a trio of sparkling wines to the lineup, the type that her family in Argentina is known for. And Danny’s cheeses gave “the perfect blend” of Chris and Luciana the perfect pairing in their tasting room (see sidebar) where foodies packed the downtown location for their popular Chipotle Jack and Gouda, among others.

In just five years after starting up, the Turkovich’s had opened up their barn-based winery, inaugurated a downtown tasting room and grown the family’s farming operations. The next step seemed obvious: construct a Winters-based creamery. For years, Danny commuted twice a month back down to San Luis Obispo to craft his well-received cheeses. Each weekend he accompanied Chris to festivals and events to promote their wine and cheese. In his other time, he pitched in in the tasting room, winery and on the family farm. The schedule was hectic, and if it were to continue, Danny would need a location for cheese closer to home.

15128893_10153912203331502_5613456975618019966_o“We didn’t grow up with dairy cows or anything like that, we grew up on a farm, getting into it, it was an exploration for us,” Danny says. “What would it take for us to develop a cheese brand and a cheese company to the point where you could invest the money into a facility and really do all the production and everything in one place?

“We did a lot of good work in terms of figuring out what it would take,” he adds. “It’s definitely a major investment. A facility for cheese-making is much different than a facility for wine-making because you’re regulated by the Department of Health and there’s a lot of construction standards that have to be met.”

Ultimately, it was decided that it wouldn’t be cost-effective to construct such a facility, so Danny handed off that arm of the business to local cheese-maker Sacha Laurin (“a fanatic of fermentation,” says Luciana) and moved on to work at an agriculture startup in the Bay Area.

“It’s definitely something that I think there’s a possibility in the future, something that would be beneficial to Yolo County, particularly as the area grows and there’s more demand for the specialty products that are becoming more and more popular,” Danny says.

So even as the Turkovich operation is currently down one member, those left in that barn off the beaten path prepare to celebrate the family’s next project: a look into their past. In mid-November came the release of the first-ever Turkovich Zinfandel, a varietal not often found near Yolo County. As Chris and Luciana discovered, Zinfandel’s origin can be traced back to modern day Croatia, where the Turkovich clan also hails from. Although, with influences from Croatia, Mendoza and San Luis Obispo seen in their Winters-based products perhaps it’s just easier to say that everything comes from that barn near the dancing crop fields three miles north of town.

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The best way to try these locally crafted products is right in the heart of Winters’ historic downtown. The romantically-lit, quiet spot features most of the Turkovich varietals alongside pairings from Winters Cheese Co., which also has its storefront in the tasting room. The facility is operated by a knowledgeable staff who are required to spend at least one day each year harvesting the grapes that eventually turn into the Turkovich wines they pour. The tasting room is located at 304 Railroad Ave., in Winters, CA 95694. Hours are Monday – Wednesday 11AM to 5PM, and Thursday – Saturday 5PM to 9PM for food & fights. For more info visit turkovichwines.com and winterscheese.com

Article by Evan Ream.

Turkovich Winery

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