The Story of Turtle Rock Vineyards
I'M A NATIVE SON of Paso Robles, California. When I grew up amid this beautiful land, the wine industry hadn't yet sunk its roots too deeply into this rich soil; my uncle Tom Westberg was something of a pioneer when he began making wine here in the mid-1980's. I was exposed to the business through his Westberg Cellars enough to know that the craft of wine intrigued me, and to that end I studied ag-business at Cal Poly, SLO.
After a couple of post-college years spent wandering- mostly by sailboat, mostly around Central America- I ended up in Palm Beach, Florida. I spent some time there in the restaurant business, fine-dining jobs that rekindled my interest in wine, especially varietals from the Rhone Valley in southern France. There, I also met and married my lovely wife, Claudia, my partner in business as well as in life.
In 2007, she and I returned to a changing Paso Robles, where I soon took up with Justin Smith. Justin was an old high school pal who in the ensuing years started Saxum Winery and became a bit of a wine celebrity, a phenomenal talent producing wines of unprecedented quality- his 2007 Rhone blend was Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year, No. 1 in the entire world- in an increasingly mature Paso Robles scene.
The work I did while hanging around Saxum gave me intense appreciation for sustainable, chemical-free winemaking of the sort Justin was doing to critical rapture. My uncle gave me the opportunity to restart Westberg Cellars- a crucial entree into the business for me.
I had began taking some of my pay from Justin in grapes- those Rhone varietals I'd come to love so much. They came from Saxum's James Berry Vineyard, a plot at an altitude of about 1,200 feet whose soil is a shale limestone blend of breathtaking potency. What I began making on my own was so different from Westberg's output that it gave me the chance to branch out further still. Claudia and I decided to name our budding winery Turtle Rock, a nod to the beautiful local limestone that over time wears down and comes to resemble a turtle's shell.
And we were off. Our first-ever 2011 James Berry Maturin scored a 92 by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. Some years later the 2016 and 2017 Maturin, a blend of Syrah, Graciano, and Grenache from the James Berry plot, each received a 99 from Jeb Dunnuck, an influential Colorado based wine critic who knows the Paso scene well. He also named our 2017 Maturin number 5 in his top 100 wines. Upon hearing the news, my phone began blowing up with congratulatory texts from friends and winemakers, but it wasn't until I heard Claudia crying tears of joy that I truly realized the significance of what we had accomplished. We have had continued success and received our first 100 points for our 2019 G2 Syrah.
Today our journey continues- a voyage of boundless gratitude. I'm grateful for the maturation of Paso Robles into a serious global wine center. I'm grateful to run a true family business, in which everything- tilling, planting, harvesting, even bookkeeping and label design- is done by someone with a personal stake in the operation. I'm grateful for Justin's knowledge and advice, and those of the many other Paso vintners working to make wines that do justice to this magnificent piece of earth. And I'm grateful for everyone out there who loves our wine just as much as I do, and who can't wait to see what this soil and this abundant sunlight produce next.
- Don Burns
Turtle Rock Vineyards, Paso Robles, California