Turnbull Home Ranch with tasting room in back.

Turnbull Wine Cellars in Oakville

By Published On: March 3rd, 2023

Interview with Winemaker Peter Heitz

For more than 40 years, Turnbull has produced excellent Cabernet Sauvignons. The winery leverages four prime vineyards, maintaining precise control over every aspect of the craft, from farming to bottling. This attention to detail has helped Turnbull produce some of the valley’s most sought-after wines.

We interview Turnbull’s Winemaker Peter Heitz to learn more.

What type of wine do you specialize in?  

Peter Heitz, Turnbull Winemaker: Our Cabernet Sauvignons are definitely the pride and joy of our portfolio, and because they are estate-grown like all of our wines, they are all deeply rooted in our vineyards. For me, the greatest wines tell the story of a special piece of land and a moment in time. That is what I am striving to convey in every wine we make, whether it’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc or Sauvignon Blanc.

Wines displayed at Turnbull Wine Cellars.
Wine Offerings. Photo Courtesy: Turnbull Wine Cellars.

Share a popular tasting experience.

Peter Heitz: I’m a big fan of our Private Estate Tasting. It is an incredible way to explore our very best wines in a very intimate setting. It’s private, 2 hours long and hosted by your own personal wine educator in our living room, or on our vineyard terrace. If you want to savor and explore the best of the best from our portfolio, it’s the way to go.

Turnbull Wine Cellars private tasting living room.
Private tasting living room. Photo Courtesy: Michael Venera.

What makes your wine unique?

Peter Heitz: We have been farming our four estate vineyards for decades. They are the essence of Turnbull. So, when we make our wines, we do so with integrity and respect—there are no shortcuts, no compromises—just a belief that if we let the vineyards speak, they will tell a fascinating story.

Guests enjoying wine and food pairing at Turnbull Wine Cellars.
Guests enjoy wine tasting. Photo Courtesy: Turnbull Wine Cellars.

What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?

Peter Heitz: There are many things that make Turnbull unique. We helped to pioneer Oakville winemaking, we have four renowned estate vineyards, three of which are in Oakville, and all of our wines are estate grown. I also love the fact that we have an incredible photography collection that our guests get to view and experience.

Turnbull Wine Cellars art gallery.
Art gallery. Photo Courtesy: Turnbull Wine Cellars.

Peter Heitz: Our collection features original works by renowned photographers that include Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Bret Weston, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Herb Ritts, Ruth Bernhard, Alfred Stieglitz, William Henry Jackson, John Sexton, Paul Strand, Horst P. Horst and many others. At any given time, the winery has from 50 to 70 of these works on display.

Turnbull Wine Cellars tasting room interior.
Turnbull Gallery tasting room. Photo Courtesy: Michael Venera.

Peter Heitz: Contemplating these works of art as you savor our wines is a truly memorable experience. It is also a reminder that wine, like photography, is about capturing a sense of place and time with craftsmanship and authenticity. 

Turnbull Wine Cellars garden and gallery wine tasting area.
Turnbull garden and Gallery tasting room.Photo Courtesy: Michael Venera.

Describe your winemaking philosophy or approach.  

Peter Heitz: I am not a by-the-numbers winemaker. There is no formula or recipe for our wines. My philosophy is almost completely vineyard-driven, and when it comes to winemaking, largely intuitive.

Turnbull Wine Cellars Winemaker Peter Heitz.
Winemaker Peter Heitz. Photo Courtesy: Turnbull Wine Cellars.

To honor the diversity of our vineyards, and to preserve their most delicate and ethereal characteristics, I apply a very restrained winemaking approach, being careful not to over extract or do too many punch-overs.

I also work in very small lots, doing as many as 90 fermentations each vintage to create a mosaic of flavors for blending, while tailoring our barrel choices to accentuate the nuance and complexity of each lot. 

How did you get started in the wine industry?

Peter Heitz: As a fourteenth-generation winegrower, I feel like I was born with farming and winemaking in my DNA. My family’s winegrowing roots in California go all the way back to the late 1800s, when my great-grandparents planted a vineyard in Napa Valley.

Before that, my family traces their winegrowing lineage back an additional ten generations in Alsace, France, before emigrating to the United States. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in biology, I joined the team at Beringer where I was mentored by Beringer Winemaster Ed Sbragia and Winemaker Laurie Hook.

Laurie taught me to be very organized, structural and linear in my approach, and to be very detail-oriented. Ed taught me to be creative, instinctive and to trust my senses. He also instilled a passion for making wines with a profound sense of place.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love with wine?

Peter Heitz: I grew up with my family owning and farming vineyards, and there was often wine on our table, so wine felt like a very normal part of life. In fact, so much so, that I didn’t understand how special it was until later on when I started my first job at a winery. That’s when I really fell in love with wine and realized how fascinating the transformation from grape to wine really is, which is something I still find magical today.

Turnbull Wine Cellars red wine grapes being harvested.
Grapes during harvest. Photo Courtesy: Turnbull Wine Cellars.

I love to approach each wine as a narrative, telling the story of a specific time and place. The goal is to create elegant, enduring and structured wines that are rooted in our estate vineyards, while striking that perfect balance between interesting and delicious.

To achieve this, you have to set ego aside and listen to the story the vineyard wants to tell. I also love opening older wines I’ve made. In a way, they are like treasured old photographs that inspire reminiscences of times past.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the winemaking process? 

Peter Heitz: Because you can’t make great wines without great grapes, I view myself as a farmer first. The real lion’s share of our work happens in the vineyards, where we use numerous labor-intensive techniques to ensure that we are growing some of the world’s finest grapes in our four estate vineyards.

Turnbull Wine Cellars estate vineyards.
Estate Vineyards.

It is essentially unheard of for a small winery like ours to have four estate vineyards on some of the most coveted land in Napa Valley. In terms of quality and diversity, our sites are remarkable, and the practices we have adopted showcase both.

Do you have a favorite story about working at your winery?

Peter Heitz: Where to start!? Fifteen vintages in, there’s been low moments and high moments. Thankfully, we have had many, many more moments of celebration than defeat. That said, it’s when a storm is about to crush the vintage that I truly appreciate the team we have. 

The 2011 vintage tested our fortitude and bonds. Pre-dawn our team was hunkered down in the tractor barn, rain falling heavily when I arrived with coffee and breakfast burritos (hard to procure at 4am…even in a farming town). From detailed forecasts, I knew that serious rain (think monsoon) was about 2 hours out and what was already a downpour was just the appetizer to what would turn out to be 13” of rain that day. 

There was fruit to pick. Too much to pick. 

The team knew it was hopeless. I urged them into the rain to pick with me. Growing up farming, I’m a bit of a winemaker anomaly. I drive tractors, hook up trailers, loads bins and carry a picking knife. So, I head off into the dark rain, headlamp blazing, hitch trailer to tractor and start loading bins. For awhile, my team stare from the barn as spectators.

The ½ acre Block 11 is the unicorn of the ranch and my target. I’m picking in the dark with the rain pounding—alone. The bins are filling with rain faster than fruit. 10 minutes. No one joins me. 15 minutes–they come and save my futile attempt. 

Fused in that rain and mud we came together and found some humility in the face of nature, our season at an end, but ready for the next downpour.

Favorite food and wine pairing?

Peter Heitz: It’s hard to choose between my children…so I’ll champion the underdogs: The secret gems are undoubtedly these three: the Oakville Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the Bonne Vivante and the Oakville Cabernet Franc—all of which are more interested in lift and focus than weight or brawn. 

Turnbull Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon wine bottles.
Photo Courtesy: Michael Venera.

They are wines for great meals, which nicely leads to the question of pairings. In Oakville there are a number of fantastic options, but my favorite meal in the region is humble Tacos Garcia in the pot-hole riddled dirt lot behind the local dive bar. 

It’s taco Nirvana, and while you can’t go wrong with any choice, for sport I’m pairing our Cabernet Franc with the ridiculously good Tacos La Planche, for the Bonne Vivante I suggest the otherworldly Tacos Alambre and for the Oakville Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon I’d grab your better half and split the heavenly Chile Verde Burrito and the perfectly spiced Al Pastor Burrito.

Do you have any winery traditions with your team? 

Peter Heitz: Yes! The GOLDEN SHOVEL! Each year, we award the May Toscano* “Decade of Domination” Golden Shovel to the team member that is the most willing to climb into the fermenter after fermentation and shovel out the pomace (skins, seeds and stem). 

2021’s worthy recipient was Nancy, a single mom of three children and a fourth-year harvest cellar intern who claimed the prize this year after literally diving into her work!  *The award is named after May Toscano who OWNED the award from 2007 through 2016—hence the ‘Decade of Domination’ adorning the Golden Shovel, which is of course made out of pure gold…just like our team!

How does your team help you as a winemaker?  

Peter Heitz: Whether in the vineyards, winery or tasting room, all of our team has the same mission, to help share the story of our estate vineyards, and the wines they produce, in a way that connects with our guests and customers.

We have an incredibly passionate team. This passion shapes everything we do. As a small, independently owned winery, we are constantly working together to get better and better, sharing our enthusiasm and inspiring one another to continually improve quality.

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