Very few SLO County wineries can claim they’re celebrating 25 vintages as can Talley Vineyards, and the Talley family has certainly done it with style. This award-winning winery has been among the upper echelon on the Central Coast practically since its beginning, which helped them to survive the rough times in ways no small, start-up brand can rival. And it’s certainly not about good winemaking alone.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Through three generations, the Talley family has farmed in the Arroyo Grande Valley. It began with Oliver Talley who, in 1948, planted premium quality vegetables that are still sold nationwide. His son Don, inspired by the growth of vineyards in Edna Valley, planted the vineyards. Don worked with U.C. Davis to choose the best varieties for his farmland and launched what would become known as one of the region’s finest wineries. He was one of the nicest, most humble vintners I’ve ever known. Now the family farms are in the capable hands of Don’s son, Brian, who became president of Talley Vineyards and Talley Farms after Don passed away at the much-too-young age of 66. Brian, like his grandfather and father, has remained dedicated to the highest standards when it comes to Talley Vineyard and Talley Farms.
In South County, there have only been a few wineries around as long or longer than Talley that are still in business: Paragon Vineyard was planted in 1972, and Edna Valley Vineyard (the winery) was built in 1980; Chamisal Vineyard was planted the same year as Paragon, later rebuilt as Domaine Alfred, which sold and renamed Chamisal; Laetitia was founded in 1981 (originally Maison Deutz); and Saucelito Canyon was founded in 1974, built upon the few remaining Zinfandel vines originally planted in 1880; and John Alban, who planted the region’s first Rhone varieties in 1986, is also celebrating his 25th anniversary. Don Talley planted their first vineyard in 1982 and established the winery and its tasting room in the Rincon Adobe in 1986. That year marked the first release of Talley Vineyard wines, when the Central Coast was still relatively unknown for its wines from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara.
I recently sat down to talk with Brian Talley about the 25th anniversary of Talley Vineyards. I brought up the fact that the wine critics who rated Central Coast wines in the late ’80s and early ’90s often derided them. Having worked as tasting coordinator seven years for Wine Spectator magazine, I remember our editors and other famous critics describing Central Coast wines as inferior to Napa Valley, and they often lambasted Paso Robles as too hot to grow high-quality wine grapes. Then, they couldn’t imagine the blossoming of the Central Coast, from Paso Robles to the Santa Rita Hills wine regions as we know them today.
In defense of the critics, I remember the early years, when Central Coast wines often exhibited vegetal aromas and flavors. But as the vintners became better winegrape growers, those faults disappeared completely, and the wines made here are now highly respected around the world. That’s thanks to wise pioneers like the Talleys, who planted the Central Coast’s first vineyards. They were visionaries who stuck it out despite the critics’ complaints. As winemaker John Alban of Alban Vineyards once quipped about taking the road less traveled: “When you do anything so totally out of the norm, that naturally looks foolish. But when it succeeds, they call you a visionary.” It’s a statement that’s true of every pioneer.
The Talleys originally shared the estate Rincon Adobe tasting room with Saucelito Canyon winery. Talley remembered that it was convenient, since they made Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (among other white wines), and the Greenoughs were making Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
“We had no idea how to sell wine,” Talley remembered of the family’s beginning in winemaking. “We thought we were going to sell it all out of the adobe. There was no wine trail then, and very little awareness of the area.”
Thanks to meeting experienced people like Chuck Bennett, marketing director for Sonoma-Cutrer winery in Sonoma County, they set up a marketing program to help sell Talley wines in restaurants and wine shops.
It didn’t hurt that the Talleys sold fruit to other great wineries on the Central Coast, including Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, who promoted Talley by adding the Rosemary’s Vineyard designation to their line-up of fine Pinots. The original estate vineyard that Don planted in 1986 was designated Rincon for the historic Rincon Adobe that served as their first tasting room. That took place in 1990 when Don planted Rosemary’s Vineyard, named for his wife and business partner. In 2001, the Talleys planted Oliver’s Vineyard and Stone Corral in Edna Valley, the latter a collaboration with Kynsi and Stephen Ross brands, who lease sections of the highly acclaimed vineyard.
“My philosophy with Talley Vineyards is that we strive to capture the essence of what makes each our vineyards special,” Talley explained. “We do that with careful farming that emphasizes moderate yields and gentle winemaking that preserves the unique character of the place.”
Year after year, the Talleys continue to improve due to their commitment to producing ultra-premium wines, whether it’s their value priced brand Bishop’s Peak or the estate Talley Vineyards.
“We’re really involved in the way we conduct the business of making wine and selling wine,” Talley said. “And we make wine the same way we always have.”
After the interview, we tasted through the array of Talley Vineyard wines and some Bishop’s Peak wines, one impressive variety after another. If you haven’t made the short drive out to Talley Vineyards in a while, it’s time to revisit to taste their outstanding wines.
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