Toast of the Town

Native Memphian Robert Turner has found a way to bottle his passion.



photography by Andrea Zucker

The Robert Turner wine label is an exciting, relative newcomer to a number of retail stores, fine restaurants, and high-profile parties throughout the city. The mystery man behind this eponymous boutique label is Robert Turner, a retired dentist from California, who is now living his dream, making wine.

Bob and his wife, Shirley (née Brennan), are Memphis natives now dividing their time between Memphis and San Francisco, where Bob practiced for 37 years and where they own a home. Our city has welcomed this popular couple back to town with open arms, and in turn they both agree that living here for part of the year near family and friends has been a truly rewarding experience.

If it is true that baby boomers are “rewiring” rather than “retiring,” then Bob Turner is a poster child for establishing a creative and successful encore career later in life. Like many Californians, especially those living in the Bay area, Bob early on developed a keen interest in wine that morphed gradually into a full-blown passion and ultimately into a successful business.

Fredric Koeppel’s Commercial Appeal profile on the award-winning Robert Turner Wines explains that Bob does not own vineyards himself, but rather buys the grapes and leases equipment and a facility to craft his wines. When I sat down with Bob, he explained that his path to becoming a boutique winemaker was a long one. He began in 1986 making wine in a garage, took oenology courses at the University of California at Davis, and over time gained more and more experience until the point arrived that friends started asking if they could buy his wines.

Ultimately, Turner founded Robert Turner Wines in 2004, making at present a chardonnay and pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in California’s Sonoma County and a cabernet franc from Napa Valley. He says his pinot noir is only in its second year, and if he does say so himself, “it is really good.” The big news, too, is that he has just started making a rosé wine, which is something we can all look forward to.

 

 

 

Two wine bottles and a pagoda-shaped lantern from San Francisco’s legendary Gump’s department store make a colorful tableau.

Bob’s original intent was to sell his wine via a mailing list and “in a couple of restaurants,” but fortunately he has been able to get distribution in wine shops in the San Francisco Bay area. Then serendipitously, his wines in Memphis got a big boost when they were “discovered” by Restaurant Iris’ owner/chef Kelly English and his front-of-house manager, Jeff Frisby. They loved them and requested the development of a special “Iris Cuvee” for their wine list. Turner is also grateful for the support of local distributor Victor L. Robilio Co. and its general sales manager, Marne Anderson. He now sells wine in ten states through a mailing list, and in restaurants and wine shops in California, Tennessee and Canada. You can find Robert Turner Wines here at Buster’s, Great Wines and Spirits, and the Wine Market, and at area restaurants including Iris, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, and Napa Café.

Turner is increasing his production every year. He mentions, too, that he thinks one of the newest and most exciting growth areas is the sale of wine in five-gallon kegs. While this sounds to the layman a bit like the box wines of old, Bob sets me straight, saying that “this is a big trend now, on the East and West Coasts.” In Memphis, for example, the popular Hog & Hominy restaurant sells wine this way and he predicts “there will be a huge growth in keg wine in the next ten years.”

Of course, the Turners are always in California in August, September, and October — the most important months in the wine-making process. This is the time for harvesting and pressing the grapes and getting the wine into barrels. “Racking” too is all important; the term means siphoning the wine to clarify it and clear off the sediment.

A few months ago, the Turners invited some friends of Memphis magazine to a wine-tasting at their home. Naturally, the wine was fabulous but so too was the sophisticated décor of their beautiful house located off Southern near the Memphis Country Club golf course. It is apparent that Shirley Turner also has that “creative gene.” She is an artist, a great cook, a skilled entertainer, and a natural interior decorator.

 

 

 

A view from the living room into the handsomely-appointed dining room  shows the recently acquired bust of Apollo in the far corner.

The Turners graciously agreed to my returning with a photographer to take pictures for this article and to talk more about their decor and fine furnishings, and at the same time to have Bob reminisce on some surprising aspects of his “pre-wine” career.

The Turners’ master bedroom is on their first floor and walls of windows at the back of the house embrace the light and overlook the terrace and large garden. Shirley’s taste allows a sophisticated mix of antiques and modern pieces, with a strong Asian influence — not surprising in view of her many years spent living on the Pacific Rim. She has used rich, jewel-like colors for her walls, and though some of her furniture came from previous California homes, most of her furnishings were bought in the Memphis area. Neighbor and good friend, interior designer Gail Woods, was a great help in the decorating process, as was her aunt, Shirley Prothro. These two would shop for Shirley Turner — armchair shopping at its best — calling to say excitedly, “We have found something you’d just love!”

Shirley is especially proud of one of her latest acquisitions, a bust of Apollo (she thinks that’s the correct god), which was a gift from Bob purchased from interior designer Warner Moore (see our December 2012 issue). She bought a stunning black-and-gold screen from Tom Fortner and assorted pieces from Amy Howard and Ray & Baudoin and from close friend Lucy Woodson’s Worlds Away. The handsome lanterns came from a special sale at Gump’s, the world-famous San Francisco department store.

So now, back to Bob for a few wild (no pun intended) stories from his first career. In the course of the three-plus decades of his dentistry practice, among other things, he volunteered to work on large animals at Marine World/Africa USA and at the San Francisco Zoo. He worked on a chimpanzee for 20th Century Fox for the 1987 film Project X starring Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt. What’s more, he says he has done dental work including root canals, crowns, and fillings for all manner of large animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas, sea lions, and snow leopards. Really? Who knew?

If you concur with Robert Louis Stevenson’s quotation (borrowed from Robilio’s website) that “wine is bottled poetry,” then you can keep up-to-date with Bob’s wines at robertturnerwines.com. But for now please join me in raising a glass to toast the Turners’ return to Memphis, their “rewiring,” and their continued success in the wine business.  

The spacious downstairs master bedroom is both tailored and inviting.

 

Anne Cunningham O’Neill is the arts and lifestyle editor of Memphis magazine.

 

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