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The Original Martini

Once,
if one were asked to name a fine Californian winery, Louis
M. Martini would be on most lips. Venerable and respected,
it stood at the peak, along with Beaulieu, Inglenook and
Charles Krug. But then, for reasons both clear and obscure,
it fell below the radar. “Martini” would more likely evoke a
cocktail of gin or vodka with an overflight of vermouth.
Martinis in the California wine trade with the given names
of Elmo, Narcisco, Rafael, and Walter are not related to
Louis. Neither is the winery called Martini &
Prati.

Those who know
about and care about wine have continued to nurture LMM in a
corner of their consciousness, and have been pleased to
witness its reemergence in recent years. So it was with
great pleasure that I sat down with Michael Martini, the
third-generation winemaker, to talk and taste when he
visited during the Spinazzola-Boston Wine Expo weekend in
early February. I’d like to share that pleasant session with
you, first setting the scene by reviewing the winery’s
history then looking at its current status and prospects and
wine releases.

As is evident
from the Chronology (below), the Martinis have been ahead of
the curve from the start, always experimenting. Louis M. and
Andre Tchelistcheff planted pinot noir and chardonnay in
Carneros as early as the late ‘3Os. Martini produced the
first varietally labeled Merlot in 1968, when it was
virtually unknown in America. LMM wines have always tasted
of the grape, not oak. Wasn’t it Louis P. who said something
like, “If I want to taste wood, I’ll chew on a
two-by-four.”? Large oak ovals and redwood were favored. The
wines were balanced, supple, subtle, products of slow
fermentation and slow aging, never overripe or high in
alcohol, never showy. Neither were the prices overripe, but
some complained that the wines were inconsistent.

Tastes change,
experience teaches, equipment ages, finances compel. The
Gallo purchase brought fresh perspective and new resources,
both grapes and funds, yet father-to-son succession of
winemakers over three generations secures the priceless
anchor of institutional memory. Michael Martini has
continued in the dynamic and innovative tradition of his
father and grandfather. He has presided over the Napa Valley
Vintners Association, the American Society of Enology and
Viticulture, and, at UC Davis, the Trellis
Alliance.

There has been
some redefinition of vineyard sources: now about 25O acres
in Napa and 25O in Sonoma supply the grapes for the
167,OOO-case production. The large casks have mostly given
way to small barrels. The wide variety of varieties has been
refocused on Cabernet Sauvignon, plus the treasured
hundred-plus-year-old zinfandel vines at Monte Rosso. The
wines are riper now, but are still marked by restraint.
Chardonnay is to be resurrected. Louis M. and Louis P. would
be optimistic.

Let’s taste the
current releases of the Louis M. Martini Winery.

Cabernet
Sauvignon 2OO4

Sonoma County 87,OOO cases
Sourced from Dry Creek, Alexander and Sonoma valleys. Six
percent Merlot. Twelve months in French, European and
American oak. Fine berry fruit; good length. $15

Cabernet
Sauvignon 2OO3

Napa Valley 4O,OOO cases
From various Napa vineyards. Cabernet Sauvignon 78 percent,
Merlot 18. Twelve months in French and European barrels.
Bigger, deeper, more tannic than the foregoing. Black cherry
and oak notes. $25

Cabernet
Sauvignon Reserve 2OO3

Alexander Valley 4OOO cases
Most of the fruit from Gallo’s vineyard at Barrelli Creek,
which is shared with Silver Oak. A mixture of oaks. Dark and
fragrant. Long. Still tannic. Nicely balanced fruit.
Characteristic restraint. $35

Lot
1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2OO3

Napa Valley 133O cases
A new and still developing version of an old Martini idea.
This is a strict selection of five young Napa mountain
vineyards. All Cabernet Sauvignon. New French oak for 15
months. Dark. Restrained deep, ripe fruit. Dense and
velvety. Intense, but not yet complex. Tannic.
$1OO

Cabernet
Sauvignon 2OO2

Monte Rosso Vineyard 15OO cases
As the name suggests, a steep mountain vineyard (8OO to12OO
feet) of red, iron-rich, decomposed volcanic soil set above
the fog. Sunny and cool, mostly southwest exposure, giving
the unusual and desirable combination of ample acidity and
ripeness. The soil and subsoil hold water well. This
low-yield vineyard has 23O acres planted. It is located in
the Mayacamas Mountains, just on the Sonoma side of the
county line. Cabernet vines were planted as early as 1938.
The wine, 5 percent Petit Verdot, spends 18 months in oak
barrels, šŸ˜Æ percent French, 2O American. Elegant bouquet.
Deep, rich and long, full of bright, complex, sweet fruit.
The fine texture of the wine echoes that of the soil.
$85

Gnarly
Vine Zinfandel 2OO4

Monte Rosso Vineyard 8OO cases
125-year-old head-pruned vines. Yield as little as one ton
per acre. Whole berries in small fermenters. New oak (7O
percent French, 3O American) for 18 months. Fragrant of
blackberries and leather. More complex than most Zins. The
15.6 percent alcohol is well covered by the fruit.
$35

1887
Louis Michael Martini, founder of the company, is
born in Liguria in northwestern Italy to Agostino
and Angelica Martini, the family of a shoemaker in
a fishing community.

1899
Louis M. comes to America with his
parents.

19O6
Agostino and Louis M. fish, and sell their catch in
the streets of San Francisco. They make their first
batch of wine in a small shed behind their house –
it is a failure. Louis M. returns to Italy for
training in winemaking. Although lacking
prerequisite education, he is admitted to the
program at the University of Alba after
demonstrating his intelligence and desire. He
returns to California in 19O8.

1911
Agostino and Louis M. start a wine business in
Pleasanton, in the Livermore Valley. It ends in
bankruptcy in 1918.

1918
Perhaps because of impending Prohibition, Agostino
and Angelica return to Italy.

1922
After having worked for other vintners, Louis M.
establishes the L.M. Martini Grape Products Company
in the Central Valley to sell sacramental wine and
grape concentrate (“Forbidden Fruit”) to home
winemakers during Prohibition. He is thereby well
positioned to enter full wine production at
Repeal.

1933
to 1934

Prohibition repealed. Louis M. purchases property
in St. Helena in the Napa Valley, the nucleus of an
expanding successful business.

1936
Louis M. pioneers in winemaking technology, e.g.,
temperature controlled fermentation. Acquires more
vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Lake counties, and
Carneros. Bottles varietal wines when most were
selling in bulk or as generics. One of the founders
of the Napa Valley Vintners Association and the
Wine Institute.

1938
Louis M. purchases what became Monte Rosso Vineyard
from Samuel Goldstein.

1954
Son Louis P. Martini, a graduate of UC Davis,
succeeds Louis M. as winemaker. He continues the
traditions and innovations: e.g., assembles a wind
machine to prevent frost damage; pioneers in
mechanical harvesting.

1974
Louis M. Martini dies.

1977
Louis P.’s son, Michael Martini, also a Davis
alumnus, takes over as winemaker. Michael’s
sisters, Carolyn and Patricia, help run the
business.

1994
Louis P. Martini Endowment for Viticultural and
Enological Research established at UC
Davis.

1998
Louis P. Martini dies.

2OO2
The company is purchased by Gallo, but is wisely
kept as a distinct entity.