Italian-American winemakers and grape growers, using the skills they learned in the old country, were pioneers in the California wine industry. The families, and the wines, go back through the 20th Century. Martini, Mondavi, Sebastiani, Parducci, Foppiano, Gallo and others were names to conjure with. In the early 1960s, when the Napa Valley was just beginning to awaken from the fallow decades caused by Prohibition, the Depression and World War II, I remember driving a quiet country road, Highway 29, from Napa to St. Helena. On the east side of the highway, a big, red barn marked the Louis M. Martini winery. Wine that was both good and inexpensive was available to taste and to buy, usually at about $2 a bottle.
Some three decades later, as a novice wine writer still making the transition from a life in sports, fleeing from the Super Bowl and its concomitant week-long overdose of pro sports and hype, I landed in San Francisco on a Monday morning, drove north again. The Napa Valley was chilly and foggy, with rain dripping from low-hanging clouds. Once again, I stopped at the big red barn, walked into an empty tasting room, was greeted by an elderly man who was drying wine glasses, evidence of a busy Sunday.
We chatted, he offered a glass of recently bottled Cabernet Sauvignon. I introduced myself. "Louis Martini," he replied, though it was easy to guess who he was. We chatted, toured the winery, drove to St. Helena for lunch. It was a most pleasant day, conversation lubricated by superior wines of several vintages and vineyards, all different, all delicious.
Last week, almost three decades since that visit, I was talking with Mike Martini, son of Louis P., grandson of Louis M., who built the big red barn and founded the winery in 1933, secure in the knowledge that Prohibition was over. Louis P. became the winemaker in 1954, Michael in 1977. Three men. Three generations. Seventy-five years.
We talked about the old days, the $2 wine. He laughed, reminisced, "I remember the conversations and the discussions about going to $2.50, and then Heitz took the giant step and shocked everybody when he went to $3.50."
The Martini family always has specialized in bold red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. They make some delicious Zinfandel, too, from vines that date to the early days of the winery, and they dabble in Chardonnay to give wine drinkers who swing that way a chance to taste some wine while they wait for the real drinkers in their party. But Cabernet Sauvignon is the Martini wine of choice, and I had recently tasted some from Northern California’s two major wine counties, Napa and Sonoma. Napa lies to the east. But winemakers are experimental people, and they like to dabble in the dirt, trying this grape or that cross in a search for the ultimate. Martini admitted that they experiment with some of the Italian grapes like Barbera and Sangiovese.
The 2005 Napa Valley Cab is a year older, a little more expensive ($25-$18) at the retail level. There’s a lot of vanilla in the aroma, at least when the bottle is first opened, and dark berry flavors are immediate on the palate. The wine has a lot of backbone, a strong structure and splendid acid-alcohol balance, with a long, smooth finish. The wine is 94 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 percent petit sirah and small splashes of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot to bring it to the winemaker’s taste. I often wonder how much less than a single percent of a given grape can add, but if the winemaker says it’s necessary, and if the result is excellent, who am I to quibble?
The Sonoma County offering is brighter and fresher, with a lot of blackberry, a lesser amount of blueberry on the palate, which still shows evidence of tannin. That’s part of its youth, more balance will come with another year or two of age, and it will be rounder and darker than its counterpart. The wine is 90 percent Cab, with 4 percent each of Malbec and Cabernet Franc, 1 percent each of Merlot and Tannat. Again, a strong, smooth finish.
Martini also likes the blackberry in the Sonoma-grown grapes, noting that the area has warmer nights than Napa, bringing additional softness to the wine. The ‘06 crop produced a great deal of lush, black fruit. Its juice was in contact with the skins for seven days, after the crush, bringing a darker color and more tannin, and it then spent a year in small oak barrels, adding the soft qualities Martini likes and which identify the family wines.
The Napa crop was picked at 18 brix (a measurement of the sugar content of the juice when the grape is picked), and Martini pointed out the cherry qualities in the wine.
Martini has been in the wine business since he was a small boy, working in the vineyards, and like so many California winemakers, he’s an alum of the University of California at Davis, where he earned a degree in fermentation science. After graduation, he toured the Burgundy and Bordeaux wine areas in France, often in the company of the legendary California wine genius, Andre Tchelistcheff. Cabernet Sauvignon is the primary red grape in Bordeaux.
Looking ahead, Martini sees the 2008 vintage as "vibrant."
"We had a frost problem, and then a heat problem," he explained, "and we lost much of the crop. What remained, however, was superb. It’s almost as if Mother Nature thinned the vines herself."