How Martine Saunier Cultivated the World’s Most Coveted Wines

The iconic Bay Area importer discovered virtuosos like Henri Jayer—and ushered in a new era of boutique French wines

Martine Saunier
Martine Saunier. Photo courtesy of Martine Saunier.

The difference between a standout and an icon, in any discipline or industry, is one word.

That is, a name that is instantly recognizable, slightly unusual, indelibly memorable. Whether it’s Oprah or Madonna, Molière or Colette, Prince or Plato, no elaboration is necessary. A mononym suffices.

In wine industry circles, just drop the name “Martine,” and everyone immediately knows whom you’re talking about. Because there is no one quite like her: An elegant Frenchwoman with a ready smile and a twinkle in her eye, a force of will and determination, a tastemaker who has single-handedly discovered and cultivated some of the most sought-after producers in the world.

She is Martine Saunier, age 85. She is bright-eyed, whip smart, fit, and vigorous, a dynamo with the energy of someone 35 years younger.

She is, quite simply, Martine.

Even now, in retirement in Marin County, California, Martine wields power. Consider the two-part wine auction, conducted in Hong Kong and New York City in early 2015, that earned an astounding $11.7 million—a return 50 percent higher than presale estimates had predicted.

At the time, it was said that the sale of this impeccable wine collection—an assemblage culled from Martine’s personal stash as well as from collectors who’d been following her lead since the early days—moved the market by commanding previously unheard-of prices. The New York auction, for example, included a case of 1999 Henri Jayer Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux that sold for an unprecedented $148,200.

But in an interesting twist, the seller—Martine, of course—had created this very market, years earlier. Because without Martine’s curatorial prowess, producers such as Jayer, Château Rayas, Domaine du Pegau, Emmanuel Rouget, and Méo-Camuzet would not be known to American enophiles.

Martine was the first to discover and bring these labels into the United States. Over the decades, some of her finds have been picked up by other importers—finds like François Jobard and the aforementioned Rouget and Méo-Camuzet—but the fact remains that her imprimatur hangs over every discussion of fine wine in this country.

Becoming a Cultivator

Martine grew up in Paris and started her wine career at the tender age of 10, when she began assisting an aunt in Mâcon during every harvest season. At the same time, she started to build her remarkable ability to blind-taste. “I had always tasted wine at home,” she recalls of her childhood. “And when I started to buy wine, I knew the smell and taste of malolactic fermentation. When a winemaker would ask me what vintage he was pouring, I had no idea—I just answered on instinct—but I was usually correct.”

Five decades ago, most of the European wine imported into the U.S. came from large négociant houses or well-known luxury brands. As far as most Americans knew, Italian wine was Chianti, and French wine was Bordeaux. The idea of exploring the villages of France, seeking out undiscovered small producers and introducing them to American consumers, was downright subversive. But then Martine Saunier moved the United States, in 1964, to marry a San Francisco radiologist. And in 1969, she ditched a successful career in global airline public relations and joined the Bay Area import and wholesale firm Chrissa Imports.

Before any of the other big-name American boutique importers arrived on the scene, Martine established a revolutionary precedent. While traveling in France during her first year at Chrissa, Martine got a hot tip about a superb vigneron in Châteuneuf-du-Pape. It’s a story that’s been repeated often, but it’s worth retelling. She drove to Louis Reynaud’s estate, waited a couple of hours for him to wake up from his nap, and asked no questions when Monsieur finally appeared, bringing with him a glass with a broken stem—yes, no base—for her to taste from.

Martine closed her eyes and swirled, sniffed, and sipped—first the 1959, then the 1961—out of that broken glass. The wines were spectacular. “I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls now. “I ordered 25 cases of each, with no point of reference, no credit, nothing. I returned to California and told my employer that I’d bought two vintages of Château Rayas for $2.50 a bottle. He said, ‘Are you nuts? That’s the retail price of Châteuneuf-du-Pape in California! If you don’t sell it, you’ll have to pay for it.’”

Undaunted, Martine typed and printed a wine-offer newsletter—another novel concept for the time. She called it Martine’s Wine Cellar and sent it to collectors she knew in the Bay Area. The Château Rayas sold, and before long, it became a cult label. After that, Martine got in the habit of going back to France and driving around in search of talent, often with her mother in the passenger seat to keep her company.

A few years later, Chassagne-Montrachet vigneron Paul Pillot, of Domaine Paul Pillot, introduced Martine to a shy, quiet gentleman from Vosne-Romanée. In early 1974 she visited the shy gentleman at his cellars. “He had cases of 1972 that a merchant in England had ordered but canceled on, because of the bad press on that vintage,” Martine recalls. “I bought every appellation. I stole them! Every year I bought a little bit more of his wine.” She sold these too through her newsletter, then started to sell them to top restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Soon the West Coast was buzzing about the French wine curator with the extraordinary palate. “I remember in the earliest days taking her to Chez Panisse to meet Alice Waters,” recalls Martine’s longtime competitor, Kermit Lynch, of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, “because I thought Chez Panisse should be selling the sort of artisanal wines Martine preferred. I respected her.”

Martine Saunier and Gregory Castells
Martine Saunier and Gregory Castells. Photo courtesy of Martine’s Wines.

In 1979, Martine launched her own import and wholesale business: Martine’s Wines. She traveled to Burgundy that year and made a pilgrimage to barrel-taste at Domaine Romanée-Conti (DRC). “The ’78,” she recalls, “was magic.” That same day, she visited her quiet friend in Vosne-Romanée to taste his 1978 in cask, and she blurted out the unimaginable: “There is no comparison. This is spectaculaire!”

Martine brought back a case each of DRC’s crus, and the Vosne-Romanée crus, to present to her top accounts, going so far as to pour the Richebourg in a plastic cup in a Los Angeles Jewish deli and bottle shop. The deli’s owner, his jaw practically on the floor, picked up the phone and called the office of his best record-executive wine customer, who was in a meeting: “Tell him it’s an emergency!”

It was an emergency, because that shy winemaker was Henri Jayer—a producer who hadn’t attracted much attention even in Burgundy to that point—and the wines were, and still are, in a class of their own. By 1986, Martine had established such a reputation because of discovering Jayer that Lalou Bize-Leroy sought her out; the codirector of DRC at the time wasn’t yet known in the United States for her now-priceless wines, but Martine soon changed that.

As Martine’s novel curatorial skills became known, new import firms sprouted up around her and wooed her discoveries away. She found herself having to explain to French producers who had never exported to the U.S.—before meeting her, that is—that they could only work with one distributor per state, and that they had actually hurt her business by agreeing to work with another importer or wholesaler.

Forging Her Own Path

But Martine has always taken the high road. Former employees and clients describe her as fair, ethical, uncompromising, utterly committed, and completely determined.

Kevin Foran, a former Martine’s Wines employee who is now president at Hogshead Wine Company, just south of Boston, recalls a sales trip, years ago, that started in New York when a blizzard hit. Foran assumed they would cancel the trip because of the weather, but Martine pressed on, driving through knee-deep snow to make all of her appointments in the Berkshires and Boston before returning home. “She will always push forward in dogged pursuit of what she believes in,” Foran says. “It rubbed off on the rest of us.”

“Integrity is what you do when no one is looking,” observes Christian Pillsbury, the owner and proprietor of the historic Eden Rift Vineyards in California’s Cienega Valley, who worked for Martine between 2006 and 2008 at Martine’s Wines. “I remember one time when we had just received a container filled with irreplaceable, high-value, allocated and presold wines from Burgundy and the Rhône. We found out later that the truck driver had decided to save some gas by turning off his reefer [refrigeration unit] while driving through France in the summer.

“When we opened the container,” Pillsbury continues, “we saw all the corks sticking half an inch out of the first couple of cases of Muscadet on top. We knew the container was completely cooked. The wines were irreplaceable, but we knew they were shot. Martine made the decision to destroy the container, inform all of our clients, and take a hard hit. Everyone in this business would say that they would take a loss on that container, but Martine is the one businessperson I know who undoubtedly would follow through and do the right thing.”

And she will demand that others do the right thing, as well. “She is strident. She is unwavering. If she doesn’t like your wine, you will know it,” says Pillsbury. A famous Martine story from the early days recounts how she stomped into an Orange County supermarket owned by a notably shady retailer who had been in arrears. She had been advised by another woman in the business to bring a truck driver with her, just in case, but Martine went alone, waited for the man to finish lunch with his cronies, followed him, blocked the door to the market, and demanded her $1,500.

I told him I was not going to leave until I got my money,” she recalls. “He went into a rage.” The petite Frenchwoman followed the retailer—who was screaming at her at this point—and, standing firm, convinced him to pay up a third of what he owed on the spot, with a promise that the remaining two-thirds would be paid within the month.

“She is very assertive—it’s very important for her to get her point across,” says Gregory Castells, the current president of Martine’s Wines. A former sommelier with a résumé that includes The French Laundry in Yountville, California, Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia (closed in 2013), and Gordon Ramsay’s Pétrus in London, Castells purchased Martine’s Wines in 2012 with Kate Laughlin, a colleague of his at the private collector consulting firm Soutirage. “I think that comes also from being a pioneer in the industry,” he says, “as the first female importer.”

Martine disputes this last point to a degree, saying that her gender actually had a disarming effect in business situations, enabling her to be unusually direct.

Early in her career, Martine got in the habit of advising producers who she felt were not living up to their potential, whether requesting them to stop filtering their wines or helping them get to the bottom of a problem with cork taint. In the late 1980s, she sent a then-up-and-coming Denis Mortet to taste with Henri Jayer, telling the master that the very young Mortet was gifted but needed guidance. “I knew if I wanted my producers to get to the top, I had to discuss with them pruning, reducing crop, and the use of chemicals,” Martine recalls. “Looking back, because I was a woman, I had an advantage,” she says now. “I didn’t have a macho attitude. When two men meet and discuss an issue, they both want to be right.”

The Industry’s Maman

When I arrived at Martine’s gracefully appointed townhouse, overlooking San Rafael Bay, I felt as though I was visiting a favorite aunt rather than conducting a professional journalistic interview. With a laugh, she immediately informed me that I had toothpaste on my lip (dear god!), and as she talked, she rested a hand on my shoulder in a maternal way. Where Americans come on strong with our propensity to hug, fake-smile, and shake the hell out of hands, Martine’s approach is soft and French: Cheeks are kissed, details attended to.

Before the days of the Internet made everyone reachable, Martine went the extra mile to foster relationships. In the 1980s, she cofounded the San Francisco chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International along with local wine industry leaders like Zelma Long and Dolores Cakebread, enabling women in the culinary industry to network and support each other. “I affectionately call her my French Maman,” says Debbie Zachareas, an owner and partner at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco and Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant in Napa.

Your favorite aunt can tell you that you have toothpaste on your lip, and it’s not awkward. In the same way, by building close, familial bonds with her winemakers, customers, and sales staff, Martine was able to be direct when she needed to be. The former employees I spoke with described having a deep affection for Martine, noting that she stays in touch with her acolytes after they move on to other jobs, in other parts of the country, checking in regularly for updates on their lives and families. At the same time, they told me, she always pushed them to do better, in the way that only a favorite aunt can.

Martine recalls an early employee, in the 1980s, who wanted desperately to sell wine but was struggling in the job. She says, “I said to him, ‘Look, you have to make a friendly connection with your customer. Why else would he buy from you? When he says his kid is sick, or his wife is sick, you have to listen. Listen, and be open, and come back and ask him how he’s doing.’ A couple of months later, we could already see the results.”

For Andy Chabot, director of Food & Beverage at Blackberry Farm and the new Blackberry Mountain resort in Walland, Tennessee, accessing fine wines in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains has never been easy. “[Martine] made a big effort to ensure we were allocated wines that otherwise might have gone to markets like New York or San Francisco,” he says. “She’s amazingly gracious with her time, considering how much she travels and works and how big of a personality she is in the world of wine. She seems to always have the time for everyone.”

Martine also built uniquely maternal bonds with her producers, advocating for them and standing by them through thick and thin. “She was never going to find the brand that would fit the hot moment,” says Pillsbury. “She was looking for the new and inspiring talent with whom she could work for 30 years. It became this self-fulfilling prophecy. Since she always delivered with authenticity and integrity, people would make time for the young producers she would bring in.”

Her catalog has read like a family tree over the years, as her producers have sent her their sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews. A typical Martine client is Domaine Morey-Coffinet, a prestigious biodynamic producer in Chassagne-Montrachet with family connections to the aforementioned Paul Pillot. Thibault Morey, who today is the winemaker at Morey-Coffinet, says, “Martine worked with my great-grandparents, Henri and Berthe Pillot. Then with my grandparents, Fernand and Cécile Coffinet. Then with my parents, Michel and Fabienne Morey. Martine and our family share a beautiful and faithful story of friendship, love, and partnership.”

La Grande Dame on the Big Screen

Consult a who’s who of American sommeliers today, and just about every one has interacted with Martine. But when she started her business, Jeremiah Tower was one of the few restaurateurs who even had a sommelier on staff. Even so, Tower did all the wine buying himself for his legendary San Francisco restaurant, Stars, in the 1980s. As Tower recalls, Martine’s style was revolutionary, if simply because “she was not with a liquor company, and she knew all the wineries and their owners.”

“What I love about Martine,” says Emmanuel Kemiji, MS, who got to know her when he was the director of wine and spirits for the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, in the 1990s, “is that she brought the wines she represented alive. She brought the [producers] in front of you with her storytelling. Most people never sell wine like that. They just say, ‘This is the wine, this is the price.’ She was so impassioned about the people and her relationships that you felt as if they were there in the room with her.”

Kemiji, who likes to call Martine La Grande Dame, got into winemaking in 1995—the first Master Sommelier in the U.S. to do so—and is today the owner of Miura Vineyards in Napa and the managing director of Clos Pissarra in Montsant and Priorat, Spain. When he launched his label, Martine arranged for the winemaker for Château Leroy to taste Kemiji’s new wines and offer him feedback, then helped him connect with distributors. “She did a better job of describing my wines than I did myself,” he recalls. “She brings an incredible wealth of knowledge and packages it in a way that is very charming and enlightening, no matter who you are—if you are a novice consumer or a Master Sommelier.”

“She shares beautiful wines with her friends,” says the retailer Debbie Zachareas, “and tells these stories, from all the history that she has in the business. She will tell a story from 50 years ago with such precision and incredible clarity. I can just picture everything. She remembers exactly how a wine tasted.” A few years ago, Zachareas introduced Martine to filmmaker David Kennard, and “it was love at first sight,” according to Zachareas, and “the next thing you know, they ended up making movies together.” The duo have made three films now: A Year in Burgundy, A Year in Champagne, and A Year in Port.

The star of these films is, of course, Martine.

Martine Saunier
Martine Saunier on her trip to Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Martine Saunier.

The Next Chapter

When she sold her business in 2012, Martine might have felt she’d earned a restful retirement, but she stayed on at Martine’s Wines for five more years, working the market with new sales reps. She claims that her “last appearance” with the firm she founded was a trade tasting in March 2018 but then admits that she’s still in the game. “I’ll taste with them from time to time,” she says. “And if I make a face, they know the wine is not good.”

During her busy importing years, her annual vacation was a white-water rafting and hiking trip, in Idaho or Montana—the farther away from cell service, the better. She has always skied, played tennis, practiced yoga, and cooked. She took up fencing at 65 and is now quite accomplished at it.

Martine is currently a member of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in Burgundy, and the Confraria dos Vinhos in Portugal, and has been decorated by the French government with the titles of Officier du Mérite Agricole and Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur. Having ticked all of that off her list, what else is there to do?

For this 85-year-old, quite a lot. She plans to travel with friends, to places she’s never had the time to visit before: Brittany, Normandy, Basque Country, England, Peru. She’s looking forward to frequent trips to Paris, to take in the culture. As I wrote this article, she was in Antarctica on an expedition. “I enjoy life,” she says. ”I am a happy person.”

For his part, Castells admits that he and Laughlin, his partner, faced a steep learning curve when they jumped into Martine’s Wines. “You find yourself putting out fires in the beginning,” he says. “We made some mistakes, and some things we tried to change did not work out. The first three years were about stabilizing the business, making it our own. We brought in a bunch of new producers, and we lost a few old producers. We changed most of our distributor partners. But we knew we had to do this with passion and joy, and it was important for me to work with people who share some of the same values that we do.”

Castells says he is feeling far more confident now, having achieved direct-to-trade status in California, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois; grown his New York team from two to seven employees; and added a handful of interesting new producers to the portfolio. Still, he says, he and Martine talk frequently, and she often shares holiday dinners with his family. “She opens Leroy all the time,” he confides, then jokes, “I’m so tired of drinking Leroy!” More seriously, he adds, “I seek out her advice a lot. She is … Martine.”


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Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of The Four Top, a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One. She is currently working on a fifth book, Sparkling Wine Anytime (Abrams), to be published in Fall 2020.

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