GuildSomm

Understanding the Legacy of Napa Pioneer Louis M. Martini

Kelli White explores the extensive history of the trailblazing winemaker—via GuildSomm

Photo courtesy of E.J. Gallo.

Written by Kelli White

The Grand Old Man

In the year 1900, at age 13, Louis M. Martini grabbed a sack containing two loaves of bread and some bologna and boarded a train heading west. He was leaving behind not just Ellis Island but a life of poverty in Italy as he made his way to join his father in San Francisco. A sign around his neck proclaimed his final destination, written in a language he had yet to understand. After seven days, four trains, and a ferry, he arrived.

Decades later, the same Louis M. Martini tore through the vine rows of his beloved Monte Rosso Vineyard in the unlikeliest of vineyard vehicles: an old Cadillac.

“Every time my grandfather got a new car, the old one became the vineyard car,” Mike Martini recalls. “When I was 16 and living and working up at Monte Rosso, he would come up to visit and cook me lunch. Later, we’d tour around the vineyard in his 1956 black Cadillac. Eventually, it’d start spinning out and couldn’t make it up the hill. So he’d roll it back down, get a running start, and gun it.”

Louis M.’s approach to the wine industry mirrors this trajectory. Any time his fortunes faltered, he took a step back, identified the more propitious path, and charged full speed in that direction. And his instincts were often prescient. When Prohibition threatened his business, he stayed afloat making grape products for the home-winemaking set; when repeal seemed imminent, he moved operations to Napa Valley, betting on that region as the future of fine wine in California.

He was also well ahead of the curve for many trends, from the promotion of hillside fruit, to the movement from sweet wine to dry, even to the listing of vintage and variety on labels. While such concepts seem mundane today, they were practically revolutionary in Louis M.’s time. It’s small wonder that such a bold and insightful man would establish a dynasty that could withstand not only multiple generational handoffs and a corporate acquisition, but also over 100 years of shifting fashion and market forces.

First Crush

Louis M. Martini’s first vintage did not turn out well.

In 1906, on something of a whim, he purchased enough Lodi fruit at a market in San Francisco to make several puncheons of wine. By his own account, many of the barrels spoiled. But instead of discouraging the aspiring winemaker, this failure spurred the now-19-year-old to understand what went wrong. Told that he lacked both the math and the English skills to take winemaking courses in California, he returned to Italy to audit a semester in Alba.

He lied to his father to get there. For the previous six years, Louis M. had helped to grow his father’s fish and shellfish operation, digging alongside him in the muddy flats surrounding San Francisco. He said only that he wanted to visit his mother in Italy, but when he returned several months later, he came clean and enlisted his father in his new winemaking endeavor. First, they built a small winery behind their family home in the city, then later expanded operations to Pleasanton, an agricultural community on the outskirts of the Bay Area. They sold their wine by the barrel and the jug, often to the same boarding houses and restaurants that relied on their mussels, clams, and smelt.

Even at this early stage, Louis M.’s interest lay with dry wine. While the world around him enjoyed the sweet and fortified styles favored by the British, he preferred the dry wines of his homeland. And as many of his early customers were fellow paisanos who shared his taste, he had a ready clientele at his fingertips. To satisfy this demand, he sourced a range of varieties but was partial to Zinfandel, Mataro, French Colombard, Malvasia, and Tokay. Later, he would sell these same grapes to other hopeful winemakers.

Though his actions indicate a high level of passion—the long boat ride to Italy, the quick scaling of his operation, his multi-faceted approach—Louis M. comes across as completely unromantic regarding wine in interviews. In his extensive Bancroft Library oral history, recorded in 1973, he admits the following. “You see, it is very simple to make wine, not as hard as some people think it is. You have to have common sense and follow the instructions. So I made it properly, and I made good wine.”

Instead, he seems far more energized by his business triumphs and spent considerable time reveling in their details. There was the time in 1911 when the price of wine fell to 6 cents a gallon; rather than despair about his unsold wine, he purchased that of his competitors, and later sold it all for 35 cents a gallon. Or the time he bought a pump for $50 only to unload it shortly thereafter for $250.

But fortune did not always favor him. The Pleasanton winery eventually went bankrupt, which forced Louis M. to seek work as a winemaker for hire. He took jobs at wineries owned by Bradford and Guasti, names which have been long buried in the dust of history. And in between positions, he nearly lost his life during the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918.

When Prohibition finally descended, Louis M., now a husband and father, moved his young family back to San Francisco. He took a job selling cars but soon began slinging grape juice on the side. This caught the attention of some men in the San Joaquin Valley who were looking to get into the wine products game. The National Prohibition Act forbade the manufacture and sale of alcohol but also included a provision allowing the head of every American household to produce 200 gallons of non-intoxicating fruit juice each year. Despite the clear wording, this was widely interpreted as a license for home winemaking. And because of this, the fresh grape and grape products markets exploded. Louis M. Martini was in the catbird seat.

The following year, Louis M. went to work for a winery in Kingsburg that held one of the rare licenses granting the production of sacramental wines. This license allowed them to capitalize upon Prohibition from a number of angles. In addition to a range of sweet and fortified wines for the Catholic church (they also sold wine to Beaulieu Vineyards for their sacramental program), they produced kosher wine and brandy, and they grew their home-winemaking clientele. And when one of the partners went bankrupt, Louis M. bought him out and demanded that they change the name of the operation to L. M. Martini Grape Products Company.

The juice they produced was primarily sold by the barrel. “You put in a large amount of sulfur dioxide, S02, and it would keep for a certain amount of time, then when they added air, it would ferment into wine.” Similarly, they made a grape syrup (not unlike today’s Mega Purple) called Forbidden Fruit, one of the Prohibition era’s cheekier monikers. This product was very much their cash cow, and allowed for wine to be produced all year long, rather than just immediately following harvest.

Closer to Fine

“I knew during Prohibition that it wouldn’t last. I felt it in my heart—I had a hunch.”

As an Italian, Louis M. Martini found Prohibition to be completely farcical and never believed that it would last forever. What was life without wine? This faith set him apart from many in the industry, and perhaps explains why he was so ready to pounce upon repeal. For though he was still technically working as a winemaker during the “great experiment,” he longed to return to the production of fine—specifically dry—wine. And to do that, he needed to get out of the Central Valley.

“I recognized that I had to settle in a winery up north to make good dry wine. I went all over Northern California, all over, with my wife and my son, looking at farms, everything. I liked the Napa Valley better than Santa Clara Valley or Sonoma. I was afraid, as early as 1932, that the Santa Clara Valley was going into houses and expanding into San Francisco. I decided there were more wineries here than Sonoma. So I decided to settle here.”

In 1932, Louis M. leased a winery in Oakville and made 40,000 gallons of wine, which was a fairly risky move. His ability to sell this wine hinged on Prohibition being repealed, which hinged on Roosevelt winning the presidential election. The election, of course, took place in November—well after harvest. According to a statement given by his son, Louis P. Martini, “We kept the steam up in the boilers that night until Roosevelt was declared a winner at which time my dad tied down the chain of the steam whistle and let it blow for about 15 minutes. That was sometime after midnight.” He added, “There was a bumper crop of babies in Kingsburg nine months later.”

Repeal was officially ratified on December 5, 1933. After putting in unsuccessful bids on Charles Krug, Greystone, and Freemark Abbey, Louis M. purchased 10 acres of prunes in St. Helena and began construction on a winery. The entire property cost him only $3,000.

Looking back now, Louis M.’s success seems obvious, almost inevitable. But it’s important to understand how uncertain Napa’s future was at the time. Prohibition may not have lasted as long as its authors intended, but it had a profound impact on the way Americans drank then and continue to drink today. Much of our current cocktail culture arose from the back rooms of Prohibition’s illicit speakeasys. And the little wine that was consumed during this 14-year span was likely born in a bathtub. Even after repeal, most wine consumed in the US was sweet and/or fortified. In fact, dry wine sales wouldn’t overtake sweet until 1967, the year Louis M. turned 80.

This, coupled with the fact that repeal coincided with the Great Depression, delayed Napa’s recovery by decades. While a handful of the great old estates—including Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyards, Charles Krug, and Larkmead—reopened, Martini was the only newly constructed winery in Napa until Robert Mondavi built his facility in 1966—over 30 years later. I ask Mike about the fact that Mondavi is often falsely credited as the first new winery after repeal, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. “Robert was a salesman, a promoter. He would claim credit for everything,” Mike chides with affection. “He was doing cold fermentation before ice was invented!”

Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, the newly minted Louis M. Martini Winery produced a slew of wines, around 60% of which were “generics.” Generics were wines—generally blends—bottled under European regional names that were familiar to customers. More often than not, they bore little relation to their namesakes. Martini’s “Burgundy,” for example, was based on Petite Sirah while its “Chianti” relied heavily on Zinfandel. “Port,” “Chablis,” and “Sherry” were also in the Martini roster.

Such generics were not unique to Martini. Indeed, much of California’s production was labeled in this way. And while the practice was eventually abandoned (largely due to complaints from European governments), a handful of holdouts such as Cook’s California Champagne remain. What was unique to Martini was its early application of varietal and vintage labeling.

Over in New York, wine writer Frank Schoonmaker had launched an import and distribution company (where the equally iconic Alexis Lichine briefly worked). He was among the first influential writers to take an interest in post-Prohibition California wine. On one of his several buying trips, he was impressed to see that Louis M. marked his casks with the variety and vintage. These casks were meant to be blended into generics, but Schoonmaker convinced him to keep the lots separate and carry their demarcation through to the bottle. He also asked Louis M. to change his labels.

Per Mike Martini, “Our original label was called Royale Cabernet. I still have one bottle of ‘33 in my cellar. Frank Schoonmaker said if you want to sell to the American people, you have to take the word royal off the label. That’s why they’re here, to get away from royalty.” Schoonmaker then connected Louis M. to the designer who would ultimately create the pastel landscape that graced the Martini labels for over five decades. That soft and bucolic scene, the impossibly small corks, and odd plastic pull-top capsules are the charming artifacts of the Martini brand’s early days, and are catnip to collectors of old California wines.

Photo courtesy of E.J. Gallo.

The Red Mountain

Depending on who you ask, Louis M. Martini purchased what he would dub the Monte Rosso Vineyard in either 1936 or 1938. The precise date doesn’t matter so much as the timing, in that it was early.

Though there was some mountain cultivation prior to Prohibition, high-elevation vineyards were unusual. In order for such sites to thrive, they had to possess an unlikely confluence of conditions: they had to be accessible by horse and cart, be suitable for dry-farming, and be relatively gentle in slope. In the craggy peaks that surround Napa Valley, this was a tall order. Indeed, widespread expansion into the hillsides wouldn’t really happen until the late 1970s, when the advent of drip irrigation made farming on shallow or meager soils possible, and when wine prices went high enough to justify the added expense of mountain farming.

But Monte Rosso was among those rare and genial sites. According to the Jewish Historical Society of Napa Valley, it was first put under vine in the 1880s by Emmanuel Goldstein and Benjamin Dreyfus. Dreyfus was the first Jewish resident of Orange County and a member of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society. In 1880, he and Goldstein (a San Francisco grocer) purchased the ranch and named it Mount Pisgah, after the mountain where Moses was sent to view the Promised Land in the book of Deuteronomy. Dreyfus distributed the wine they made from the site, and when he passed away in 1886, Goldstein changed the name to Goldstein Ranch.

Louis M. had been purchasing fruit from the ranch for years and admired the quality. Never one to miss a business opportunity, he and one of his partners bought the vineyard a few years after Goldstein died. The timing was right before harvest. According to Louis M., “We bought it on Wednesday, and we picked on Monday.” At the time of his acquisition, the vineyard was planted primarily to Zinfandel, with Folle Blanche, Sémillon, and a few others. In 1939 to 1940, Louis M. expanded the acreage to include Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, and Johannisberg Riesling. Of these historic vines, the Zinfandel, Sémillon, and Cabernet Sauvignon are still producing today.

The Monte Rosso Vineyard sits on the Sonoma side of Mount Veeder in what is today known as the Moon Mountain AVA. It is a vast ranch, undulating and varied, that overlooks the pastoral Sonoma Valley. Louis M. named the vineyard in honor of its brick-red soil—an iron-rich volcanic material called Red Hill loam. Though it is located in Sonoma, which is thought to be cooler than neighboring Napa, the site enjoys a warm southwest aspect, and its elevation, at 700 to 1,300 feet, keeps its fruit mostly out of the fog. These conditions result in rich, full-bodied wines that are girded by a surprisingly high acidity. Joel Peterson, a longtime buyer of Monte Rosso fruit, surmises that the soil, elevation, and exposure to ocean breezes conspire to produce higher-than-average levels of malic acid.

Louis M. Martini’s purchase of a mountain vineyard was unusual for the time, his decision to advertise it on his labels even more so. In the beginning, he wanted to call the wines Sonoma Zinfandel and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms wouldn’t allow Sonoma on the label, seeing as the wines were made in Napa. So Martini started calling the wines Mountain Barbera, Mountain Zinfandel, and so on. But after only a couple of years, the BATF decided they didn’t like that either. According to Louis P. Martini, “They said, ‘You can’t do that because mountain doesn’t mean anything as far as the appellation goes. You’ve got to put California on there.’ So then we went to California Mountain.”

Initially, anything labeled as California Mountain came exclusively from Monte Rosso. But later on, fruit from other high-elevation vineyards, such as their property in Lake County, would also be labeled in this way. Though the name sounds a bit vague, it was remarkably specific for its day. Bear in mind that vineyard designation didn’t appear in California until the 1960s, when wines such as Heitz Martha’s and Ridge Monte Bello hit the market. Eventually, Martini adapted, and “Monte Rosso” first appeared on a Zinfandel label in 1977. But by this point, Martini had already begun phasing out “California Mountain,” due in large part to what they saw as an overuse of the word mountain by bulk and value brands like Almaden (whom they sued for lack of mountain).

But as admirable and precocious as Louis M.’s mountain promotion was, some of his colleagues teased him for overstating the case. According to Robin Lail, daughter of Inglenook’s John Daniel, Jr., friend and colleague of Louis M., “Around 1950, Louis Martini, Sr., started producing a wine from a gently rolling hillside vineyard and called it Mountain Red. My dad, a great lover of puns, thought that was funny as he had spent time in the hillside vineyards of Germany, which are so steep. That year he produced an in-house wine which he called Mole Hill Red. On the front label was a cute mole holding a magnifying glass over a small pile of dirt. The back label extolled all the virtues of the wine. And the last line was ‘And this is a wine you will truly gopher.’”

Photo courtesy of E.J. Gallo.

Another Round of Martinis

Louis M. was officially succeeded by his son, Louis P., in 1956, though his mark had been on the wines since the mid-1940s. By many accounts, the soft-spoken Louis P. possessed the polar opposite temperament of his hard-headed and irascible father, but both men shared a gift for innovation.

In 1941, Louis P. graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in food science and, following a brief stint in WWII, joined the family business in 1946. While in school he audited several enology classes at the Davis campus where he worked alongside the legendary Maynard Amerine. His specialty was chemistry, and he carried his love of research into the winery and vineyard. “My dad built a cold room in the 1940s that could get wines down to 26 degrees Fahrenheit,” Mike Martini tells me, “and he also came up with the wind machine.”

Who did what first in the early days of California wine is difficult to prove, but Louis P.’s instrumental role in elevating the quality of California wine is unquestionable. While his father made strides in this through the establishment of such promotional bodies as the California Wine Institute (1932) and the Napa Valley Vintners (1944), Louis P. tread a subtler path as part of a small technical group that worked hard to raise Napa’s vinicultural standards behind the scenes.

The Napa Technical Group was started by André Tchelistcheff in 1947, and among its earliest members were Peter Mondavi, George Deuer (Inglenook), Lee Stewart (Souverain), and Louis P. Martini. The point of the committee was to encourage and develop better winemaking practices and to share information. Its formation coincided roughly with the development of Winkler’s climatic index (1944), which effectively introduced the idea of terroir to California. “Before, we used to plant everything on one ranch,” Louis P. recounted. “If you had one plot of acres and you wanted 10 varieties of grapes, you put them all on it. But you don’t do that anymore. You find out what grows best in that particular area, and you put it there. If you want to grow another variety, you go find another piece of land somewhere where that one will do better.”

At Tchelistcheff’s urging, Louis M. purchased a 200-acre chunk of the historic Stanly Ranch in Carneros, which he planted to Pinot Noir (using cuttings from Inglenook) and other cool climate varieties (plus a dash of Cabernet). Later on, his son Louis P. embarked on a clonal project with UC Davis professor Dr. Olmo. Ultimately, a particularly favorable Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir vine was isolated and propagated. Today, it is known as the Martini clone, a celebrated American heritage selection.

When asked to compare his father’s style of wine to his grandfather’s, Mike Martini states, “My grandfather made big robust wines in the late ‘30s, early ‘40s—the Italian touch. To be what they are today [i.e., drinking well], they had to be monstrous.” He continues, “My dad was the master of elegance. His wines always had silky smooth tannins.”

Aside from the audited Alba course, Louis M. Martini had no official training and so was likely operating on, albeit acute, instinct. Per the recollection of Louis P., “I think my dad made good, sound wines; they were clean wines. They may not always have been the greatest varietal characteristics, but they were always clean wines, and people didn’t know varietal characteristics anyhow in those days. But there was an awful lot of unclean wines on the market, and by contrast, I think they looked pretty good.”

He continued, “Our facilities were pretty primitive and anything but sanitary. We fermented our reds in two open-topped 2,600-gallon redwood tanks. Cooling was done by pumping over through a heat exchanger. If we didn’t need to cool, we’d stand on a 2-by-12 and punch the cap down with a 2-by-4. There was no OSHA then. For a cooling media, we used tower water, and on hot or humid days, we’d have to buy ice by the truckload and pass water through it. Many evenings we’d work until the wee hours of the morning breaking up ice and tossing it into a sump.”

Upon joining the family business, Louis P. quickly set up a formal laboratory and slowly updated the winery equipment. He also dramatically increased the amount of land they owned. During his tenure (1946–1977), the Martini Winery reduced production of generics and increased the number of varietal wines. But while Louis P.’s wines were more elegant than those of his father, they still possessed enough stuffing for a long life, and this time span is something of a golden era for Martini. The Cabernets, Zinfandels, and Barberas from the 1950s are especially rewarding.

Mike Martini knew from a young age that he wanted to work in wine. He spent all of his school breaks and every summer vacation working in the cellar. And after a short time in the military, Mike joined the family business in 1974. That year, he mostly shadowed his dad. “Each morning at 5 am, we would go to the winery and go to all the tanks and test them, decide what to do, and write the work order on each of the tanks,” he tells me. “The first year, we worked each tank side by side, the next year we started on either end and met in the middle and I had to explain my choices, and the third year I basically did it all.”

The smooth transition morphed into an abrupt handoff in 1977 when Louis P. broke his ankle right before harvest. The fall occurred during a meeting of his tasting group in Mendocino, and Peter Mondavi was on hand to help him up and get him to the doctor. “And then it turned out that the doctor’s name was Gallo,” Mike chortles, “and the next week the headline in the Examiner came out: ‘Mondavi Helps Martini to Gallo.’”

Mike sees his style of winemaking as falling right between that of his father and grandfather: “More bold than my father’s, but not as big as my grandfather’s.” Of the many changes he made during his time at the helm, two of the most impactful were his introduction of extended maceration and his eschewal of redwood tanks. “I went to Bordeaux with André Tchelistcheff in 1981, and I thought the secret to what the Bordelais did was longer time on the skins.” In 1982 and 1983, he began experimenting with this, and by ’84, extended maceration was the new normal. “For valley floor fruit, 21 days is the magic number, and for mountain fruit, 28 days is the magic number.” This was much to his father’s disappointment because “now I only got two turns out of our tanks during harvest, and he wanted four or five.”

The redwood story is a bit more dramatic. “I simply couldn’t get my family out of redwood,” Mike explains. “Redwood excretes a creosote into the wine and actually strips something out of the wine like a fining agent.” He organized multiple tastings that showed the clear effect of redwood, and even conscripted outside experts like Tony Soter and André Tchelistcheff to weigh in against the wood, but his father would not be swayed. Feeling that drastic action was required, he waited until his father went on vacation and then ordered all 1.2 million gallons worth of redwood tanks removed. Mike had slowly been replacing the redwood with large stainless steel and American oak tanks, but still their sudden absence was alarming. “Dad came home to this big empty winery and just started weaving back and forth. A week later he came into my office and said, ‘I only have one question: where are you going to put all the wine?’”

Monte Rosso Makes the Rounds

By the time Mike Martini took over winemaking at his family’s estate, the winery owned 2,000 acres of land with around 800 acres of vines. Even with such a wealth of vines to draw from, they continued to buy fruit. “We didn’t want to [provide] more than 75% of our own fruit. The rest is called a market buffer,” Mike explains. But it never occurred to them to sell fruit until Joel Peterson talked them into it.

“My parents were founding members of the Berkeley Food and Wine Society,” Joel Peterson recalls. “They knew the Martinis and would go up and do tastings at Monte Rosso. I was nine and went up for one of the events. You can’t help but get smitten by the place—it’s high up and the view is beautiful and there were old WWII trucks around, which was just great for a young boy.”

A few decades later, Joel Peterson had founded Ravenswood and developed a keen interest in old vine Zinfandel vineyards. He had tasted the Monte Rosso wines and knew how good the fruit was. He also knew that the place was relatively unsung. “In ‘77, ‘78, ‘79 I made Monte Rosso Zin,” Mike recalls. “It was great. But my guys were used to selling $10 to 15 wines and didn’t know what to do with it, so it just sat.” Meanwhile, Joel Peterson had begun producing Ravenswood at the Martini facility so was in a unique position to make his case. “I got to pester Mike a lot,” Joel remembers. “I got to look him in the eye every day and say, ‘Give me some fruit.’”

Mike finally relented in 1993. He was partly inspired by watching what had happened to Rene di Rosa. “He sold Winery Lake fruit to a bunch of wineries who bottled it as a single vineyard, and then the name got famous.” Mike was counting on the same happening for Monte Rosso, and his bet paid off. By the time they sold the vineyard in 2002, Monte Rosso wine was being bottled by some of the biggest names in California, a list that included Ridge, Mount Eden, Carlisle, Ravenswood, Rosenblum, and Biale.

“One of the unique characteristics of this site is that the acidity stands up, from a winemaking standpoint, almost indefinitely,” Joel Peterson recounts. “It’s almost a pain in the neck. But it’s also what makes the wines so pretty and gorgeous.” He elaborates, “You want to pick at 24 or 25 Brix, and in most vintages, that will have a pH of 3.0 or 3.1, which is Champagne pH. So you have to wait. You can’t pick it, unless you want to play other games, which I don’t. So at 28 Brix, maybe it’s 3.15 pH, and at least you can get a malo to start.” By the time malolactic fermentation is done, a finished Zinfandel at that level will have a pH of 3.4, which is low.

“It’s exceptional fruit, and there aren’t too many vineyards that are of that quality,” Joel Peterson surmises. “I suppose if I were to sit down and list first growth vineyards in California, that would be right up there in the top five. Certainly for Zinfandel, maybe even for Cabernet. So consistent, so evocative of place and character.”

Photo courtesy of E.J. Gallo.

The Road to Gallo

Despite the breadth of its portfolio, the Louis M. Martini Winery was always a red wine house, which worked against it in the white-crazed 1980s. It was also always known for value, which worked against it in the booming 1990s.

“Toward the end of my dad’s reign, he really wanted to keep the cost under $10,” Mike explains. “‘If it costs more than the food on the table, they aren’t going to buy the wine!’ he used to say.” But while Mike tried to raise prices and introduce more premium wines to portfolio, Martini’s reputation as a source of value was too well established to shake. And value was not a sexy word during the decade that brought forth Napa’s cult Cab producers.

Adding to these troubles, phylloxera returned to Napa Valley in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. This turned one of Martini’s greatest strengths—its vast landholdings—into a liability. “We had trouble with the bank in the early ‘90s,” Mike recounts. “They took a walk on us because of phylloxera, and they pulled out a lot of their winery investments and put their money into Boeing.” To cover the expense of their replants, the Martini family was forced to sell off several of its ranches. But though things eventually stabilized, the truth they couldn’t escape was that their model of doing business—producing large quantities of many different types of wines and selling them at modest prices—was out of place in modern Napa.

Enter Gallo.

At first, the conversations between the two California dynasties simply revolved around distribution. Martini had been managing its own national sales since 1977 and was looking to hand that over. But at some point, the idea of an outright purchase was floated. At that time, Gallo had yet to penetrate Napa, and Martini must have seemed like a big game prize: historic, well respected, and with high enough production to gel with Gallo’s broad market infrastructure. And the Martinis were facing a fourth generation whose interests all lay outside of the wine sphere. Whatever the deciding factor, the deal was sealed in 2002. For an undisclosed sum, Gallo purchased the Louis M. Martini Winery and its vineyards, including Monte Rosso.

The announcement of the sale was not as sensational as it would have been, had it happened at any other time. In the post-9/11 comedown from the dot-com boom, mergers and acquisitions became rampant in the wine world. Seagrams sold all its wine projects to Diageo in 2001; Etude sold to Beringer in 2002; and the Mondavi Winery sold to Constellation in 2004. And that’s just a drop in the spit bucket.

Whenever a corporation buys an historic winery, even a family-owned corporation like Gallo, many brace for the worst. California’s wine history is replete with stories of spreadsheets, bottom lines, and indifferent middle managers ruining a beloved brand (see: Inglenook). But Gallo approached the Martini acquisition with admirable respect, perhaps because the two families were longtime friends. Mike and his sister Carolyn were retained and remained in place for 13 years, during which time they were heavily involved in operations. This helped to preserve philosophical and stylistic continuity and also served to assuage nervous loyalists.

But Gallo did make changes. Big ones. It trimmed the portfolio dramatically, whittling away the oddball varieties and centering focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. And while the quality and consistency of these core wines seemed to improve right away, it’s hard not to mourn the loss of the diversity of Martini’s former portfolio. Older vintages of Martini’s Barbera are among some of the greatest and least celebrated wines to come out of California, and the Folle Blanche, when you can find it, is superb.

Gallo also invested heavily in new equipment, enlisting Mike Martini in the design and building of a “microwinery” within the larger facility. There, smaller tanks, updated gear, and a new cooperage were added in order to modernize the top tier of wines. And modernize they did. While Mike Martini’s era of wines were more gutsy and extracted than what had come before, they were never slick. Call it an echo of the “Italian touch” of his grandfather, but the wines retained a charming rusticity that set them apart from contemporary Napa (perhaps to the detriment of their scores and sales). Today, the wines share the sweet midpalate and rounded tannins of their compatriots. That said, the wines are undeniably well made, and lovers of that style will be hard-pressed to find a better value in California Cabernet.

Production was amped up by Gallo, too. At the time of sale, Mike Martini estimates the winery was producing around 75,000 cases of wine. According to current winemaker Michael Eddy, Martini today makes just shy of half a million cases, two-thirds of which are split between the California and Sonoma appellation Cabernets.

Changes were also initiated in the vineyards. Over at Monte Rosso, Gallo began slowly nixing clients, especially after its 2016 purchase of Orin Swift. Today, only Biale and Bedrock Wine Company still buy and bottle Monte Rosso fruit. Gallo has redeveloped much of the ranch as well. Because both Martini and Gallo replanted in waves, the vineyard is something of a hodgepodge, with 9 different types of trellising and 12 different spacings spread across the 250 planted acres. While a considerable number of the replanted vines were on AXR1 and therefore vulnerable to phylloxera, much of the Gallo replant was designed to increase the amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a source of consternation to some. According to vineyard manager Brenae Royal, today, 118 acres are dedicated to Cabernet, with 85 to Zinfandel and the remaining 47 to Sémillon, Sylvaner, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Petite Sirah, Grenache, and Syrah.

“Monte Rosso first got irrigation in the 1970s,” Mike remembers. “Before that, to start new plants, we would trade wine for water with a fellow at the bottom of Moon Mountain—truck it up out of his pool 500 gallons at a time to water the young vines.” Once the vines became established, generally after five to eight years of hand-watering, they would be dry-farmed. That ended once technology allowed them to dig a well sufficiently deep (1,000 feet) to hit water. Today, irrigation is all over the ranch, though the old vines are still dry-farmed. Brenae Royal is working to reduce the vineyard’s water use but found that irrigation was essential during the recent drought. She is also transitioning the ranch away from Roundup, an admirable move for a property of this size.

Watching the Tides

Mike Martini speaks to me from his new home on the coast. “I can see the surf,” he enthuses. “I’m watching the tide right now.”

It’s an upbeat moment in our interview, which spans the emotional range. He enjoys telling me stories about his grandfather (“He’d sit in front of the TV with his sunglasses on and turn the brightness all the way up so only he could see it and would change the channels with his cane!”) and seems touched by the recent renovation of the old Martini tasting room (“I thought they did a good and respectful job, and kept a lot of the family in,” he says). But other subjects elicit a more sour response. Specifically, the transformation that Napa has undergone in his lifetime.

“In the old days, when I grew up, Napa was totally agrarian,” he begins. “Before I went away, from 1969 to ‘74, I used to ride across Inglenook to go to my grandfather’s place. When I came back there were gates everywhere.”

“And then the money started rushing in,” he continues. “All these millionaires. And then the billionaires came in, and they pushed out the millionaires. And now a lot of the residences are weekends only; there are so many empty houses during the week. You walk down St. Helena midweek, and it’s empty.”

The irony of this, of course, is that Mike is undoubtedly a millionaire himself today. And the irony of that is that, because the buy-in in Napa has risen so much higher than what can be earned in the selling of wine, the historic producers that put Napa on the map are often only truly wealthy when they sell.

A day-drinking day-trader in Manhattan once told me, “The market is the market. It isn’t moral, it isn’t nostalgic, and it doesn’t give a damn for your story or the kind of day you’re having.”

I couldn’t help but think of this unfortunate encounter when speaking with Mike. I sympathize with his feeling of displacement and can’t imagine what it is like to hand over a family’s legacy to foreign hands, no matter how friendly. But at the same time, I’m glad the Martini brand gets to live on and that its story, in all its sepia-toned glory, can continue to be told.

And oh, what a story it is. I’ve always found the Martini saga special in that it touches on so many of the larger themes of California wine. There’s the tale of the immigrant and the American dream, of the disaster and opportunity of Prohibition, the recovery of the American palate, and the move from sweet and generic to dry and site specific. Of experimentation, Cabernetification, and consolidation. Of man against nature, and market against man. Of the joy and pain of generational succession, of heritage, relevance, stagnation, and rebirth.

That this story is now someone else’s to trade on doesn’t diminish its importance.

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GuildSomm is a nonprofit international membership organization for wine professionals that promotes education and community. Articles, podcasts, and videos are publicly available on GuildSomm.com and cover varied topics on the world of wine. Members have access to in-depth educational materials, an active online community, masterclasses, and more.

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