Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
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.
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
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
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
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
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, 8O 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
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
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.