Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Michael Martini is a big man.

While his physical stature, his outsized personality and his gravelly voice might initially lead one to believe him to be a hard case, I caught a glimpse of the iconic winemaker’s softer side one stunningly hot afternoon earlier this month.

We were standing in Martini’s famed Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma County, looking out over 100-year-old grape vines that fell from the hillside, giving way to an epic view all the way to San Francisco Bay and the red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. Michael was running a tour, spouting facts and figures about the vineyard that he had recited a thousand times before. Suddenly he stopped and looked down a row of vines. Speaking as though to himself, his voice softened as he surveyed the spot. “That’s where I proposed to my wife,” he said quietly. In an instant the icon became a man moved by a romantic memory.

I liked him right away.

Michael Martini is the son of the son of a legend. His grandfather, Louis M. Martini, emigrated from Genoa, Italy, to California at the turn of the last century. He started making wine professionally in 1911, nearly a century ago, and, when Prohibition came around, he found the means to wait it out, making sacramental wines and selling grape concentrate in small batches for “family wines.”

The elder Martini was certain that the Volstead Act would eventually be repealed, and when it was, he felt the fertile farmland of the Napa Valley would be the best place in America to grow grapes. So sure was he, that in the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, he completed the construction of a state-of-the -art winery just outside the town of St. Helena. The opening coincided with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which deemed the Volstead Act unconstitutional and restored legal winemaking in America.

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Louis went on to become one of the seminal figures in American winemaking. A founder of the Napa Valley Vintners, a visionary who developed myriad winemaking and viticulture techniques that are in use to this day, he was also a bigger-than-life personality and a marketer at his core.

His son, Louis P. Martini, Michael’s father, took over the winemaking responsibilities in 1954. Louis P. could not have been more different from his father. Studious, quiet and determined, he found his joys in the vineyard and in the winemaking process itself. An innovator, Louis P. Martini was instrumental in planting the cool Carneros region of the Napa Valley to Pinot Noir. In fact, one of the most significant clones of Pinot Noir planted today was developed as a project between Louis P. Martini and the University of California, Davis, and is called “The Martini Clone.” He was elected to the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2008.

All of which brings us back to Michael. As the grandson of a legend and the son of a Hall of Famer, he was both blessed with opportunity and cursed with the burden of “what’s next?” In 1977 he became the chief winemaker and has concentrated on making the best Cabernet Sauvignon that Martini could produce.

While Michael doesn’t need validation from the wine press, it should be noted that the current issue of the Wine Spectator, which focuses on California Cabernet, scores the 2006 and 2007 Lot No. 1 Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the 2007 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the aforementioned Monte Rosso Vineyard, at 91 points or better. Mission accomplished.

In 2002, another Italian family, the Gallos, purchased the Louis M. Martini Winery, the original building constructed in 1933 and the vineyard holdings, with the intent of creating a world-class winemaking facility. Michael has spent the last eight years working with Gallo to create what they call Cellar 254, a state-of -the-art winery that is used by Martini, as well as other premium Gallo brands like William Hill and McMurray Ranch, to make their wines.

Cellar 254 sits cheek-to-jowl on Highway 29 next to the original winery built in 1933, where Michael still hangs his hat on a daily basis. It is a site that marries both the history of the region and the technology of today. It illustrates both the industry’s progress and the importance of those who came before. The original winery is currently undergoing a massive renovation and will soon be a premier showcase for Gallo’s premium brands.

It will also be a living testament to the big man, Michael, and the rest of the Martini family.