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One of Sonoma's Oldest Zin Vineyards Gets a New Lease on Life

Arista Winery's McWilliams family buys Russian River's Martinelli Road vineyard
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 9, 2012 1:30pm ET

One of California's best sweet spots for great old-vine Zinfandel is a remote little valley in western Russian River not far from Forestville. The best-known vineyard there is Jackass Hill, which was first planted in 1889 and is notably bottled by Martinelli Winery.

Just down the hill, and once part of the original Giuseppe Martinelli ranch, is the 18-acre Martinelli Road Vineyard. It's not nearly as well known as Jackass Hill, but Turley bottled it under the Rancho Burro designation for many years, and Mike Officer at Carlisle launched a single-vineyard Martinelli Road in 2009, which I rated 94 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.

I'd heard the vineyard was on the market months ago, and the original asking price was reportedly $1.6 million. Well, last week, the McWilliams family of Arista Winery purchased the vineyard for an undisclosed sum. It sounds like the vineyard is in good hands.

Mark McWilliams said his family has been shopping for new vineyards for more than a year, hoping to add to their existing 36 acres planted along Westside Road. And while Arista is best-known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the winery has been making Zinfandel since 2003. Martinelli Road has 5 acres of Zin, 10 acres of Chardonnay and 3 acres of Pinot Noir. "So this vineyard touched all of our buttons," McWilliams said. "We're thrilled to have it."

Surrounded by redwood trees, the region is known by locals as Crane Valley. It's a distinctive terroir. Cool at night like the rest of Russian River, but at the peak of summer it's remarkably warm during the day. As a result, the Zin develops full, ripe flavors but retains a bracing acidity. Achieving the right balance between the two can be a tightrope walk.

Joe Martinelli began farming the vineyard in 1934, when his father, Giuseppe, split his property among his three children. Joe's health has failed in recent years, and for the past few vintages only the Zinfandel has been harvested.

"The vineyard is significant for several reasons," Officer said. "One, it produces highly distinctive, delicious Zinfandels. Two, the vineyard is steeped in history and has been farmed by four generations. Three, it was (originally) planted in the 1880s and it's one of the oldest surviving vineyards in Sonoma County."

The McWilliams have hired noted vineyard manager Ulises Valdez to oversee the vineyard, and even though the Chardonnay and Pinot have been neglected for several years Valdez said the vines remain in remarkably good shape.

McWilliams will continue to sell Zinfandel to Carlisle but is also making plans for a single-vineyard Zin, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir under the Arista label in 2012.

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