One of Sonoma County's oldest and most overlooked wineries is getting a new lease on life. Martini & Prati, a Russian River winery that first produced wine in 1881, will become the new home of Martin Ray Winery.
Courtney Benham, the owner of Martin Ray, signed a lease agreement with the Martini family and has an option to purchase the 115,000-square-foot winery, which has been used largely as a custom-crush facility in recent years. Benham will continue the custom-crush business but will also use the plant to produce his company's three labels: Martin Ray, Fountain Grove and Angeline.
"It's a good spot for us," said Gary Hawke, COO for Martin Ray. "More and more we're focusing on the Russian River appellation."
The Martin Ray brand dates to 1946 but was only a dusty memory when Benham revived it in 1990. Since then, the label has earned generally high marks from Wine Spectator, particularly for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Benham co-founded Blackstone Winery, a popular value brand, and sold it for $140 million in 2001 to Pacific Wine Partners, a joint venture of BRL Hardy and Constellation Brands.
As part of the deal, Martin Ray is also assuming control of Martini & Prati's former lease-holder, ConeTech, a firm that uses a specialized spinning-cone column to lower the alcohol content and fix flaws in its clients' wines.
Although ConeTech recently spent about $3 million in improvements to the winery, Hawke said the facility remains antiquated, with a large number of old redwood tanks and even concrete fermentation pits. Martin Ray is modernizing the facility, adding stainless steel tanks and rotary fermentors.
The Martin Ray brands, which are currently produced at a custom-crush facility in nearby Graton, total about 50,000 cases annually. Hawke said the goal is to triple that in the next few years.
While the Martini & Prati name will disappear from the sign out front, one tradition will continue: Martini & Prati's jug-wine program. The jug club, about 800 members strong, allows consumers to bring in an empty jug and fill it up at the tasting room -- a common practice at California wineries in the 1950s and '60s.