Remembering Louis P. Martini
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
One of the most enduring memories I have of the late Napa Valley vintner Louis P. Martini, who died on Sept. 21, came about in neighboring Sonoma County, during a visit to his prized Monte Rosso estate in the foothills on the east side of Sonoma Valley.
I was doing a profile of Martini to coincide with his selection as Wine Spectator's 1990 Distinguished Service Award winner for his contributions to the wine industry. While the Martini name is not counted today within the upper tier of California producers in quality or prestige, the winery began many trends that are still being played out. Martini was a pioneer in planting grapevines in the Carneros region of Napa County and the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, and the winery made the first vintage-dated Merlot in the state. Martini was also a proponent of mountain-grown grapes; Monte Rosso supplied the fruit for many of the best Martini Cabernets.
Martini took me there behind the wheel of a '70s-era Chevy Suburban, a big, hulking beast of a machine that had countless gears. This was before the era of stylish and shiny off-road vehicles; Martini's Suburban was boxy and beige, with lots of squeaks and scratches. I was fairly new to Wine Spectator at the time, and a bit wet behind the ears, but Martini nevertheless set aside most of the day to show me his vineyards.
We had spent the morning looking at grapevines in the Carneros region, which lies on both sides of the border between Napa and Sonoma counties. It was late summer, and the dust billowed up from the vineyard lanes as we went from one row of Chardonnay vines to another. Martini, dressed simply in a short-sleeved plaid shirt and gray khakis, picked off a few berries and chewed them to test their ripeness: not there yet, but progressing nicely, he said.
Martini was a member of that generation of California vintners who brought the Golden State's wine industry back to life after Prohibition. He wasn't a promoter, or even a marketer, for that matter, but a quiet and patient man who sought to make wines that could be enjoyed by people like himself. Alas, in this sense, Martini was also a member of the last generation to live in a simpler and much more rural California. He was a child of a Depression-era state of just 5 million people that avoided the worst of the period's economic calamities thanks to its agricultural wealth.
So it's probably no surprise that Martini took an abiding interest in his vineyards, which may have also provided an outlet for the pressures of running a family-owned winery. His father, winery founder Louis M. Martini, was as outgoing as his son was introspective.
After our visit to Carneros, we drove through the Sonoma Valley and turned off for the winding road that leads to Monte Rosso. Despite having spent many years in the wine country, I had never been to this part of Sonoma Valley and was curious to see what it contained, though I had spied its slopes from a distance on numerous occasions. From afar, its sparse distribution of vineyards amid a mix of scrubland, forest and grassy meadows evoked an almost Tuscan panorama.
We passed through a gate and stopped at a ranch house that proved to be the equipment headquarters for the property. Nearby was a small vineyard covered with netting. Its vines were thick with Muscat grapes, sweet and aromatic. Martini grabbed a handful and he passed them to me. "Not the best for wine, but they are the best for eating," he said. We munched mightily on them and spit out the pips onto the hot asphalt.
Martini put the Suburban back in gear, and we took off on a course leading higher into the hills. We passed oaks and meadows and finally broke into the main Monte Rosso vineyard, first planted in the late 1930s. Many of its 240 acres were head-pruned, meaning that the vines were individually cultivated on stakes rather than tied to some elaborate trellising system, the mark of modern vineyards.
We finally reached the highest point of Monte Rosso, and Martini spoke of how the combination of soil, altitude and cultivation techniques produced grapes of concentrated flavor and depth of richness. Below, the whole of Sonoma Valley spread out, with the waters of San Pablo Bay and the even the high-rises of San Francisco visible in the distance.
Martini walked into the vineyard with his loping gait. He was tall and still strong at 71 years of age. He stopped and supported himself on the steep terrace with one hand on a stake and his feet placed firmly in the vineyard soil. The midday sun shone brightly, making him squint as he surveyed all that lay before him. The cares of the everyday world were far away, and Martini was one with his vineyard.
Martini was truly a person of the land and era that he grew up in. He had neither the glamour nor glitz that are so common among many of the newer California vintners. Success or failure comes quickly for them. Martini and his family looked at the long term, carefully selecting and tending their vineyards. His legacy to California wine lies in those vineyards and in the smooth and drinkable wines that he made--a legacy that is also a testimony to the foresight and integrity of Louis P. Martini.
Read more about the late Louis Martini.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.