Joe Martin, the San Francisco businessman who founded St. Francis winery and helped turn California Merlot into a household name, died Feb. 26, at his home in Sonoma Valley. Martin's health had been declining since he suffered a stroke in 2012. He was 80.
“He was a wonderful guy," said Christopher Silva, president and CEO of St. Francis Winery and Vineyards. “He left us with the same sense of awe and enthusiasm that brought him to Sonoma 35 years ago.”
Martin was one of the early pioneers of Merlot in California. Suffering from what he jokingly called a mid-life crisis, in 1971 he sold his home, his furniture business and one of his two cars to buy a 100-acre orchard in the village of Kenwood, at the northern end of Sonoma Valley. Over the next six years he and his first wife, Emma (who passed away in 2001), planted the Behler vineyard, naming it after the former land owners, while Joe attended night classes on viticulture at the University of California at Davis.
It was a bold career change, but Martin’s agricultural roots ran deep. He was born in California’s Central Valley in 1934 to a family of dairy farmers. As a young man he moved to San Francisco, where he eventually started Modern House Furniture Store, but he was always interested in farming and wine and traveled to Sonoma regularly.
In their early years, the couple experimented with planting a variety of grapes, including Muscat and Chardonnay, but Joe was mainly interested in Merlot. At the time it was considered a blending grape for Cabernet Sauvignon. Martin believed in the inherent quality of Merlot as a standalone variety and championed it as a higher-end wine in Sonoma. “He became increasingly convinced that there was no place better to grow Merlot than three steps out of his front door,” said Silva.
Joe originally intended to be a grapegrower, and the Martins sold their crop to local wineries during the 1970s. But he decided to start a winery after wines made with his fruit began to earn accolades. In 1979, he and business partner Lloyd Canton built a winery and named it after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint and protector of animals and ecology. In 1983, they hired Tom Mackey as winemaker, a job he held for the next 30 years.
The St. Francis wines were well-received during the 1980s just as Sonoma was gaining recognition as a world-class growing region. Martin also started making old-vine Zinfandel, one of a handful of vintners to do so at the time. The wines gained the attention of Kobrand, a national distributor looking to expand into Sonoma. Kobrand’s owners, the Kopf family, began a partnership with Martin and Lloyd and by 2004 purchased full control of the winery. Martin stayed on as a consultant until he retired to focus on his charitable work in 2008.
Martin was dedicated to his local community and valued relationships. He served on several charitable boards including Catholic Charities and the Santa Rosa memorial Hospital Foundation, and was an important donor to the Kids’ Street Learning Center. “It was never about him. His big message from the very beginning was, ‘Here is what Sonoma is capable of,’” said Silva. “There will not be another one like him for a long time.”
Martin is survived by his second wife, Nancy, two granddaughters and several nieces and nephews.