Dennis Martin, whose career at California's Fetzer Vineyards spanned 30 years and whose humble demeanor belied his formidable skills as a taster and winemaker, died Aug. 13 after battling prostate cancer. He was 69.
Denny, as his friends called him, was a wine icon in Mendocino County, where Fetzer has its headquarters, as well as in Sonoma County, where he made his home in Healdsburg. He had what many considered one of the best palates in the business and was a mentor to many in the industry, including Bob Blue, who replaced Martin as director of winemaking when he retired. "His personality was so giving and he had so many friends that spanned generations of people in our industry," said Blue.
Martin was known for an easy smile and a positive outlook. "He was one of those unique people—you never heard a bad word said about him," said friend and fellow winemaker Daryl Groom. "He had a quiet charm. You just felt comfortable with him."
While Martin made no secret of his recent health issues, he rarely dwelled on it. Groom sat next to Martin at a large winemaker lunch in Healdsburg two days before he passed away. "He was eating, drinking awesome wines and we were laughing about old memories," Groom recalled. "When I heard [the news], it was just a huge surprise."
Martin grew up amid the farming communities of California's Central Valley. In 1973, he earned an agricultural business degree from California State University at Fresno and followed that with a master's degree in enology and food science two years later.
His career at Fetzer began in 1985 when then-winemaker Paul Dolan hired Martin as his assistant. When the Fetzer family sold the business to Brown-Forman in 1992, Martin became director of winemaking, and he remained on board when Chile's Viña Concha y Toro acquired Fetzer in 2011. He retired as vice president of winemaking in 2015.
Martin is survived by his wife, Carla Filgas, and two children, Astin and Remy.