Louis M. Martini Winery – A Winery Profile

Talking Northern California grape-growing, extreme weather and Cabernet Sauvignon
by Michael Godel

A few weeks back I engaged Louis M. Martini Winery winemaker Michael Eddy for what I insisted would be just a few minutes of his time over a long-distance phone conversation. An hour and a half later I was filled with talk of California wine pioneering history, agricultural practices, producer-grower relationships and Eddy’s current meets future edification of Martini’s workforce and multifarious wines.

It was a most excellent conversation we had, Michael and Michael. We found out that we share some common ground in our shared journey to the world of wine. I started out working in restaurants, worked for 20 years as a chef, once dabbled in home brewing and have now started making some wine. Eddy started out working in a restaurant, did home-brewing and is now the chief winemaker for a winery now part of the Gallo cluster that is truly one of California’s great success stories. Equal and opposing natural progression perchance? Perhaps, but Eddy’s scope of responsibility is nothing short of impressive and to my mind, daunting, but he takes it all in stride.

Director of Winemaking Michael Eddy

Michael Martini retired in 2015 and Michael Eddy took up the responsibility for winemaking. Eddy earned his bachelor’s degree in Biology from Humboldt State University in Northern California, later pursuing a master’s degree in Food Science, specializing in oenology, at the University of California at Davis. After stints in winemaking at California’s Trefethen Family Vineyards, Beaulieu Vineyard and Rodney Strong Vineyards, Michael joined Gallo in 2005 as an associate winemaker, initially focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

As Director of North Coast Winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Michael oversees winemaking teams at the Gallo of Sonoma Winery, Louis M. Martini Winery and William Hill Estate Winery. He also collaborates on Gallo Signature Series, an acclaimed collection of wines crafted by third-generation family winemaker Gina Gallo.

For more than 80 years the Martini family has made Cabernet Sauvignon the focus of a consistent and unwavering portfolio, searching for the best grapes in Napa and Sonoma to make the best wines.  As third-generation winemaker Mike Martini used to say, “Cabernet: it’s what we do.” A few years back Martini brought his briefcase full of shaken Cabernet Sauvignon to Toronto’s Vintage Conservatory in September, with the obliging and expedient assistance of parent company E. & J. Gallo. Mike Martini opened with “we’re shaken, not stirred.” How refreshing is truth spoken and without pretence? Very.

Louis P. and Louis M. Martini (founder)

Martini took over the winemaking duties in 1977. “All of us put in something, mostly personality.” The Cabernet Sauvignon style, drawn from many iconic Sonoma and Napa sites is both barefaced and to the fore. Despite the unfavourable monetary translations to Canadian and especially LCBO dollars, their Sonoma County, Napa Valley and Alexander Valley brands represent fortuitous value in full-bodied, reliably crafted Cabernet. There is no mistaking a Martini rendition of the Bordeaux grape. Ripe, optimum extraction and unabashed richness from quality time spent in high percentages of new French, American (and sometimes) Hungarian oak barrels.

The élevage of a Martini Cabernet Sauvignon is both unapologetic and expected. It is what it is. Their Cabernet may be treated to cold soaks, warmed to tropical temperatures, pumped over, oxygenated (délestage), subjected to extended maceration, racked by gravity and housed in toasted barrels, but there is no stirring of the fine lees. The adage holds true. A Martini Cabernet is shaken, not stirred.

When I first met Michael Martini a few years ago he was both gracious and humorous in his presentation, spending plenty of time reliving the great legacy left by his father along with some terrific anecdotes along the way. The Martini codex is classic; immigrant family develops a world-renowned blend, takes on investment from a corporate behemoth, uses the resources to great effect and finds the wherewithal to keep the original name alive, front and centre. Great story.

While the Martini story and continuing education is heavily focused on cabernet sauvignon, there are projects under the impressive scope of this operation that involve other important California-grown grape varieties. Sonoma, Napa and the single-vineyard cabernets fall under the “National Collection” but it is the Monte Rosso Collection and Cellar No. 254 that also explores cabernet franc, zinfandel, malbec, petite sirah and a Rosé made from cabernet sauvignon. The latter has always been the true, dedicated and purposed focus.

Monte Rosso Vineyard

In Sonoma, the concept according to retired winemaker Michael Martini is to capture the “idea of Sonoma County, simply done. We think of it as cold, by California standards,” says Martini. As a consequence, the Sonoma bottling is higher in acidity and has more structured tannin than most in its class.  With respect to their Napa Valley bottling, it was a few years ago that Martini quipped about this wine by saying “if you were sorting through the odds and ends looking for a bargain in Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, then you would have come to the right place.” That truth still stands today, perhaps more than ever. Another Sonoma cabernet is from the Alexander Valley where Martini noted “we’re still making 8,000 cases. That’s where we started.” As for Monte Rosso, this signature Red Mountain from the Mayacamas range has been in the family since 1938 and 80 years later the Sonoman persists as one of its most relucent. It’s a big wine but “if you can taste the alcohol, you’ve got too much,” something the winemaking team is always careful to keep under control. Finally there is the Lot 1 Cabernet, the wine that is Michael Martini’s cementing of a father’s legacy. It is a Napa Valley thickening of history, plot and extraction, through ripe fruit and new wood. Draws from AVA fruit of the most promising ontogeny, from Pritchard Hill in St. Helena, Spring Mountain, Stag’s Leap, Atlas Peak and Howell Mountain. There were (give or take) 650 cases made of the current release 2013, up from 400 in 2010, from out of the gravity flow, former sugar dairy, Gallo-backed, state of the art winery.

My chat with Michael Eddy carried us casually through the Martini history, the complexities of involvement with viticulture and viniculture and the general winemaking philosophy. The transition from Michael Martini’s work to Eddy’s has not seen sweeping change but the steady hand keeps the faith of strong brands and it is the new projects that will carry Martini’s portfolio forward.

Eddy and I discussed the last six vintages in Napa and Sonoma, then talked about the comparisons and contrasts between the wines they make from various terroirs. Their approach to farming and the winemaking is wholly dependent on the wine, from large production brands to very focused cabernet like the Monte Rosso. More importantly we talked about the things Eddy and the winery are most passionate about. What gets the staff excited about coming to work every day.

Despite and with support under the Gallo umbrella, Martini continues to nurture the trusting relationships that were fostered over eight decades with the winegrowers of Napa’s and Sonoma’s most sought-after vineyards.

Louis M. Martini Vineyards

Questions and Answers with Michael Eddy

Having begun your professional career in restaurants, how did this come about and did you know along the way where you were headed? Are you surprised to be where you are?

Yes, and no. At 11 years-old I was fascinated by Jeff Smith’s The Frugal Gourmet and later worked in restaurants and a bakery. I still have sabbatical fantasies about making cheese.

You’re in charge of a great number of people. How do you manage it?

I have a great team of operations managers who in turn have large teams of amazing people. The core of what is my job is philosophical and to tell the Ops managers where we are at and what needs to be done.

Can you talk about the drought years that followed the cold and wet 2011 season?

2010 and 2011 were really tough so when we got to 2012 we were really happy. Now more and more it seems there is always something thrown at us, in every vintage. But we don’t make rash or exaggerated decisions. We have a base or a middle point and it’s really about flexing up or down. Whether its a normal weather season or abnormal, the tools you use to manage are the same.

Lets talk about climate and its extreme swings, how it has thrown so much drought and heat at your vines? How is farming changing, are you keeping up with it or does it feel hopeless sometimes?

Well, for one thing, water is at 50 per cent for this time of year and this is the time of year to assess quality and quantity. To be frank, its not outstanding. Its about being proactive. We saw the weather patterns as they were developing. Drought years gave us a more precise ability to manage things in the vineyard. Its a matter of when you initiate irrigation, the later the better and you cant have a saturated vineyard. In a drought year, you can ride the line of stress with the vines longer, allowing for a greater level of control. These are skills you have to build over time as an organization. In the vineyard, timing is a really critical element, not an easy and logical path. It becomes a game of planning, logistics and execution. 

Youre a Napa based winery but so much of your important cabernet sauvignon work is from Sonoma. Do you feel a kinship with Sonoma agriculture and fruit that perhaps, at least on some level, supersedes Napa? Is Cellar No. 254 perhaps the reconnection?

We love working with Sonoma fruit but Cellar No. 254 is more about varietal exploration. We actually have three or four new wines to add to the portfolio and the last white we produced was 2007 or 2008. All of these new labels will be wine club or winery exclusives, though they could start small and eventually become market wines. They are all Napa Valley wines.

The WineAlign team recently tasted the three archetypal Martini wines together. Here are our collective notes.

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2015, Sonoma County, California ($20.95, available through General List at the LCBO)
John Szabo – A sweet-fruited, soft and easy-drinking cabernet with wide appeal. Wood-derived, dark chocolate flavour leads over blackberry jam, though the palate remains nicely balanced, even fresh, highly drinkable, with relief provided by a rugged herbal streak on the finish. A solid value in California cabernet overall. Tasted November 2017.
Michael Godel – Few California cabernet sauvignons handle such a case load (more than 400,000) as well as this torche passed from Michael Martini to Michael Eddy, broad fruit spectrum captured “idea” of Sonoma County. The Martini ideal has always embraced the cooler sites that produce cabernet with savoury, dusty character, currant flavour and higher acidity. This 2015 is actually juicier and fuller than most, with plenty of vanilla, white chocolate and spice supplied by more than previously noted generous oak. Because you make what the vintage tells you to make. Drink 2017-2019. Tasted November 2017.

Louis M. Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014, Napa Valley, California ($34.95, available through VINTAGES Essentials)
David Lawrason – This has a nicely lifted, engaging aroma of cabernet blackcurrant, vanillin, cedar, oak resin and chocolate. It is full bodied, dense, juicy and nicely intense on the palate as well. Flavour and presence are notched up well beyond its price. It is full bodied, a bit sinewy but balanced by flavour richness and the vaguest sweetness. The length is excellent to outstanding. Most Napa cabs of this stature are three times the price. Worth cellaring a few bottles. Certainly drinkable now (think rack of lamb) but should age nicely into the middle of the next decade. Tasted August 2017.
Steve Thurlow – I love the European feel of this elegant complex cabernet with its lifted aromatic nose. Expect aromas of black cherry and cassis fruit with well integrated delicate oak spice and tobacco tones. It is midweight and juicy and ripe but not overripe with a finely balanced palate of lively acidity and mild tannin. Vibrant with very good length with nice tannic grip to the finish. Good focus. Try with a juicy duck breast. Best 2017 to 2025. Tasted October 2017.
Michael Godel – The 2014 was the third of three hot and dry ones in Napa Valley and Martini took full advantage of the advanced phenolics and ripe, dark berry fruit flavours. This is really toasty and exalted cabernet sauvignon, offering more than ample quantity of fruit and barrel for the money. Really smells like a combination of French and American oak in just about equal parts, from vanilla and lavender to coconut and graphite. As you keep the swirl alive in the mouth you really feel the savour and the variegated spice. The developed flavours are of proteins and caramelizing root vegetables roasting, savoury pastry baking and all mixed into notes that think of Cassis. So much quantity and quality here. Drink 2017-2022. Tasted November 2017.

Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Rosso 2012, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, California ($137.00, VINTAGES release May 3rd)
David Lawrason – From an old vines site high in the Mayacamus Mountains this is a big, rich cabernet packed with ripe plummy/blackberry fruit, chocolate and fine cedary spice. Quite hefty and big on the palate, with considerable tannin but the richness makes it approachable. The length is excellent. Tasted November 2017.
John Szabo – Martini’s Monte Rosso vineyard, a rugged mountain site a thousand feet above the Sonoma Valley on smouldering red volcanic soils, has some of the oldest cabernet vines in America, and the world, some planted in the late 1800s. There’s real density and richness, ripeness but balance, structure but supple tannins in a full and complete expression. It’s a bit boozy to be sure at 15.5% alcohol declared, but there’s also ample stuffing and fruit extract to support the extra weight. It’s starting to drink well now, but is still likely a few years from prime; I’d try after 2020. Big, bold, plush, fleshy and satisfying all in all. Tasted November 2017.
Michael Godel – The 2012 was the first of three hot and dry ones in Napa Valley and you really feel the weight and the fruit intensity from the Red Mountain in the Mayacamas range. As a follow up to the coolest on recent record 2011 this jumps for the stars and captures the triumvirate of ripeness, acidity and structure with boundless energy and unbridled joy. Forget red fruit this goes straight to hedocistic black but such fine acidity and high-level balance is the adjustment, the kicker and the equalizer. Plentiful and abundant is just the beginning with character development the next subset and longevity the future guarantee. Drink 2018-2027. Tasted November 2017.

Louis Martini Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

This feature was commissioned by Louis M. Martini Winery. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign. Below is more information provided by the winery.

About Louis M. Martini Winery: 

Our family has been crafting world-class Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa and Sonoma’s finest vineyards since 1933. Our founder Louis M. Martini started with this simple premise: the best grapes make the best wines. Today, this tradition carries on at our historic winery in the Napa Valley with a range of unforgettable Cabernet Sauvignon wines.