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Two weeks ago, the Gallo family opened the newly restored, historic Louis M. Martini Winery in St. Helena. The restoration work took 10 years, although the planning took even longer than that.

During a preview reception held March 13, Howard Backen of Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects thanked both the Martini and Gallo families “for allowing a 10-year period.” He called it “a labor of love,” adding he “enjoyed every minute of it.”

“Putting the two families together,” Backen said, “was amazing.”

Backen’s partner, John Taft, said the firm was able to preserve the history of a Napa Valley icon. Louis M. Martini built the winery in 1933 after paying $3,000 for 10 acres just south of St. Helena. Martini had arrived in the Napa Valley a year earlier and passed on the opportunity to buy Greystone Cellars (now the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone) for $55,000, preferring “not to pay a penalty for impressive architecture,” said Joseph Gallo, chief executive officer of E&J Gallo Winery.

Instead, Martini designed and built his cinder block cellar winery and bought three carloads of reinforcing steel “at a good price,” Gallo said. He got the roof from a dog racing track in Southern California. Work began in June 1933 and by harvest, the winery was ready to crush grapes, Gallo added.

Taft praised the historic, 86-year-old building, calling it an “amazing structure” that is “an incredibly efficient open warehouse and cellar that is still in use today for production.” The large open space was “passively air-conditioned with a highly insulated structure with walls of stone on both sides,” Taft said.

The architects’ job was to transform the winery, opening it up and welcoming guests, while preserving its historic nature. “Howard Backen’s vision celebrates the historic 1933 winery building and seeks to preserve its unique structural elements,” said Matt Gallo, vice president of Coastal Operations. During the renovation, Backen removed the non-historic additions made throughout the building’s lifetime and meticulously restored it to its original form.

The architects moved the main entry out front, facing the highway; brought in numerous 85-year-old olive trees for the outside entry atrium; used 30-foot high glass walls to separate the spaces inside and showcase the barrel room; and kept the historic materials and elements, including terra cotta wall tiles, steel and concrete, while adding warm oak.

Taft said, “Our intent in opening the exterior walls was to draw you into the building, but also to draw you back out into the landscape from within.” The transplanted olive trees add light and softness to the site as well as “bringing the landscape back into the building,” he added.

The building includes a demonstration dining room and an underground cellar with private wine libraries. Outside is the restored Martini Park, featuring a sycamore grove with tables, private cabanas and a culinary pavilion.

Winery bought in 2002

The Gallo wine family bought the Martini property in 2002 and Joseph Gallo said since the purchase “We always had in mind to invest in the facilities and market the brand as we thought Mr. Martini would have approved. We began by focusing on the production side of the business and spared no expense to upgrade the production facilities as well as to buy the best grapes and hire the best winemakers we could find to make a world-class product.”

He said they went through “various iterations as to how to improve the visitor’s center, but we were never quite satisfied with the various proposals.” Eventually, though, Backen, Gillam & Kroeger Architects were hired and after many meetings and iterations, Gallo said, “We came to the final decision – the results of which you will see today.”

He added, “I want to thank the Martini family, in particular Carolyn and Mike Martini, for their ongoing support and approval of this project.”

Matt Gallo told the crowd that they are “the first to experience the new, restored winery,” adding, “We can’t wait to open the doors, later this month (March 29) to the public. We look forward to having this property available for the barrel auction at this year’s Auction Napa Valley. “So without further words, we want everyone to enjoy their visit today, enjoy a glass of wine, enjoy a walk around, enjoy the effort that our family and Howard and John have put into this. It is really a pleasure to have you all here and being part of the opening.”

A surprise for Matt Gallo

At the end of his talk as the crowd was drifting away, David Stoneberg, editor of the St. Helena Star, presented Gallo with an historic Louis M. Martini bottle, “California Selection, Golden Anniversary Dry Sherry.” It was undated. Gallo and Stoneberg posed for photos and then took the bottle downstairs to the wine vault and placed it next to a Martini wine from 1947.

The Martini Dry Sherry was one of four bottles – and the only one with its label still attached – that was placed in a time capsule in 1988, the 125th anniversary of the Napa Valley Register, which owns the St. Helena Star. The time capsule, a steel safe with a combination lock, was dug up on Aug. 2, 2017 at the Register’s former Second Street site in Napa.

The site is now home to Register Square, a residential, retail and commercial development. The newspaper moved to Soscol Avenue nearly three years ago, after selling its property.

The safe was opened in October 2017 before a crowd of curious employees. Inside were only four wine bottles and a wine glass commemorating the Register’s 125th birthday. Moisture had destroyed the rest of the materials buried in the steel safe and turned them into a layer of black char and decomposed wood.

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star, The Weekly Calistogan and st