Three illustrious wine men became deeply involved with the Napa Valley after Prohibition. First was Louis M. Martini, who built his own winery in 1933 in St. Helena and was the winemaker. The next was wine maker Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu in 1938. The third in the triumvirate was John Daniel, Jr., who took over Inglenook in 1939 with his eccentric but great winemaker George Dueur.
An Italian, a Russian and a German — their passion and dedication not only produced some of the best wines of the era, but together they formed the heart and soul of the Napa Valley, long before the buzz wines, the hype wines, the cult wines and the multi-million dollar wineries.
The life of the first giant, Louis M. Martini makes any Horatio Alger story pale by comparison.
That year I met the senior Martini at the annual Merola Opera Picnic at his Monte Rosso Vineyard. He was 87 years old; I remember how dapper he looked. Everyone else was dressed in informal picnic attire; he was sartorially resplendent in a double breasted blue blazer, bright tie and crisp white pants.
I wanted to talk to him at length, since I was first introduced to his wines when I began working for the wine interests of the 21 Club and 21 Brands in New York in 1958. Martini wines were distributed in the East by 21 Brands and the wines were featured on 21’s impressive wine list. The Martini cabernet was $4 a bottle; the DRC Romanee Conti was then a staggering price of $14.75.
I peppered him with questions — how he started in business? What it was like in the early days? What were his favorite wines? He had a terrific memory and I was so pleased to have him give me so much time. After about 15 minutes, he turned to me and said, “Can I tell you something?”
I replied, “Yes, certainly,” not knowing what in the world to expect.
He smiled and said, “If I had all that hair and your good looks, I wouldn’t be talking to an old man, I would be talking to pretty girls.”
This autumn the Martini winery turns 75. Let’s travel back some 75 years to the start of the Martini legacy in the Napa Valley. The Martini winery not only produced some of Napa’s finest and longest-lived red wines, but it also was innovative — the first varietal-bottled merlot (1978), first wine machine for frost protection (1951), one of the first wineries to use cold fermentation (1936), first stainless steel jacketed tanks (1958) and producing the first pinot noir from its own Carneros vineyards (1956).
For many reasons, Jan. 1, 1934, is a day that will be etched in stone as one of the most glorious, happiest dates in Napa Valley’s colorful wine history. It was the New Year that celebrated the end of Prohibition, which had officially ended on Dec. 5, 1933. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was our new president. That New Year’s Eve, people were dancing in the streets and they were in high spirits, enjoying legal wine and liquors.
The headline and story in the New York Times on that joyous Jan. 1 told it all: “First New Year’s Revel Since Repeal is Orderly — the Gayest in 14 Years.”
“Light hearted thousands jammed Time Square and Broadway last night for the happiest New Year’s Eve celebration this city has had in 14 years. It was a New Deal celebration; a new deal for the hotels that resounded to the tinkle of wine glasses.”
The Times made an interesting point, “Contrasting sharply with the home-made alcoholic poisonings of the Prohibition era, the police reported that there were fewer arrests for intoxication this New Year than during Prohibition years.”
Along with abolishing bathtub gin and destroying the rum-running trade, that date also ushered in a new winemaking era in the Napa Valley. In 1934, Louis M. Martini had just completed his new winery in St Helena, the first new winery after the end of the Volstead Act.
It took optimism, guts and great foresight for Martini to build a winery. The future of wine in America was bleak at best. So many wineries had failed during the dreadful dry years of Prohibition, 1919 to 1934. At the end of the 19th century there were 140 wineries in Napa. At the start of 1934 just a handful had survived.
Wine was not on the minds and lips of the vast majority of 1934 drinkers. They were looking for the legal hard stuff with the big kick. It would take some time for tastes to come around to fine wine again. Even worse for the wine industry, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. But Martini was a man passionate about wine, his winery’s future and the Napa Valley as the place to make wine, and nothing was going to stop him. Nothing did.
Martini hadn’t begun his adult life as a wine man. His early life was amazingly difficult, but it also had a profound and positive effect on his practical philosophy, his creativity and his indomitable work ethic.
Louis Martini was born in Pietra Liguia, Italy. His father, Agostino, was a shoemaker and his grandfathers were sea captains. His family had come from Florence to Genoa in the 1400s. The name Martini comes from Marte, Mars, the god of war.
Agostino came to California in 1894. Martini was supposed to come to California with his mother, but she needed to stay home because of a death in the family. So, the young Martini came alone to the United States — a strange and perilous journey for a 12-year-old. It took 22 days on the SS Manila to New York City, and seven days on different trains — Buffalo, Detroit, Kansas City, and then the Santa Fe to Richmond.
Martini recalled, “My father took me to the Fior d’Italia Restaurant in San Francisco. It was the first decent meal I had in weeks. I had veal saltato. It was good! Then we went home to the Bayview district in San Francisco in a rented house. My father was in the fish business.”
That long journey gave Martini a huge dose of self-reliance that would be exhibited many times throughout his long life.
School was not easy for the young Martini. He quit soon after he began and taught himself English and read constantly. Martini soon became an expert clam digger and worked all over the Bay Area.
Martini recalled that along with work and study, his father often took him to the opera, which began a life-long love .Agostino was a great cook and often cooked large meals for his family and friends, many of whom who were out of work.
Agostino returned to Italy in 1904, and the 17-year-old Martini ran the business When Agostino Martini left, three men were working for the company; when he returned, his son had doubled the business.
Father and son made their first wine that year. It didn’t turn out. Young Martini decided to go back to Italy to learn to make wine. He didn’t tell his father that; he said that he wanted to see his mother.
He met Professor Sostegni at the school of enology in Alba, and soon Martini was attending regular classes. He remembered Sostegni telling him, “Wine has four enemies: high temperature, too much sulphurus acid, metal and air. Ferment it cool.You better go back to California and experiment and study.”
Martini now knew how to make wine.
Martini rented a winery in Pleasanton He and his father made about 100,000 gallons of wine and sold it in San Francisco. “The wine was good; we were getting only six cents a gallon,” he said.
At that price he couldn’t make any money, so he took a job as winemaker for Bradford winery. Martini recalled, “I made good wine and as a result Mr. Bradford cleared over $50,000. I stayed there until 1918. I was seriously ill with the flu and it took me along time to recover.”
It was hard to get a job then. “I was a macaroni salesman, worked in a fruit market, made ice cream, worked in a shipyard, sold soda water and worked in a saloon.”
Soon he got a break and made wine for Guasti, working 18 hours a day. Prohibition began, and Martini was back in San Francisco selling grape juice to home winemakers.
Martini took the plunge and with partners purchased a bankrupt winery in Kingsburg and re-named it L.M. Martini Grape Products Company. They produced sacramental wines, sweet and dry wines, brandy and grape concentrate for home winemaking, which was allowed under Prohibition. According to Martini, “We once sold 100,000 gallons of wine in one day — $100,000 dollars worth.”
The winery prospered Martini planted grapes. He even made kosher wine for a rabbi who lived next door.
Realizing that the Napa and Sonoma were the future of the state’s fine wine industry, Martini purchased land in St Helena on June 14, 1933, on what is now the Flora Springs property. He crushed grapes in September, while still keeping the Kingsburg winery. He had a million gallons of wine on hand at Kingsburg and St. Helena, all of which he sold direct. As an interesting footnote, he tried to buy the Krug winery then owned by James K. Moffitt.
Martini purchased 580 acres of prime vineyard land in Sonoma County from the Samuel Goldstein Estate and named it Monte Rosso —“red” because of the red volcanic soil.
Martini purchased 250 acres in Napa in the Carneros District and helped establish the Napa Valley Vintners Association to promote Napa Valley wines worldwide.
From that date until 1954 when Martini turned over winemaking responsibilities to his son, Louis P Martini, another giant name in the Napa Valley, the brand grew solidly in quality and case production. It was a no-nonsense brand — fine wine, great value.
I had a chance to catch up with the third generation, Mike Martini, winemaker for the past 20 years. We had a chance to taste some really old wines and the newest releases while he reminiscenced about his grandfather.
Mike recalled, “My grandfather had a permanent room at the Clift Hotel. In the late 1950s he had a big Cadillac and he took me and my sister, Carolyn to the opera. He’d pick us up at school and we had to change our clothes in the car. We went to dinner at Fior d’Italia before going to the Opera House. I guess I was about 12 years old. I didn’t like the opera at all. Grandpa was always well dressed and he always took us shopping for clothes.
“He liked cars, but he was a very scary driver — short tempered. He would try to drive his big Cadillac up the hills at Monte Rosso. He would gun it up the hill and it wouldn’t make it — the wheels started to churn in the dirt. So he backed down and shot it up the hill again, even faster.While he might not have been a great driver, he certainly was a great cook. His wife, my grandmother, was named Assunta. She was very smart, very quiet and a wonderful seamstress.
“My grandfather was very creative, very innovative and great at improvising. He developed his own system for cooling fermentation way back in the early 1930s. He put two large wooden tanks next to each other. One held the fermenting wines, the other a lot of ice and ice water. He pumped the cold water through copper pipes to a copper coil in the fermenting wine. It really worked and that was way before anyone thought this up.”
We discussed the sale of the winery to Gallo in 2002 and agreed it was a genius stroke for both winemaking families. Gallo insisted on the goal of quality first, made major improvements in the plant. Now the winery makes only cabernet sauvignon wines in a wide range of prices. Mike Martini now can concentrate on making great wines and Gallo knows how to sell them.
And what would a trip to the winery be without a serious tasting of Martini wines old and new?
1957 Private Reserve: Obviously past its prime, but still drinkable after 50 years. Juicy feel, lovely dried rose petal aromas, still bright and much like a very old Bordeaux
1968 California Mountain Zinfandel: Good color and aroma and very drinkable.
1979 Vineyard Select, Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon Lot 1 (Monto Rosso): This was Mike Martini’s third vintage, full color, rich, complex flavors and very fresh and appealing with smooth tannins.
2006 Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon: No new oak, soft, complex and a nice structure; this is the Martini entry level cabernet. $17.
2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Deep garnet color, integrated oak, spicy and lovely finish. $24.
2005 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Wonderful panoply of rich flavors and the structure to age a long time. $35.
2004 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: The is a huge wine from 55-year-old vines planted in the best blocks of this fabled vineyard. $85.
2004 Lot 1, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Complex, dense and concentrated with a firm structure and well worth aging for 10 years or more.
Author’s note: I would like to give credit to the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, for permission to quote Louis M. Martini from the California Wine Industry Oral History Project, 1973, interviews conducted by Lois Stone and Ruth Teiser.