Seeking your advice on something new
Before we get into today's wine talk, I'd like to interrupt this program briefly to invite your comments on a new idea we're contemplating. Those of you who've been around before will recall that I came to you with a similar call for your reactions when I was thinking about expanding the frequency of publication, and again when we launched the Thursday Wine Advisor FoodLetter. In both cases the suggestions from many of you who responded were extremely helpful in getting those projects ready for prime time.
So here I am, asking your advice again, and I really hope you'll take the time to respond. (If you're too busy, though, please feel free to click straight on to today's article, "Martini meets Gallo," below).
Still with me? Excellent! Here's the story, as concisely as I can express it: Over the years, since I started this Website as the "Wine Bargain Page" back in 1993, my wine-tasting reports and advice have been focused almost entirely on affordable wines of value, wines that usually retail for $20 or less ... preferably much less. That's what I drink, most of the time. And that's what you've told me you like.
But over the years, and increasingly lately, I've had a steady stream of requests from readers who wish that I would also talk about fancier wines, those extraordinary bottles that most of us reserve for such occasions as holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, celebrations and gifts for special people.
After all, the argument goes, it's great to have tips on a $10 bottle that tastes like it's worth more; but when a $50 or $75 investment is in the offing, that's when many of us really want trustworthy advice.
Frankly, with our current advertising-supported setup and my commitment to buy all the wine I review, shunning "freebies" from the wine industry in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, I haven't been able to afford to rate high-end, special-occasion wines more than a few times a year.
But E-mail conversations with several of you have inspired a new idea: If there is sufficient interest, I'm considering adding another publication to the Wine Advisor series: An occasional mailing about more expensive wines, available exclusively by E-mail on a paid-subscription basis. By asking a modest subscription from those who wish reliable consumer information about selected wines in the $30 to $100 price range, I would generate the income necessary to buy these wines, and, with any luck, a little extra to help pay the rent that keeps all our other publications free.
The focus of this publication would be on detail, not quantity: You have the slick wine magazines, if you want them, for tasting-panel reports on laundry lists of California Chardonnays or Australian Shirazes by the dozens. This E-letter, rather - like the present Wine Advisor - would feature thorough, objective and tell-it-as-it-is reports on selected wines, including both analytical reports and discussions as to how they go with food, information about good food matches, value ratings, Web links, historical and geographical information about the wines, and as much information as I can gather to help you find the wines in your own community or online.
I anticipate starting it as a monthly publication, each featuring at least two upscale wines, at an annual subscription rate of $24 - in other words, $1 for each comprehensive wine report, a modest price to pay for the assurance that will allow you to purchase these wines from your own sources in confidence that your money isn't being wasted.
Finally, let me reassure everyone that this new feature is in addition to, not in place of, all the wine information that we currently provide for free. The weekly and daily Wine Advisor will continue exactly as before.
If you like this idea, and if you think you would be inclined to subscribe, I'd love to hear from you. Even if you don't think it's for you right now, I'd still be interested in your comments if you have them. Write me, today if you can, at email@example.com, and I'll do my best to respond to every note I receive.
And now, on to today's wine report.Martini meets Gallo
Two of the oldest family names in the California wine business met last year in an unexpected marriage that brought the historic Louis M. Martini winery under the vast umbrella of Ernest & Julio Gallo. Terms of the deal between the closely held family companies weren't disclosed, but some sense of its scope may be gleaned from the observation that, after the purchase, Gallo pumped $2.2 million more into updating Martini's winemaking facilities.
Martini is one of the oldest surviving Napa wineries, tracing its history back to the Prohibition era. Although beverage winemaking was outlawed in the U.S., Italian-immigrant family patriarch Louis M. Martini went back to Italy to learn winemaking at Alba in Piemonte, then returned to Napa in 1922 to start the L.M. Martini Grape Products Co., which produced sacramental wines and sold grapes for home winemaking.
According to Napa legend, when the nation repealed Prohibition in 1933, Martini went down to the winery at midnight on the day that Repeal took effect and celebrated the moment by waking the neighbors with a joyous, noisy hoot on the factory steam whistle.
The Martini family has been making wine ever since (and it has had a special place in my heart as one of the first Napa wineries I ever visited, back in the late 1960s when the valley still had only a handful of wineries lining the main highway and a few more back in the hills). I have always admired its commitment to making balanced, straightforward wines the old-fashioned way, and selling them affordably.
Although they've never been listed among Napa's "cult" wines, older Martini reds hold up amazingly well in the cellar. Within the last few years I've enjoyed Martini Cabernets from the 1960s that were in perfect condition - delicate, "sweet" and pure - and that were still selling for almost giveway prices in the $30 to $40 range.
Gallo, of course, may be the classic California wine success story, also founded by immigrants from Italy and also tracing its roots back to Repeal. Based not in the wine country but Modesto in California's Central Valley, it was long known primarily as a mass producer of inexpensive wines, a job it did so well that it became the world's largest winery, pouring out more wine per year than some entire countries produce. In the past generation it has sought to burnish that image, adding the increasingly respected Gallo Sonoma product line, acquiring other wineries, and producing such an amazing array of labels that it's often difficult to tell whether you're drinking a Gallo wine or a competitor.
Naturally, Gallo's surprise acquisition of the Martini winery and its 650 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties has wine lovers watching to see whether the Martini product will change or stay the same. Arguing for stability, family members Michael Martini, the wine maker, and his sister Carolyn Martini, the winery president, (who was featured in an interview article in The Wine Advisor on March 1, 2002) remain in their posts under Gallo. On the other hand, anyone who has lived through a corporate takeover of a family business knows that some things are almost certain to change.
Recently I picked up the first post-Gallo wine from Martini I've seen, the 2001 Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon. It sports a slightly updated, understated white label but retains Martini's historic horse-and-wagon image. But it's what's inside the bottle that counts, and there I'm happy to report that - so far - the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is a fine, straightforward red wine, fruity and balanced, holding promise of immediate enjoyment and reasonable longevity, at a price that's still right. I think Louis M. Martini would approve.
TELL US YOUR LOUIS M. MARTINI MEMORIES
If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm sorry that the overwhelming amount of mail I receive makes it tough to respond personally every time, but I do try to get back to as many as I can.
Louis M. Martini 2001 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($11.99)
Dark garnet in color, this classic California Cabernet breathes ripe aromas of plums and sweet leather. Full and bright on the palate, tart black-cherry fruit is shaped by a crisply acidic structure and just a whiff of tannin. Black fruit remains clean and true in a medium-long finish. (Jan. 10, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Proves the validity of the "red wine with red meat" rule as a perfect match with a simple medium-rare rib eye steak.
VALUE: Maintains the Martini tradition as an excellent value; you'll pay plenty more for California Cabernets of similar quality.
WHEN TO DRINK: Enjoyable now, but its structure and balance give no reason to doubt that it will carry on Martini's reputation for longevity even in its relatively modest wines.
WEB LINK: To visit the Louis M. Martini Website, click
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Find prices and vendors for Louis M. Martini Cabernets - including some older vintages - on Wine-Searcher.com:
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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2004