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Celebrating Louis M. Martini
Martini tasting report

Carolyn Martini
Celebrating Louis M. Martini

When the history of wine in California is written, a major chapter must be reserved for Louis M. Martini.

One of my favorite Napa producers (not least for the simple nostalgic reason that it was one of the first wineries I ever visited, back in the late '60s when "Napa" to most people meant Chinese cabbage or auto parts), Martini may never have attracted "cult" status, not least because its management has never chosen to overprice its wines.

But show me a Martini wine - ANY Martini wine - and I'll expect an enjoyable, well-made table wine, a wine that's not merely satisfying but that can be counted on to show both quality and balance: The essential ingredients in wines of real character.

It was a great pleasure to meet Carolyn Martini yesterday, the granddaughter of Louis M. Martini and now winery president, as she passed through on her way to the Cincinnati Wine Festival, which is going on this weekend with grand tastings tonight and Saturday at the Cincinnati Convention Center. Details are at the Festival's Website,

Louis M. Martini, a Genovese immigrant and entrepreneur, came to the United States during Prohibition, the not-so-noble experiment that banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. from 1919 until 1933. Despite that seemingly insurmountable handicap, he got into the business of making and selling grape juice and concentrates and "sacramental and medicinal wines," a widely exercised loophole. When Prohibition was repealed, Martini celebrated by sounding the winery's steam whistle long and joyously - at midnight, the moment that the 21st Amendment took effect.

Acquiring excellent vineyards (topped by the family's flagship Monte Rosso vineyard), the Louis M. Martini winery was innovative for its time and remains up to date. Although Martini perhaps remains best known for its good, reasonably priced table wines, even its higher-end products - including the top-of-the-line bottlings that a group of Louisville-area wine and food professionals sampled over lunch with Carolyn Martini - remain reasonably priced in an era when some of their competitors' price points have reached the stratosphere and beyond.

Martini tasting report

Here's a quick tasting report on those wines, some of which are in limited production but should be available throughout the U.S. and possibly internationally. Prices are the winery's suggested retail.

Louis M. Martini 1999 Del Rio Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($21)
Bright brass color. Oak and butter aromas surround a boatload of tropical fruit, backed by a whiff of fresh herbs. Big and full. fig and pineapple flavors, showing more finesse than you'll find in many big Chardonnays.

Louis M. Martini 1998 Ghost Pines Cuvee Merlot ($26)
Very dark garnet, opaque. Deep cherry fruit and a sweet smoky note show distinct Merlot character, more subtle than fruit-forward. Full, tart and tannic on the palate, black cherries and bitter chocolate in a wine of real depth.

Louis M. Martini 1999 Monte Rosso Vineyard Sonoma Valley Folle Blanche ($12)
An intriguing option for those seeking an alternative to Chardonnay, this odd variety was once abundant in France where it was used to make a base wine for brandy. Martini is now one of the world's few producers making it commercially. It's a very pale brass-colored wine with attractive "green" herbal aromas and white fruit. Crisp and juicy, it's a refreshing wine that would marry well with seafood.

Louis M. Martini 1998 Monte Rosso Vineyard Sonoma Valley Gnarly Vines Zinfandel ($40)
Very dark reddish-purple, this big wine breathes characteristic Zinfandel berry aromas with some pleasant green herbal notes. Big and full, but unlike more "blockbuster" style Zins, it's not just blackberry jam in a glass but built on a sturdy acidic structure.

Louis M. Martini 1998 Monte Rosso Vineyard Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($50)
Very dark garnet. Lovely blackcurrant and tarragon aromas. Ripe and sweet, luscious fruit on a robust structure. Drinking very well; a classic Martini Cabernet; distinguished in nuance and style, yet still shows a family resemblance to the winery's simpler but top-value California Cabernet.

More details on all these wines are available on the winery Website,
a useful and comprehensive site that includes direct sales to places where it's legal, and lists distributors and retailers throughout the U.S.


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Friday, March 1, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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