Meet Winemaker Michael Martini

by Steven Doyle

Several weeks ago we had a chance to sit with Michael Martini of Louis M. Martini Winery.  Martini chatted about the history and processes of his craft, giving us an excellent insight into what a day might look like for this third generation winemaker.

We asked Martini several questions, and in return we sat back and enjoyed nearly an hour of fantastic wine conversation.  Here are a few questions we asked Martini:   

How did the winery get started?

My grandfather started making wine in 1906. He was a fisherman in San Francisco Bay. He came over into this country in 1900  from Genovese. His father had a boarding house down by the wharf and on the back porch of the boarding house they kept a great big soup pot going. Whether you could throw something in, you could always take something out.  This was the paisano welfare program. So a vegetable vendor might throw in a sack of potatoes or tomatoes.  My father would add fish, so I like to think of this as the original Cioppino.

Someone had given them a giant plug of grapes and he thought ‘I am not going to add that to the soup, I am Italian.  I am going out back and step on them’. And that’s what he did. And he made his first vinegar. There was much more to winemaking than he thought. So he went back to Italy and took two years of college to learn how to make wine.

In 1922  Louis M Martini Grape Products was founded.  The grape product was a barrel of concentrate. He would ship the product all around the east coast where people would take the barrel, pour it into the bath tub and reconstitute it. With all the yeast in the air they would soon have wine.  A great Dago Red. Under the Taft Harding Act you could actually make 250 gallons of wine for your own consumption for home use.

In 2002 you merged the company with  E&J Gallo, how did that come about?

We were looking for answers in distribution and they were looking to get into Napa Valley. So I make the wine and they sell the wine. Matt Gallo really convinced me to do tie the knot with them. He once told me ‘You make the best cabernet sauvignon you can, and we will provide you the resources to do it.’ The best part is that the sale has freed me up from administration duties and let me concentrate on winemaking

Your expertise is driven at the micro-winery level, explain that process a bit.

We built a huge gravity flow winery. We looked at everyone else’s gravity flow winery and did a better job.

The whole concept of the gravity flow is that if you drop an apple on the table what side do you want to bite into. The other side, right?  That’s what we are doing with the grapes.  It’s an extremely hand-held operation. We designed this to make the best cabernet in the world. I doubt we will ever do that, but it is a really great target. But we have the micro-winery to make some really great wines, but also to experiment on how to make them better.  It is so much easier to work in smaller batches, because if you screw it up you don’t lose as much.

Cellar 254 was built to produce high-end small lots and provide extra care to special wines. Special treatment for Cellar 254 wines include hand sorting and de-stemming, gravity flow, 3.5-ton open top fermentors, manual punch downs, submerged cap fermentation, and gentle pressing through a basket press.

You once were quoted to say that winemaking was 80%  grape and 20% expertise.

All the compounds in the wine start with the grape.  Our job is to pick it at the right time so we have that balance in that bottle of wine from that grape. We don’t perform magic, we just extract.  Now we can push it around a bit by how we extract.  For instance, you have a wine that comes in and it’s 26% sugar. If you start out with an extremely hot fermentation you get jam, which I am opposed to. I think it is a fault in winemaking Some people like it. It’s nice in a Zinfandel, but not the Cabernets.

The middle palate is where  you get umami.  When you start to salivate on that mid palette it makes you hungry and makes you want more.  I really concentrate all my wines on the mid palate.

We understand when you are not making wine you play a mean guitar.

I play lead guitar in a band I started years ago named Private Reserve — it’s all wine guys. The band gives us a reason to get together every few weeks. We play for industry fundraisers and parties, and we’re now playing on cruises for Regent Seven Seas.

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