Martinelli: A Sonoma Success Story

Thank goodness Regina Martinelli’s family decided against building a trailer park on their land near the Russian River in Sonoma County.

Regina’s face broke into a broad grin when she told the story of a would-be entrepreneurial relative who envisioned rows of mobile homes instead of the glorious grapevines that presently produce award-winning wines.

Regina Martinelli

The winemaking Martinelli family has been in the Golden State since the 1880s. They’d always grown grapes, but sold all of the commercial crop to other wineries until the 1970s. That’s when the first Martinelli family wines were made.

This is not the apple juice and cider business that shares the same family name. Both clans are Italian and operate agribusinesses in California, but they aren’t related.

Family Affair

Lee Martinelli Sr., the patriarch and Regina’s father, wears the work boots in the family. A white-haired, trim, lanky gentleman, the family patriarch still oversees the farming operations with help from his sons, Lee Jr. and George and daughter Regina.

The Martinellis still sell most of the grapes, keeping just 10 percent for their use. But, oh, what happens to those prized zinfandel, pinot noir, syrah and chardonnay grapes when they pass through the talented hands of winemaker, Helen Turley.

Turley is a wine country superstar, having made award-winning wines for a long list of high-profile wineries (Pahlmeyer, Colgin, Bryant Family Vineyard, to name a few) in addition to her own Marcassin label, which is renowned for both chardonnay and pinot noir.

Award-Winning Lineup

With Turley on board since 1993, the Martinelli pinor noir and zinfandel wines have been regularly rated 90+ by uber-critic Robert Parker. The chardonnay and syrah also generate high praise from the wine community.

Martinelli produces up to nine different pinot wines — eight single-vineyard designates and a reserve. There are five vineyard-designated zinfandels and one blended zin called Vigneto di Evo.

They also make six different chardonnays and seven syrahs, plus a little sauvignon blanc and a tiny portion of sweet muscat.

Total production is about 10,000 cases a year.

Immature Zinfandel

I got interested in the Martinelli story after meeting Regina at Pinot Days last month. Here’s my 2010 Pinot Days report.

At the winery this week, I tasted some of  the wines with Regina.

Moonshine Shines

My favorite was the 2007 Moonshine Ranch pinot noir, made from a vineyard site that was once home to an illegal distillery that cranked out cheap brandy in the early part of the 20th century.

Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir

The Evo zinfandel (2008, $30) is a smooth customer that delivers delightful blackberry fruit with a garnet hue.

The Zia Tony Ranch pinot noir ($2007, $70) is a big, voluptuous wine that shows its Russian River heritage nicely.  Regina described it like drinking “black cherries covered in cream.”

The Charles Ranch chardonnay (2007, $60) is an outstanding white wine that Parker rated 91. The taste melds lemon zest with apple pie crust and cinnamon.

The Charles Ranch vineyard, near Fort Ross, was one of the first sites to be planted on the Sonoma Coast, a cooler section of wine country that now produces top-shelf pinot noir and chardonnay.

Martinelli syrah is a serious wine that can be drunk upon release or held back for 5-7 years of aging to promote complexity.

The Hop Camp syrah (2007, $90) is a strong example that features sweet fruit and a meaty texture with overtones of bacon fat.

The 2006 Zio Tony syrah is a bit brighter with the same tannins that will make this wine improve in the bottle for several more years.

Plan a Visit

The Martinelli winery is on River Road, about two miles west of Highway 101, on the way to the Russian River recreational area.

The property is a mix of old and new.

Wooden Wine Lug

Rusting farm implements sit in dry grass next to the old hop barn that serves as the tasting room. Stacks of old wooden boxes, to carry grapes from the vineyard to the winery, are piled up next to another old barn that’s used for storage amidst the vineyards.

The winery’s small tasting room is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can also taste Martinelli’s wines at the Family Winemakers of California 20th annual tasting event on August 22 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Advance tickets are $45 (through August 1), $55 through August 21 and $65 at the door.

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