A lot of people talk about tasting terroir in wine. But is it possible to taste history? Now that I’ve visited Martin Estate Winery, I think it is. No wonder proprietors Greg and Petra Martin (Greg being one of the world’s most recognized specialists in arms and armor) were attracted to it.
Built as a three-story stone winery in 1887 by pioneer vintner and Napa County Sheriff Henry H. Harris, the 100-by-60-foot building served its owner (and Georges de Latour, founder of Beaulieu Vineyard Wines, who leased it in 1907 and 1908 to produce his first two vintages) well. Using advanced (for its time) technology, the winery relied on a gravity flow system, with open-top fermenters, to produce 100,000 gallons of wine for its last vintage prior to Prohibition.
In 1941, the building was transformed into a residence called “Puerta Dorada” (now the name of the estate vineyard), and the 120-foot pool was put in (try a few laps in that; I dare you). But the estate’s upkeep was too expensive, so it fell into disrepair—at one point, about 50,000 bats moved in. In the 1970s, there was a fire, the scars of which you can still see today if you look closely enough.
When the Martins purchased the 12-acre estate in 1996, they decided to restore the winery, grounds and building while maintaining their original 18th and 19th century feel—and they’ve been working on it ever since. They planted seven and a half acres of Cabernet Sauvignon (three clones) and half an acre of Merlot. Their first vintage was 2001.
The winery is now located on the first level. There are custom-made French oak fermentation tanks, an Italian basket press and a chai (an above ground storage facility) used for barrel aging and tasting. The wine is entirely handcrafted (still no high-tech involved) and separated by clone and harvest date, then aged about 30 months before being blended and bottled.
The Martin’s vineyard starts budding later than others in the area and also gets harvested later. “We don’t push it,” says winemaker Jeff Stebben (a consultant who works for several small-production wineries). In 2006, the harvest yielded about 32 tons. In 2007, they had as many clusters but smaller berries—and got 25 tons. This, according to Stebben, is likely the result of the abundance of the 2005 and 2006 harvests as well as less rain over the winter. “It made for very intensely concentrated wines,” he says. “The 2007s will be stellar. I have high hopes. They’re showing really well.”
Martin Estate makes wines only from grapes grown on its property, with the exception of a small amount of Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc (a Sauternes-style wine only offered on occasion—but well worth the wait; Greg says it’s his California answer to Chateau d’Yquem). There are otherwise three main types: Martin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon; Martin Estate Collector’s Reserve (the difference between the two is clonal; the Collector’s Reserve is mostly clone 6), both of which are 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon; and Bacchanal, which is a blend of the estate’s three Cabernet Sauvignon clones and about 5 percent Merlot. Sometimes they’ll produce a small amount of Rosé of Merlot for those hot summer days.
The first wine I tried was the 2003 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon—a masculine wine, robust with dark fruit, earth, minerals, smoke and well-balanced tannins. Its multiple layers each command notice but play together nicely, allowing a long, lush finish.
While trying the wine, I got to take a look at the building’s second floor—truly a sight to behold. I’m not kidding. With its array of period furnishings, artwork and collectibles, it looks like a museum. When I said something to that effect, Greg answered, “It’s like a museum, except you can play with the toys!” I like that much better than being followed by a museum employee making me feel like I might be too loud or do something “wrong.” This place has a much more relaxed feel, enhanced completely by Greg and Petra’s easy charm.
The first room we entered is where the Martins display of some of their extensive antique weaponry collection. It’s truly amazing. There are swords, guns, suits of armor, shields and the like, all grouped by period or type. The archway to the room has an array of halberds (each probably about 10 feet or so in length), which are spear-like weapons that were used by foot soldiers to keep people away and dismount riders.
The ceiling is high, and there’s a huge Murano glass chandelier (three tiers, with all the pieces balanced on wooden platforms) dating back to the 1940s above a long, wooden table. The floors are the original hardwood, and you can see and feel the wear from the movement of winery equipment and barrels (the original winery’s crusher was on the second floor, a belt-driven conveyor ran to it from the ground below; once crushed, a series of chutes ran the juice into the fermentation tanks on the first floor).
Greg has been involved with several programs for a History Channel series called “Tales of the Gun,” has hosted more than 100 episodes of HGTV’s “Appraise It” and is currently hosting hosting “Armor in the Attic” for Showtime. He told me a few fascinating stories about his collection. For example, his German Fortress gun from 1690, called a flint lock, has a wheel with pyrite; when it turns, it sparks the gun powder and fires the gun. “I actually got it to go off [for the History Channel],” he says. “I don’t want to do it again, though!”
In addition to his obvious enthusiasm for collectibles (weapons in particular), Greg has always had an interest in wine. “Some people say ‘Guns N’ Roses’—I say ‘guns n’ wine,’” he smiles. He grew up in South San Jose, on ranch property lined with a row of grapes. He starting picking them and making wine at age 13. “By senior year, I figured out why everything that started so good turned out so bad—and how to fix it.” Winemaking by trial and error is one of the best viticultural teachers. He also spent some time in Bordeaux at Chateau Senejac and visited all the major chateaux of the area.
The next wine I tried was the 2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a meaty, spicy nose and bright flavors. Still bold and masculine, its complexities are in the classic, earthy, well-rounded Rutherford style. I could taste its youth but also its strength of character—one of my favorite combinations. The last one I tried was the Bacchanal, which has a smoky, meaty character—a big, dark red that would go excellent with a grilled steak. I actually started wanting one immediately upon drinking it; the flavor profile is perfect.
Another interesting thing I came upon during my visit was chocolate-dipped wine bottles. Yes, you read correctly. Petra saw it done elsewhere and decided it was a good idea. “If you own a small vineyard like we do, you can customize just about everything,” she says. This means you can have any of their wines “dipped,” then take it to your next special event. The way it works is, the bottle is completely sealed in cellophane, then dipped in Guittard chocolate by a local chocolatier. You pull the cork straight through the chocolate, and the chocolate falls off in big chunks. You can eat it for dessert (if you can wait that long) or dive in right away. “It’s a great conversation point,” says Petra. “And the stuff is so good.”
Greg met Petra (who’s a lawyer) when she was working at the German Chamber of Commerce (she’s from Cologne, Germany) one summer in San Francisco. After they married, Petra began working with Greg in the wine business. She says she’s always been interested in food and wine, and she thinks California is the place to be for that. “This is the Garden of Eden,” she says, particularly the Bay Area. “People who haven’t lived in other places or who haven’t travelled extensively don’t understand that this is the best it can be.” Lucky for us NorthBay biz readers, we do.
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