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Juiced About Martinelli

Wine Editor Lettie Teague admires Martinelli's Sonoma bottlings, but she's even more enamored of the unfairly perfect family behind them.

Freud once observed that we all have an ideal family in mind, some superior group to which we'd like to belong; he called such a fantasy a "family romance." Though it sounds more like a Disney movie than a psychoanalytic theory, I have a pretty good idea of what Freud was thinking—especially after spending a few days with the Martinellis, a winemaking family in Sonoma, California.

The Martinellis were grape growers long before they decided to make wine—for more than a century, in fact. Though Giuseppe Martinelli arrived in Sonoma's Russian River Valley in the late 1880s, it wasn't until the late 1980s that the family produced its first wine. Considering that the Martinellis own some of Sonoma's best vineyards—not to mention what seems like most of its land (they say "around 2,000 acres")—it is hard to believe that they waited so long.

Martinelli Zinfandels and Chardonnays as well as Gewürztraminers, Syrahs and Pinot Noirs have received top marks from wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., and are considered some of the best in Sonoma, if not in all of California. Many are available by mailing list only, and certain wines, such as the Jackass Hill Zinfandel, have a waiting list of those hoping to buy a bottle or two. With recognition like that, didn't the Martinellis wish they had entered the game perhaps a bit sooner? Not really, Lee Martinelli replied; they'd mostly just wanted to take care of the land.

As befits an ideal family, the Martinellis aren't merely modest, they're movie-star gorgeous. And that's not just my opinion but reported fact. Lee, the 64-year-old patriarch (and grandson of Giuseppe), is mistaken for Paul Newman so often when he travels that he prefers to stay home. If someone compared me to Julia Roberts, I'd probably be out on the town every night—but then, of course, I'm no Martinelli.

In fact, it's Lee's daughter, Julianna, who looks like Julia Roberts—albeit with longer legs and fewer B-list actor ex-boyfriends. Julianna—who goes by Julie—is in charge of the winery's marketing and public relations, which means she spends a lot of time on the road. Her father and brothers, Lee Jr., 38, and George, 34, stay home and manage the vineyards. Though theirs is a 12-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week occupation, it's clear the three men consider it the superior deal. "I wouldn't want Julie's job," Lee confided to me. "I'd rather be outdoors." Lee's wife, Carolyn, holds an "inside" job, helping to manage the winery office—though she trained as a psychiatrist and practiced for over 12 years. The fourth and youngest Martinelli, Regina, 32, lives, Lee said, "away." Although he made it sound as if she'd left the country, I later discovered Regina had merely moved to San Francisco, some 50 miles to the south.

"Away" is a little-used word in the Martinelli vocabulary, for they are a family deeply rooted in place. Indeed, ever since Giuseppe emigrated from Italy, virtually no Martinellis have left home. Eva (Giuseppe's granddaughter and Lee's cousin) told me that she "would not allow" any member of her family to leave. Considering that Eva, about to turn 80, was in the midst of one of her many solo construction projects (a barn) when we met, I had little doubt she had the power to detain them.

Lee tried leaving once, back in the 1970s. He got as far as Santa Rosa, 12 miles down the valley. His father, Leno, had urged his departure, saying there was no money in farming. So Lee went to college and became a teacher of agriculture. But he found himself longing to be back on the land. A few years later, Lee told Carolyn he didn't want to be "inside" anymore, and they returned home.

But because this was the late '70s, a decade before the wine boom truly began, Lee had to hold two jobs for a while—teacher by day and farmer by night. Back then, the Martinellis farmed other fruit besides grapes, most notably apples—though they aren't related to the Martinellis who make apple cider. (According to Julie, her sister Regina sometimes pretended to be an apple cider Martinelli to get into certain parties at college.) Now that Martinelli wines have gained renown, the apple cider tribe has reported people asking them if they produce wine. "That's when we really knew we were on the map," Julie said with a laugh.

The woman who put them there is no less a figure than Helen Turley, the winemaker who created the cults of Colgin, Pahlmeyer and Bryant Family, among others. (Turley also makes sought-after wines under her own label, Marcassin, which she produces in one of the Martinellis' red barns.)

The Martinellis met Turley in a way that only a family such as theirs could encounter a world-famous winemaker: over a fence. Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer, were having a picnic on their side when Lee and Carolyn introduced themselves as new neighbors. "Lee told us he'd bought the land next to ours to go hunting," recounted Turley. "He had no intention of turning it into a vineyard."

A few months later, in 1993, Turley became the Martinelli winemaker and, a few years after that, Turley and Wetlaufer turned that piece of land into Blue Slide Ridge Vineyard, from which Turley produces Pinot Noirs under both the Martinelli and Marcassin labels. Turley has been the Martinellis' winemaker for over a decade—an extraordinarily long partnership for the strong-willed Turley. "It's hard to believe," she acknowledged. She credited their long alliance to Lee's deep understanding of the land and his "willingness to do things the right way," while Lee talked in terms of mutual respect. "We're both very direct—we haven't had any real problems," he said. He did allow that Turley was capable of sending "a strongly worded fax" now and then.

Under the tutelage of the Turley-Wetlaufer team, the Martinellis have taken to planting vineyards with a single-minded fervor bordering on obsession. The second day of my visit, the Martinelli men, George and the Lees, both Jr. and Sr., gave me a tour of a few newly developed parcels. "I just love planting new vineyards," Lee Sr. declared as we bounced along the back roads—many named after Martinelli vineyards.

Most of the Martinellis' grapes are sold to others; only a small fraction go into their own wine. What of the grape glut that's currently threatening just about every other grower? I asked. It hasn't been a problem, Lee replied, adding, in a characteristic understatement, "People still seem to want our grapes."

Several of the Martinelli-acquired properties include not just vineyard land but also houses, most notably an impressive Tudor with a swimming pool. Which Martinelli lives there? I inquired. None; it's rented out, Lee replied. In fact, all of the houses had tenants; it was part of Lee's plan to ensure no Martinelli lived better than another. To do otherwise would risk the sort of rivalry that could break the family apart. Nevertheless, Lee added wistfully, with a look back at the pool, "It would have been nice to go swimming sometimes." (Abandoning travel because people confused you with a certain movie star; relinquishing pool privileges for the sake of the family—life as a Martinelli is not without sacrifices.)

As we drove along, the Martinellis took turns describing the vineyards we passed, all newly planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah. Lee was especially excited about the new Syrah vineyard, Chico's Hill (named after Julie's first childhood horse), located just above the famed Jackass Hill vineyard.

It is hard to believe that any vineyard could be higher than Jackass Hill; it seems impossible that one could be any steeper. With a slope that exceeds 60 degrees, Jackass Hill is practically vertical. It's so steep that Leno's tractor actually pitched over and rolled down twice—fortunately, both times he managed to jump free. "Every time I get up there, I wonder what I'm doing," Lee said.

The vineyard name was coined by Leno's second wife, who declared "only a jackass" would be crazy enough to farm the hill. Lee and Leno are the only two Martinellis to have done so with a tractor, though their individual farming methods have differed considerably. Under Turley's direction, Lee cut the yield considerably, nearly by half. Lee recalled, "When my father saw us throwing grapes on the ground, he had a fit. It took him three years not to say anything about it. But he never got over it." However, when his father learned how much the wine sold for (now $75 a bottle), he was somewhat mollified. Jackass Hill Zinfandel is an immensely rich, concentrated wine that can attain alcohol levels of nearly 18 percent. Robert M. Parker, Jr., is a big fan; he has called it "one of the greatest Zinfandels made in California," adding, "I have yet to meet anyone who has been able to intelligently discuss the merits of drinking a whole bottle, but one glass is riveting stuff!"

Martinelli Winery's single-vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are just as compelling, if very different from its Zins in style and scale. Although possessed of similarly gorgeous, ripe, up-front fruit, there is also a remarkable subtlety and nuance to the wines, an incredible balance of flavor and intensity that is a tribute to the talent of the Burgundian-minded Turley. Pinot Noir, in particular, has gained most-favored-grape status among the Martinellis; in fact, there are now eight different bottlings ("Do you think that's too many?" Lee asked—somewhat rhetorically), including vineyard-designate wines such as Zio Tony (Uncle Tony), Seven Mules, Bondi Home Ranch and, of course, Blue Slide Ridge. Since these last two are bottled under both Martinelli and Marcassin labels, I asked if the Martinellis and Turley had ever tasted the two vineyard interpretations side by side. The Martinellis made a show of pretending the idea had never occurred to them. Turley did much the same, saying it "somehow never happened." Perhaps, as in a good marriage, both parties had decided certain things should be left unsaid—not to mention untasted.

Indeed, the topic of marriage came up almost as often during my visit with the Martinellis as that of wine. Their cousin, Darek Trowbridge, was about to be married in a ceremony slated to take place in the waters of the Russian River itself. (There was much talk of the appropriate footwear; Tevas seemed to be the sandal of choice.) The Martinellis insisted I accompany them to Darek's rehearsal dinner, claiming it would be a good opportunity to taste his wines. Darek, the only Martinelli relative who actually makes wine (he produces Pinot Noir and Zinfandel under his own Old World Winery label), had apparently agreed to the idea—unfazed by the prospect of a journalist at his prenuptial feast.

Naturally, it proved an ideal family gathering. The wines were well made, the speeches warm and loving, and Darek himself turned out to be as modest and handsome as the rest of the family. But as I sat there, surrounded by such flawlessness, I realized things would never work out between the Martinellis and me. (Family romances can founder just like the regular kind.) I lacked their brand of perfection (not to mention their prime vineyard land). At least I'd gained an insight into how long and how hard they had worked to achieve it: I could taste it in every bottle of wine.

Published November 2003
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