This day's winery visit is at a red hop barn by the side of the road, at 3360 River Road to be exact. It's a wine country road that cuts across to the west of Highway 101 just north of Santa Rosa. This is in the Russian River Valley AVA and the place is Martinelli Winery.
Another Roadside Wine Attraction
There's not a drop of sparkling cider to be had at Martinelli, so don't ask for it. You won't need a sign to tell you when you are at Martinelli, you'll see the red hop barn a couple of hundred yards ahead on the left. The turn-of-the-century hop barn doesn't hold any hops for making beer, it's the tasting room for Martinelli's wine. And by the way I'm not referring to the Y2K century but the one before it. Pull into the parking lot and it doesn't feel like a big production, highly capitalized, sleek faux-Tuscan villa winery that you might visit in Napa Valley. No, standing in front of the down-to-earth red hop barn, you rather anticipate Eddie Albert driving up in an ancient Massey-Ferguson and stopping to chew the fat.
This is the tasting room and gift shop for Martinelli, and there's a steady stream of visitors here, attracted by its multilayered and multi-palated Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs, Syrah, and Chardonnay wines. Many come to just to get their name on the mailing list as if they have nothing better to do.
Martinelli is practically an institution in the area; there's even a road named after the family. There have been Martinellis farming in the area since 1860 when Giuseppe and Luisa arrived from Italy. They weren't always growing grapes and making wine but eventually the Martinellis did, starting in 1887. The family viticulture tradition continues on over 100 years later. The Martinelli Winery has earned its reputation for producing small lots of single vineyard, handcrafted wines that express the best of Russian River Valley, particularly its Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
What's the Big Deal about Martinelli?
If you asked any wine cognoscenti this they would all say two things: Jackass Hill and Helen Turley. Jackass Hill is the name of one of Martinelli's original vineyards. The story goes that Giuseppe's son Leno wanted to work the vineyard that was on an extremely steep, 60-degree hill, probably the steepest in Sonoma County. The vineyard got its name when the family said only a Jackass would work it.
Today the vineyard produces a big-drama Zinfandel that people can only get if they are on the mailing list. I have friends on the list and have tasted it several times. It can turn an Arthur Miller play into comedy.
And Helen Turley? She's one of the Super Wine Consultants in the California wine industry. She's put numerous wineries on the cult-wine map, including Colgin, Bryant, Landmark, and Pahlmeyer. She's also a neighbor of Martinelli and serves as its winemaker along with her assistant winemaker, Brian Kvamme. Her husband, John Weflaufer, works as their viticulurist. Turley and her husband also own Marcassin Winery and actually use Martinelli's facilities to make their wine. That's what I call being good neighbors.
Sorry, there's No Jackass at the Barn
I already know better, but as I stepped up to the tasting room bar, a patron ahead of me asked the server, "Are you pouring any Jackass?" Now, I imagine that the server probably gets this question an average of 20 times an hour between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.
Kudos to her though, she smiled apologetically and told him, "I'm sorry, Jackass Hill is only available to mailing list customers. You can sign up at the gift shop in front," she added. Dejected, he followed up, "How long does it usually take to move up?" "Two to three years," she said, and that ended any short term hope the young Jackass Hill Zinfandel suitor may have had. But that's not really the end of the world, Martinelli has other wines to taste and we, including my neighboring sampler and his girlfriend, proceeded to do that.
There were about a dozen people lined up at the bar and our server, Denise, was doing wind sprints up and down the bar juggling bottles, pouring tastes, and answering questions. I looked at Martinelli's tasting list. There were four whites and five reds being poured and these were also available for sale, unlike any of the Jackass Zins. The following are some brief notes on the ones I sampled.
- Tessa Lee Sauvignon Blanc, 2005.
I usually like to start with a Sauvignon Blanc to get my palate in motion. The Tessa Lee was restrained and not overwrought with Sauvignon Blanc characteristics. There was a gentle and appealing herbaceous nose that shifts to a vibrant lemon citrus that tingles at the finish. Priced at $26.
Although Martinelli's Chardonnays are excellent, I was in the mood for red and it was time to move on.
- Bondi Home Ranch Pinot Noir, 2004.
Martinelli Pinots generally lean to the big side. The Bondi Home Ranch vineyard is in the Green Valley appellation and the wine shows Burgundian traits. This 2004 was complex with subtlety. It is medium-bodied with berries and spice and then out of the blue, a bold, meaty manifestation whimsically rises to the top. Tasty, although not quite as endearing as other Martinelli Pinots. Priced at $50.
- Guiseppe and Luisa Zinfandel, 2004.
This Zinfandel is named after the original Martinelli couple, Guiseppe and Luisa. Their grandson, Lee Sr., planted a small vineyard on Jackass Hill where this wine comes from. It is huge, with earthy aromas and a palate of flavors loaded with plums, raisins, roasted meats, and licorice layers. Well-balanced, with a syrupy tongue. It's not quite as exotic as a Jackass Hill, but if you like big Zins, this will do just fine. Priced at $42.
- Vigneto di Evo Zinfandel, 2005.
This wine is made from a small vineyard owned by Evo Martinelli near the original family homestead on Martinelli Road. Evo is a cousin to Lee Sr. and lets him manage the 100-year old vines. The wine is in a lighter style than other Martinelli Zins and may appeal to people who shy away from those big, jammy Zin bombs. Still, lighter does not mean without flavor. Look for blackberry, brambles, and a mustiness of leather and tobacco. Priced at $30.
- Terra Felice Syrah, 2004.
This wine comes from vineyard that has cycled through grapes, hops, walnuts, apples, and finally back to grapes. The vineyard was planted according to John Wetlaufer's and Helen Turley's specifications. This is a big-bodied wine that is fruit forward with ripe plums and raspberries, violets, and rustic notes. Supple and balanced structure. Priced at $45.
- Muscat Alexandria, 2005.
I couldn't leave without trying a taste of the Martinelli's Muscat from their Jackass Hill vineyard. This was a luxuriating treat of honeysuckle and floral must that leads to a sticky palate of honeysuckle, spices, apples, and honey to hold it together. A nice way to finish. Priced at $28 for 375 ml.
It was time to go, although I never felt rushed to taste and then buy wine. Martinelli Winery is a homey and welcoming place that feels like you are there to visit your aunt and uncle who happen to make great wine. On the way out there is the gift shop that is loaded with gourmet food items and enough things to put together a picnic to take with you. From here, the River Road continues west toward Guerneville and eventually to the Pacific. But if there is no hurry to get anywhere, the area is stocked with scores of other wineries to try and places to explore.