Thursday, August 23, 2012

Bottle stock: Louis Martini

Fanciers of red wine have a broader choice today than at any time in history, and a better chance of pulling the cork on a well-made, unadulterated product. The problems associated with drinking good red wine, however, are persistent and related: most reds get drunk too young because neither individuals nor restaurants want to cellar wine. Consequently, reds with any age on them are usually too expensive for everyday drinking, and they can engender apoplexy when encountered on a typically pumped-up restaurant wine list.
Wineries could ameliorate these problems by holding back their best reds for a couple of extra years before releasing them, so they would be closer to optimum development. But storing wine is expensive for them, and for wineries, too. Most need to sell all available stock as soon as possible to stay solvent, but there are notable exceptions.
One used to be the Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa Valley, owned today by the Gallo family but named for an Italian immigrant from Genoa who went from selling fish in San Francisco's North Beach in the early 20th century to making and marketing some of the post-Prohibition wine that put the Napa Valley on the map. Martini was what used to be known in the valley as an "old-time Italian," meaning opinionated and highly volatile, but his vision of the future of California wine was crystal clear.
He invested in vineyards in the Carneros region of southern Napa, later acclaimed for pinot noir and chardonnay, and also bought 600 acres on the westward-facing slopes just over the Mayacamas range, in Sonoma County, one of the most spectacular vineyard sites. It’s still known as Monte Rosso (roughly, High Red) and produces considerable quantities of fine cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.
The land - like the Martini winery - stayed in the family for more than half a century before being to sold to Ernest and Julio. The Martinis didn’t have mortgage payments to make, and presumably the Gallos don’t either, but the wine’s more competitively priced than most from fledgling boutiques that have high overhead, or conglomerates with investors to satisfy. That means they can afford to hold some wines back so that people can drink them when the wines are ready.
A case in point might be the current Monte Rosso, not yet imminently drinkable but with distinct varietal character and soft, lustrous appeal. Unfortunately it costs $145 a bottle, by no means outrageous by the standards of high-end cabs, but beyond the concept of “bargain.” The best Martini value these days is their cabernet made from Alexander Valley fruit, far from High Red but at 35 bucks still barely within the realm of a possible deal.

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