The Martinelli family has been growing grapes in the Russian River Valley since the 1880’s. At the ages of 19 and 16, Giuseppe Martinelli and Luisa Vellutini eloped from their small village in the Tuscany region of Italy, making their way to California looking for land to farm and start a winery. Giuseppe had been a winemaker in Italy and with his viticulture knowledge he was hired to plant a vineyard for a farmer in Forestville. Within two years he earned enough money, and borrowed some from a local wood cutter, to purchase land of his own. Working side by side on a 60 degree slope, Giuseppe and Luisa planted a small area of Zinfandel and Muscat Alexandria vines, which later became known as the Jackass Hill vineyard. Over 100 years later, this south easterly exposure remains the steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County.
In 1918 Giuseppe died, leaving Luisa with four children and the farm to care for. Their youngest son, Leno was twelve years old at the time and had wanted no other career in life than to be a farmer. Leno’s two older brothers wanted nothing to do with the impossibly steep hillside, so after completing the eighth grade, Leno finished school and took on the sole responsibility of farming the Zinfandel vineyard. His family told him that only a jackass would farm a hill that steep. Hence, he and his vineyard earned the name Jackass Hill. Leno received all of his farming knowledge from his parents and through his own lifelong experience of tending the vines the way his father had. He even continued using a horse and plow until 1950’s. At the age of 89, Leno decided to hang up the keys to his John Deere, and handed the vineyard over to his son, Lee Sr. Following the family tradition, Lee was introduced to vineyard work at the age of seven, performing all seasonal tasks necessary, and learning the old viticulture practices handed down through the generations.
In 1973 Lee Sr. took over management of his Uncle Tony Bondi’s estate, which was comprised mainly of apple orchards, and began planting vineyards in the rich soil of the Russian River Valley. Soon considered a premium grape grower, Lee’s fruit was in great demand from many wineries. Lee and his wife, Carolyn, realized the exceptional potential to create superb wines from these grapes, and decided to start their own winery.
To this day, the Martinellis still sell more grapes then are used to make their own wines; about 90% of the grapes they farm are sold to other Sonoma County wineries. Lee Sr. and his two sons, Lee Jr. and George, continue the proud legacy of care-taking the land, and you may meet one of the Martinelli daughters, Julianna or Regina, on the road at various events or at the winery.
A few from our tasting this week
2012 Martinelli ‘Martinelli Road’ Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
Robert Parker 95: The stunning 2012 Chardonnay Martinelli Road sees 65% new French oak. This cuvée always possesses a gravelly, wet pebble minerality along with abundant pineapple, brioche, caramelized citrus and orange blossom characteristics. Dense and full-bodied with stunning purity, ripeness and acidity buttressing this formidably endowed Chardonnay, it should age well for 8-10 years.
2012 Martinelli ‘Charles Ranch’ Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Robert Parker 94: The three 2012 Chardonnays demonstrate the vintage’s opulence and full-bodied exuberance and richness. From older vines planted in 1982, the 2012 Chardonnay Charles Ranch spent time in 58% new French oak. Gorgeous notes of honeysuckle, white peach, caramelized pear and orange blossoms are followed by a full-bodied, complex, intense Chardonnay that should drink well for 5-7 years.
2013 Martinelli ‘Moonshine Ranch’ Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Wine Spectrum 95, Antonio Galloni 94: The 2013 Pinot Noir Moonshine Ranch is one of the juicier, more overt wines in this range. Dark red cherry, plum, spices, mint and dried flowers meld together in the glass. Pliant and expressive on the palate, the Moonshine Ranch is quite intense and voluptuous, but it also possesses a good amount of brightness and terrific overall balance. Rose petals and sweet red cherries add the final layers of nuance.
2013 Martinelli ‘Lolita Ranch’ Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Wine Spectrum 95: The 2013 Lolita Pinot Noir is chocked full of sarsaparilla notes and cherry pie aromas, with hints of earthy minerality. The palate is loaded with flavors of red currants, black cherries, rose petals and cola. This wine is bright, juicy, and delicious. About 300 cases produced.
2013 Martinelli ‘Blue Slide Ridge’ Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Wine Spectrum 96, Antonio Galloni 94+: The 2013 Pinot Noir Blue Slide Ridge is the most powerful and tannic of the 2013 Pinots I tasted at Martinelli. Beams of firm tannin and acidity give the 2013 much of its energy, focus and intensity. The flavors are dark and savory, but not fully expressive today. Ideally, the 2013 should be cellared for at least another year or two. 237 cases produced.
Blue Slide Ridge is named for its magnificent formations of blue rock. Directly below the vineyard a sheer cliff drops into the small winding creek, the south fork tributary of the Gualala River, showing off great cerulean shards jutting out from beneath the earth’s surface. This vineyard site was nearly named “Rattle Snake Ridge” due to the large population of rattlers that populate the cool hollows beneath the great blue rocks. In 1995 my parents, Lee and Carolyn Martinelli, planted this 6 acre vineyard of Pinot Noir on a steep slope which was once prime grazing land for sheep. This small vineyard was planted to the specifications of our former winemaker, Helen Turley and her husband John Wetlaufer. The denser spacing creates more intense flavor in the grapes because each individual vine is asked to focus more attention onto a fewer number of grape clusters. This vineyard is truly a “coastal” vineyard, being located on the second ridge inland from the Pacific coastline.
2013 Martinelli ‘Lolita Ranch’ Zinfandel, Russian River Valley
Wine Spectrum 94+: An absolutely exotic and gorgeous Zinfandel. Aromas of fresh crushed blueberries, violets, wild fruits, black currants, and wild flowers flow through on the palate with plush flavors of boysenberry and plum fruits. This is a medium to full bodied Zinfandel with plenty of fruit that will seamlessly integrate and soften as the wine ages. Highly recommended! About 200 cases produced.