Martin Estate is a small winery located in the heart of the Rutherford district near Frog’s Leap Winery. The winery was originally established in 1887 as Henry H. Harris winery, a custom crush facility for other wineries. Well-known Georges de Latour (a pioneer in the Napa Valley who started Beaulieu Vineyards) leased the winery to make the first two vintages of Beaulieu Vineyard wines here during the 1909 and 1910 harvests. One of the old time names in the valley since the 1850s, Stice (reference Stice lane) Henry Stice was hired as the winemaker in 1909 – essentially their first ever winemaker. This was before Bealieu Vineyard owned their own production facility.
In 1996, Greg & Petra Martin (also founded Greg Martin Auctions in San Francisco) purchased the property as a country retreat from city life and a place to raise their daughter in a rural environment – from the previous owners, the Cebrian family. Katherine Cebrian and her husband at the time, Douglas Pringle purchased this old winery in the 1940s – eventually leaving the property to her son Jose. Incidentally Katherine also owned the Schramsberg property before selling to the Davies family in 1965.
Greg was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and Petra is from Germany. They are only the third owners.
Greg’s original intent was not to start a winery even though he had prior experience with home wine-making and had lived in Bordeaux for two summers. However after finding and resurrecting an old gate lying in the fields, the county got wind of this and said the gate was improper to use for a private residence because of its height. If this was a commercial operation then the height of the gate would be acceptable.
In addition, the property is located close to a number of well-regarded vineyards – this is coveted terroir. The soils are rich and alluvial in nature – not only do grapevines do well in these soils but other trees as evidenced by the abundance of fruit trees planted on the property. Realizing the quality of their terroir coupled with the fact they did not want to get rid of their gate – they soon bonded this location as a commercial winery.
When the Martin’s first visited the site Petra remembers both the grounds and the home needing major work. She recalls over 80,000 bats were living in the main building. Greg was attracted the smell of the building at the time – a mustiness, a smell of being old that buildings of this age show after not being cared for – for years. It reminded him of the inside of ancient castles in Europe.
The winery building was renovated and retrofitted – the property used to be planted to walnuts. The grapevines they planted in 1997 were the first wine grapes to grow on the property. Their first commercial vintage (2001) was low tech before they purchased all the wine making equipment they have today. Greg and Petra helped their first wine maker and a team of 5 guys pick a ton of Merlot. They borrowed old wine making equipment from Caymus Vineyards (one of their nearby neighbors) including a small press and a hand crank crusher. As of the time of this review, unfortunately they only have 3 bottles left of this rare vintage/wine.
Of the 12 acres they own, approximately 8 acres are planted to 3 clones of Cabernet with small blocks of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The focus of their production is on two wines – the Bacchanal proprietary blend and the Martin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Several other smaller production wines are made including a rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon and the only non estate wine they make, a a 50/50 blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc desert wine made from natural Botrytis (noble rot). Conditions need to be right in the vineyard at the appropriate time (well after the normal harvest is finished) in order for the natural fungus to grow on the grapes. Martin Estate has only made this rare wine three vintages, 2002, 2007 and 2010.
The winery itself is tiny with a mix of both custom made (in France) stainless steel tanks as well as concrete tanks. One unique tank is a variable capacity fermentor – the top can be raised or lowered in a vertical direction depending on volume. After fermentation they gently press the fruit separating the seeds and the skins from the wine. They use only French Oak – typically once. All of their older barrels are donated to charity – to the Boy Scouts and to the Barrels4Vets program – where veterans create furniture from the used barrels.
Great attention to detail is made during their wine making with Greg and Petra involved in all aspects of this process. The grapes are picked up to 10 different times during harvest – only selecting the fruit that is truly ripe. Each Cabernet clone is vinified separately. Prior to bottling, a barrel selection is made between the Bacchanal, the Martin Estate wine, the Four Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon (a good value wine and only available in 375ml format bottles) as well as the Martin Estate Reserve.
The 2014 Martin Estate Rosé was made from 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. Immediately after harvesting the juice was left on the skins for longer than a typical rosé. This is clearly evident with the color of the wine – it is darker than normal, at times showing both pink and purple color. The aromas are fresh – showing watermelon – and as it opens more of a Jolly Rancher watermelon characteristic. It is soft on the palate with the entry but there is a richness of flavor atypical in a rose of this style. The tannins are delicate but subtly perceptible on the finish. Notes of raspberry show mid palate. The finish is clean and doesn’t drop off – the fruit continues to linger on the palate along with good acidity.
The 2012 Martin Estate Bacchanal shows an elegant nose with herbal hints and as the wine breathes more fruit shows along with a touch of brown chocolate and cedar notes. The wine shows a very lively mid palate with lingering somewhat delicate tannins that remain on the front of the palate rather than the back. For a young wine it is exceptionally balanced already.
The 2012 Martin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is dark purple in the glass. It has a very appealing bouquet showcasing mostly darker fruits with aromas of black licorice – an and inherent darker liqueur sweetness to the aroma. When the wine is opened for the first time a dustiness also shows until the wine has had more time to breathe – often you will hear wines referred to as having a Rutherford dust component – this wine certainly has that characteristic. As the bouquet opens this dustiness turns more into a tobacco smoky quality. On the palate it is layered yet balanced between fruit and tannins. The tannins soften wonderfully after the wine has had ample time to breathe. Shows an intensity of fruit that lingers for some time on the finish. Drinks very well young.
There was certainly a lot of history associated with this property when the Martin’s acquired it. But Greg has added another historical dimension to it’s furnishings. He is a serious collector of antique armaments (guns, cannons, knives, other armor spanning over 800 years of history) as well as other historical paintings which are placed throughout the winery. A visit upstairs is like walking through an antiquities museum in Europe.
The “great hall” is the largest room in the estate and is very well decorated including a knights armor, miniature canons, spears, and old muskets. And the guns still work. An interesting book sits upstairs on one of the tables – titled “Chicks with Guns”. The photographer traveled across the country taking pictures of women from all walks of life posing with their guns. Of all the photographs she took, the front cover is of Greg and Martin’s daughter Greta.
Greg and Petra have been fortunate to have not needed to do a lot of marketing. Petra says, “every bottle is our sales person” referring to how they get new clients. New customers come through word of mouth or by trying their wine in restaurants or with friends. Visits are on a very limited basis for the serious wine enthusiast. Tastings are private and are strictly by appointment. For more information and to join their mailing list, visit: www.martinestate.com