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, tasty 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 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 wineries, too. And most of them need to sell all their available stock as soon as possible just to stay solvent.
One notable exception is the Louis M. Martini Winery, established half a century ago by an Italian immigrant from Genoa who went from selling fish in San Francisco's North Beach to making and marketing some of the post-Prohibition wine that put the Napa Valley on the map. Martini was what is 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.
Martini invested in vineyardland in the Carneros region of southern Napa, now acclaimed for its pinot noir and chardonnay. He also bought 600 acres on the westward-facing slopes of the Mayacamas mountain range in Sonoma County. An hour-and-a-half truck drive from the Martini winery and one of the most spectacular vineyard sites in America, the Mayacamas land is known as Monte Rosso (roughly, High Red) and produces considerable quantities of fine cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel.
The land -- like the Martini winery -- has stayed in the family. Martini's son, Louis Peter Martini, took over in 1954 and expanded the vineyard holdings. He turned over the wine-making to his son Michael in 1977, and turned over the presidency to his daughter Carolyn in 1985. Another son and daughter also work at Martini.
The winery produces about a quarter of a million cases a year. The Martinis do not have mortgage payments to make and so can sell their wine more competitively than most fledgling boutique wineries with higher 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: Four bottles each of Martini cabernet, zinfandel and pinot noir can be had in a box for about $130. No longer available individually, the bottles cost about $11 apiece in this package deal and represent a unique bargain. The pinot is the '76 vintage, the zinfandel a '74, the cabernet a '75. All are imminently drinkable, with distinct varietal character and a soft, lustrous appeal.
Martini's best cabernet, known as Vineyard Selection, is made from grapes grown at Monte Rosso, where the red clay soil provides good drainage and the climate suits the fruit. The '82 will be released this spring -- a couple of years later than most wineries' '82s. It will sell for about $18 -- not a cheap wine, but a well-priced one.
"I hope," says Carolyn Martini, "that the public perceives Martini wine as an honest product at an honest price."
Unfortunately, an honest price nowadays can detract from a wine's aura, when it should enhance it. But Carolyn Martini's humane view -- so far from the hype that surrounds much modern wine-making and wine promotion -- and the vineyard's ongoing policy of allowing wines to age properly before their release would no doubt have pleased her grandfather.