There are lots of family-owned wineries in Napa; some of them are independent and some of them have been bought out by larger companies like Constellation. There is one wine family that has managed to scoop up some of the best vineyards in California, and has stayed family-owned for over 80 years: E.&J. Gallo.
Ernest and Julio Gallo started their winery in 1933, right on the heels of the Prohibition repeal. Self-taught and with a starting capital of only $6,000, the two brothers launched what would turn out to be the largest family-owned winery in the United States. Since their origin, they’ve purchased over 50 other successful brands, including Barefoot, Turning Leaf, Red Bicyclette and one of my favorites, Louis M. Martini.
Louis M. Martini was purchased by Gallo in 2002, but the winery’s history also goes back to 1933 when Louis built his winery in St. Helena and started purchasing vineyard land in Sonoma and Napa Valley. His most influential purchase was the Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Mayacama Mountains of Sonoma, which had Cabernet and Zinfandel vines dating back to 1890. Monte Rosso is among the most highly regarded grape growing sites in California, and the winery still produces Cabernet that was originally planted at this vineyard in 1938.
I was lucky enough to sample some Monte Rosso Cabernet at Louis M. Martini a couple of weeks ago. Starry introduced me to her friend, Ben that works at the tasting room, and he set up a lovely private tasting and tour for myself and two friends. We were poured side by side tastes of the 2010 Cellar No. 254 Napa Valley Meritage, 2008 Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2011 Cellar No. 254 Petite Sirah along with a plate of cheese, almonds, olive oil and fresh bread. I loved all the wines, but the Monte Rosso Cabernet definitely stood out to me!
Ben led us to the entry hall of the winery where he gave us some history on the winery, and how Louis M. Martini became a staple winemaker in Napa Valley. There is a fantastic photo of Louis and his brother with other prominent early winemakers and business men of Napa, including the Christian Brothers, Freemark Abbey, Peter Krug, Robert Mondavi, and Fred Beringer (pictured above).
Ben poured us some brand new 2011 Monte Rosso Gnarly Vine Zinfandel (to be released this weekend), and we ventured down into the cellar. On display was an example of one of the gnarly vines, as well as an old school Italian meat slicer. After sampling some freshly sliced Finocchiona, Ben brought us back upstairs to finish off the tasting with their 2010 Monte Rosso Mountain Red and a little bit of Port. I loved the Mountain Red – very smooth with great dark berry flavors and a hint of spice. It is slightly more affordable than the Monte Rosso Cab, and almost as delicious – so my friend and I each bought a bottle.
Ben provided an in depth and memorable experience for us at Louis M. Martini, and I would strongly suggest scheduling an elevated tasting at the winery during your next visit to St. Helena – with Ben if he’s available!
I am truly impressed by both the Gallo brothers and the Martini family. It’s wonderful to see these two families still growing and thriving after three generations in winemaking and producing, and I look forward to see what they come out with next.