Several weeks ago, I was emailing back-and-forth with Jim Caudill, the PR Director for the Hess Collection and a living encyclopedia of the California wine scene. I had just written about how much I enjoyed the wines at WesMar, and he had just gotten back from the World of Pinot Noir.
“You should get to know Dennis Martin,” Jim wrote. “He’s the best winemaker you’ve never heard about.”
I had no reason to doubt Jim, as Martin didn’t work for a winery in the Hess portfolio. But nonetheless, it was a bold statement. So I did a little research, and discovered that Jim could be right.
Dennis Martin has been making wine in California since the 1970s and is well known among his peers. But not too many wine geeks get to know the winemaker behind Fetzer Vineyards, and that’s where Martin has been since 1985, managing the entire production since 1996.
Everyone has heard of Fetzer, of course. It’s one of the ten best-selling brands in the country, with sales of 2.2 million cases annually. Under the Bonterra label, Fetzer makes another 300,000 cases of organic wine each year.
If these case numbers seem huge, that’s because they are – most of the labels we obsess about at Terroirist produce fewer than 10,000 cases annually. Many of the wineries we write about regularly, like WesMar and Talty, produce under 1,000.
Martin has a label like that, too. Called Sanctuary, it was launched together with Martin’s longtime colleague, friend, and collaborator, Christian LeSommer, who had spent more than a dozen years at the famed Chateau Latour. Today, it’s an incredibly small, spare-no-expense facility where Martin crafts Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir – the three grapes he’s most passionate about turning into wine.
Earlier this month, the entire Fetzer line-up was purchased from Brown-Forman by Concha y Toro. My suspicion is that the Concha Y Toro takeover will be good news for Martin’s entire lineup, as it knows a thing or two about making tasty wines. Check out our interview below the fold…
What’s open in your kitchen right now?
Wine doesn’t stay open for long in my home. My everyday white that I keep in my fridge is Sauvignon Blanc so I always have that on hand, generally Fetzer and Bonterra.
How did you decide to pursue a career in wine?
I was an Ag-Business major at CSU Fresno and my wife was taking the introductory wine course and at the time I really didn’t know anything about wine, Red Mountain was my wine of choice. She suggested to me that there were differences in the same varietal wine made by different producers and set out to prove it to me. I subsequently got involved with some folks in the enology department and decided this would be a more interesting career so I pursued an enology degree in graduate school.
How did you learn to make wine?
My first job was working for a large winery in the central valley of California, which was owned by Hublein at the time. There, I had the opportunity to work in all aspects of winemaking and wine production — albeit on a very large scale. My real learning on making wine on the premium level came when I was hired by my dear friend and mentor, Paul Dolan, to work at Fetzer Vineyards some 26 years ago now.
How do you spend your days off?
I’m pretty much a homebody. I putter around my house and yard trying to stay busy keeping up with projects and stuff that needs attention, although I’m not much of a handy man. I do put in a garden of mostly heirloom tomatoes in the spring and tend it during the growing season so that I can enjoy a caprese salad every evening. I also have Koi and chickens to tend to as well. My wife and I go on long walks with our two dogs, a Golden Retriever (Bear) and a Bassett Hound (Chloe), and occasionally we will do lunch or go out for a nice dinner.
Who are your favorite winemakers in history?
Those winemakers for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect that immediately come to mind are Dave Ramey, Paul Hobbs, and Ed Sbragia. I also consider them friends and Sbragia and I were in graduate school together. Christian Le Sommer, who was the winemaker at Chateau Latour from 1986 – 1999, has been consulting for us since leaving. He has been a valuable resource.
Mounir Saouma of Lucien Le Moine in Beaune, who has an amazing touch with his wines. He produces Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines from many of the finest vineyards in Burgundy in very limited production (only 100 barrels total). I have had the pleasure and enjoyment of working and tasting with Mounir over the years and very much respect his winemaking.
What mailing lists, if any do you purchase from?
I was on Chalone’s mailing list in the seventies and early eighties and now only Heitz Cellars since the early eighties. Although I have collected wine over the many years of my career, I have never felt compelled to chase after mailing lists.
What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
Tough question, as there have been so many “best” wines over the years. Consistently for me it has been Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard and in particular the ’68 vintage. Probably the most interesting wine(s) were three old Burgundies from the thirties and forties and I can only recall two of them now, a Bonnes Mares and a Clos St. Denis. They were well-cellared and amazing wines still some nearly sixty years later when I tasted while on a trip to Burgundy.
What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
I have some California Cabernets from the mid-to late-sixties. Most of the wines in my cellar are from the seventies, eighties and nineties, mostly all red. I have about two hundred cases that I have collected over time and, shame on me I have neglected to bring them out on a regular basis so I’m sure many of them are a little long in the tooth by now. At my 50th birthday party, we grabbed a cork puller and about twenty of us went out to the cellar and started pulling wines from the seventies off the racks. The folks that were there still recall today how great was that experience. I can’t drink all of that wine in the remaining time I have left on this earth, so that is why I stopped collecting a few years ago. Probably the most expensive wines I have are first growth Bordeaux from the great vintages of the eighties.
If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with dinner, what would you choose?
For the red I would choose Pinot Noir from our Sanctuary brand. Pinot Noir is my favorite wine to make and drink. I think most winemakers would agree it can be the most challenging and, at the same time rewarding wine to make. Although I love Rieslings, the more versatile choice for white would be Sauvignon Blanc and I really appreciate our wines but also enjoy the wines of New Zealand and Sancerre.
What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Certainly making our Sanctuary luxury wines is challenging. The most challenging part of my job is consistency in quality and style with our everyday wines. Given the unpredictability of mother nature, changes in sourcing, and improved efficiencies in our winemaking we are constantly challenged to continue to over deliver on quality. It is important that those wines for that consumer be consistent from vintage to vintage and within the vintage.
What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
I would have to say that my favorite wine region is probably Burgundy. Although I can’t afford to purchase the wines of Burgundy I am very much a fan and respect their approach to farming and winemaking. I have had the opportunity to go to South Africa on a couple of occasions and I have to say it is probably the most stunningly spectacular wine region I have visited, although I have not been to all of the wine regions of the world.
Is beer ever better than wine?
I do enjoy a beer now and then and generally prefer micro-brews. A cleansing ale is very refreshing after a long day of wine tasting. My everyday beverage of choice is wine. There is a saying in the winemaking community that “it takes a lot of beer to make great wine”.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
My wife claims that I am obsessive-compulsive and passive-aggressive — so that must be true! But the people that are close to me probably already know this about me…
If you weren’t making wine for a living, what else would you be doing?
I don’t really have any hobbies, so I can’t retire anytime soon. I have been involved in winemaking now for thirty-six years and can’t imagine doing anything else. I love this business and I love making wine.
How do you define success?
A nearly forty-year career that has been a great ride with still more to come. A thirty-eight year marriage to a wonderful woman who has endured the test of time as relationships go with their ups and downs. Two great children who are experiencing some success in their own right with a bright future ahead. Enduring friendships through life and career.