Highway 29 around St. Helena so long ago turned into a carnival of showcase wineries, tasting-rooms and traffic jams that it’s difficult to imagine what the Napa Valley was like in 1934 when Italian immigrant Louis M. Martini moved from the Central Valley and founded his eponymous winery. What else was there? Beringer, Beaulieu, Inglenook, Charles Krug, Greystone, Larkmead, Lombarda (now Freemark Abbey). Wheat fields, walnut and plum orchards, cattle. During Prohibition, wineries either made sacramental wine or sent grapes by railroad to home winemakers in the Eastern United States, but Repeal brought renewed interest and activity and more acreage planted to grapes — mainly zinfandel, alicante bouschet and petite sirah — and while most wine was shipped in bulk, Louis Martini, along with producers such as Beaulieu and Inglenook, became dedicated to better quality and varietal bottling. One of Martini’s wisest moves was acquiring a 240-acre vineyard in the hills above Sonoma Valley in 1936; renamed Monte Rosso, this replanted vineyard, after 1946, became the backbone for many of the producer’s finest cabernet sauvignon wines.

Louis M. Martini was a master blender, and his preference was to blend fruit from several vineyards, using Monte Rosso as the core. He had no use for the small French oak barrels (barriques) that were coming into wider use in California. In fact, Martini didn’t even like American oak; he chose, instead, to ferment and age his red wines in 1,500-gallon redwood vats, a practice the winery continued until 1989, when the tanks were dismantled. This old-fashioned sensibility produced some of the best cabernet sauvignon in California in the 1940s and ’50s; the hallmarks of these surprisingly long-lived wines were elegance, balance, integrity and concentrated flavors. Louis M.’s son Louis P. became winemaker in 1954 and took charge of production in 1968, continuing to make wines in his father’s tradition. Fashion changed however. Temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation and new French oak barrels were introduced, primarily by Louis P.’s son Michael, who became winemaker in 1977. For whatever complicated reasons, though, after the superb 1970, Martini ceased to be an important player in the increasingly competitive arena of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, actually failing to produce excellent wines in the exceptional years of 1974 and 1978.

The 1980s and ’90s saw the winery slide into the middle ranks of California’s old-line producers at the same time as it was outclassed by many newcomers. The winery and its vineyards, including Monte Rosso, were acquired by E&J Gallo in 2002; Mike Martini stayed on as winemaker. The last time I reviewed a range of cabernet-based wines from Louis M. Martini was in December 2009 (here); those wines were from 2006 and 2007 and mainly rated Excellent. That’s not the case for the four wines under consideration in this post, one from 2009, three from 2008; I found these present cabernets to be burdened, even smothered, with toasty, spicy, vanilla-laced new oak. No disrespect intended, but I wonder what Louis M. and Louis P. Martini would make of these modern, hyper-stylish, technologically-correct cabernets. The Gallo company and the Martinis obviously intend for the winery’s ambitious cabernet sauvignons to be competitive with the best that Napa and Sonoma offer, but as far as this quartet is concerned, it’s not happening. The winery may be venerable, but the wines are not “old-school.”

These were samples for review. The image is from my first label notebook, dated Feb. 8 & 9, 1983. I am indebted to Charles L. Sullivan’s A Companion to California Wine (University of California Press, 1998) and to James Laube’s California’s Great Cabernets (Wine Spectator Press, 1989), the latter the most complete and knowledgeable survey of the history of wine and winemaking at Louis M. Martini.
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Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Sonoma County. This is Martini’s basic cabernet sauvignon; the fruit derives from various sites in several of the county’s sub-appellations. No information is offered about the barrel-aging regimen, but you can definitely feel the oak. The color is rich, dark ruby; classic aromas of cassis and black cherry are bolstered by whiffs of dried thyme and cedar, black olive and lead pencil, with plummy, spicy undercurrents that expand to smoke and toast. The wine is even smokier and toastier in the mouth, burgeoning with scintillating graphite-like mineral elements that part the waves for an armada of smoky, toasty wood that submerges whatever fruit might linger in the background; it’s hard for the flavors to seep through. 13.8 percent alcohol. The company produced 266,200 cases of this wine, so in its wide availability and its focus, it represents Martini’s intent and philosophy. Good+. About $18.
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Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. Here’s a blend of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent cabernet franc, 3 percent petite sirah and 4 percent “other,” the most intriguing word in winedom. I’ll quote the winemaker’s notes: “The wine was oak aged in a mix of French, American and Hungarian oak barrels with a medium to heavy toast levels to add flavor and complexity.” I’m sorry to say that instead of supplementing the wine’s flavors and complexity, this aging routine dampened and dumbed down any flavors the wine could have displayed. The color, again, is radiant dark ruby; there’s a great deal of smoke and toast in the bouquet, wrapped around tight and focused cassis, black cherry and plum aromas. Both in nose and mouth the wine features intense, even penetrating graphite and shale-like minerality and a sharp smoky, ash-edged field of tobacco, walnut shell and creamy, spicy oak; the whole package is like oak candy sans fruit. 14.2 percent alcohol. Production here was 16,203 cases, so we’re moving up the scale of consideration. Try from 2012 or ’14 to 2018 or ’20. Good+. About $25.
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Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Despite the powerful oak presence in this wine — a blend of 94 percent cabernet sauvignon with 6 percent petit verdot — I found it the most accessible of this quartet. Let me quote again from the material I was sent: “The wine was aged for 18 months in new and used French, American and Hungarian oak barrels with a mixture of heavy, medium and medium plus toasting levels to add flavor and complexity.” Yeah, well, it’s the heavy toast that kills the wine, and this one did not escape totally unscathed — there’s a lot of oak influence here! — but it also manages to deliver bright and vivid notes of cassis and black cherry, licorice and lavender and, in the mouth, plenty of unrestrained spicy, plummy macerated and almost jammy black fruit flavors, with overtones of iodine and mint. The wine is dense and chewy, creamy with oak, grainy with dusty tannins, and the finish works out its length through mineral-laced austerity. 14.8 percent alcohol. You have to like the style, otherwise, you’ll find this wine fairly exaggerated. Drink now, with steak or braised short ribs, through 2018 or ’20. Production was 1,919 cases. Very Good+. About $35.
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Louis M. Martini Lot No. 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. The Big Gun of this group — there’s 3 percent petit sirah in the blend — aged 22 months in all new French oak barrels. That factor and the alcohol content push the spicy/ripe/sweetish qualities pretty high, though there are elements here that are not just attractive but compelling, as in the brilliant and vivid bouquet, a heady weaving of jammy black currants, black cherries and plums imbued with mocha and cloves, sandalwood, lavender and graphite. Lot No. 1 is monumental in structure, deeply dimensioned, tightly focused, intense and concentrated; the oak is, indeed, “toasty sweet,” and tannins are mountainside dusty and granite-flecked, enormous in scope; the result is a wine that delivers tremendous muscle power but misses the heart of elegance that would make it complete and balanced rather than ultimately blunt and obvious. This simply lacks the character to compete with other Napa Valley cabernets at its rather hefty price; still, try from 2014 pr ’15 through 2018 to ’20 to see how it develops. 15 percent alcohol. Production was 716 six-pack cases. Very Good+. About $120.
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