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Get a Taste of Martinelli Winery

Delicious though they may be, Martinelli Winery’s critically acclaimed Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cannot compete on sheer name recognition with the Martinelli product that you’re already thinking of: apple cider.

Not halfway into a recent tasting at Martinelli Winery, sure enough — and as I was warned happens several times a day — some well-meaning folks wander up to the bar and inquire about the cider, which these Martinellis have not much to do with. (This Martinelli family still grows apples on bottomland across from the winery and, indeed, they sell them to the other Martinellis for apple cider.)

These Martinellis are famed for a much stronger — and some might say, a little ruder — beverage: Jackass Hill Zinfandel.

A Growing Reputation
As young newlyweds, Giuseppe and Louisa Martinelli arrived in Sonoma County from Italy around 1887. Within several years, they planted grapes on an impossibly steep hillside that later generations dubbed “Jackass Hill.”

In the 1970s, Lee Martinelli Sr. continued the family tradition and planted more vineyards. Today, Martinelli grapes from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast are prized among winemakers, and are vineyard-designated in top Sonoma County wines. Only 10 to 15 percent of Martinelli grapes show up at their own winery, the most distinctive buildings of which are old hop kilns, painted a cheerful red.

In the late 1990s, Martinelli brought on Helen Turley as consultant winemaker. Since 2007, former cellar master Bryan Kvamme runs the show.

Truly embarrassing anecdote: When I worked a temporary “crush” job at Martinelli nearly 10 years ago, I was filling barrels while Turley made one of her infrequent visits — and accidentally overflowed a barrel with a geyser of Chardonnay just as she was passing by!

Take a Sip
If you haven’t returned to Martinell for as long as I, there’s a lot that’s new to see. The old “country store” format of the tasting room has been updated. Now, it’s all photographs and historical memorabilia, with a minimum of merchandise.

Up front, there’s a nice horseshoe-shaped bar, and the bar in back serves as the reserve room. Beyond that is the parlor table that critic Robert Parker sits at during his annual visits, tasting wine and, I’m told, holding forth gregariously with all the family.

You don’t have to be a wine critic to appreciate Martinelli wines. The style here is big, and notoriously high ABV (alcohol by volume), but somehow doesn’t seem overblown.

The 2009 Bella Vigna Chardonnay ($40) has toasty aromas of oak and hazelnut, and the finish is wide and glossy, for sure, with candied, dried apple notes — and I like it. Cool and smooth, the 2011 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($45) touches on blueberry syrup, but also fresh-crushed grape notes.

At over 16 percent ABV, the deeply-colored 2008 Vellutini Ranch Syrah ($75) shows black pepper and blueberry-wrapped tannins, but not too much heat. There’s something savory to the 2011 Vellutini Ranch Zinfandel ($52) as well as its strawberry jam flavor, and the 2009 Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel broods with blueberry and baking spices, belying an even higher 16.7 percent ABV. The Jackass Hill? Get on the waiting list, folks.

Turley’s Tubs
Helen Turley, when she operated her Marcassin winery next door in the same old hop barn, maintained a strict setup of washing stations that workers had to pass each piece of winery equipment through.

Now that she’s moved on, I see that Martinelli inherited the Turley system — plus a bucket or two. The reason is, Martinelli uses native yeasts for their primary wine fermentations. A super-clean work environment helps to promote those naturally occurring yeasts, so that sulfite preservatives need not interfere with them at the early stage of fermentation.

Hit River Road
Turn right out of Martinelli Winery, and you’re a few miles from John Ash & Co. restaurant. Keep east into the hills, and you’ll find yourself near Safari West. Turn left out of the winery (watch the fast-moving traffic on River Road), and you’re headed for the Russian River and Guerneville area.

3360 River Road, Windsor, CA 95492. Open daily, 10am–5pm. Tasting fee, $10; wine and cheese pairing, $25; harvest tour September through October, $50. 707-525-0570.

Find more info about wineries, restaurants and hotels in Sonoma County.

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