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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 2)

Then Lee, Leno's son and a high school teacher, decided to take 25 acres of apples and convert them to more grapes. But which ones? No studies could be done, no consultants could be asked, not in Sonoma in the '70s. In the end, he chose Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer because whites were fashionable then. Lee resigned from his teaching position to farm full-time.

Fortunately, the grapes developed a following among local wineries. In 1987, with the kids through college, Lee and his wife, Carolyn, decided to make and bottle wine. After Leno died in 1992, they added those century-old vines from Jackass Hill, and the adjacent Jackass Vineyard. "If I'm going to farm that damn hill, I'm going to take the fruit," Lee told his cousins. Those Zinfandels were the turning point.

By then, they had Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—and a star winemaker. Carolyn's father, George Charles, had raised sheep on the Sonoma coast, but when killing coyotes became illegal, the industry died with most of the sheep. Beginning in 1980, he planted grapes. One day in 1992 he went to take a look at an adjacent parcel, where he'd heard someone else was planting, and got his car stuck in the mud. "How much do you weigh?" he asked the renowned consultant Helen Turley, and a friendship was born. She sat on the tailgate to help dislodge the car, then struck a deal to make both her wines and Martinelli's.

It didn't take long before this family enterprise became a fashionable cult. Now the Martinellis—Lee and Carolyn, both 67, and their sons, Lee Jr., 41, and George, 37—sit in a conference room inside the big barn and plot the future. (Julie, 44, is away on a business trip to Los Angeles, convening a comprehensive tasting.) With Turley's guidance, the Jackass Zinfandels have earned renown as some of California's—and the world's—best. The Blue Slide Pinot Noirs are coveted by collectors. The Hop Barn Hill Syrahs have lately taken their place among America's best renditions of that variety.

Still, for all the wines' success, the general store down below is still filled with foodstuffs, including fresh cider in season. The winery retains its familial feel; it isn't hard to imagine kids selling apples in the parking lot. "People in the tasting room see us walk by," says Lee, "and they're stunned that Martinelli is really owned and run by Martinellis. They're accustomed to the big wineries of Napa. Sonoma is different. We're what this county is all about."

DuMOL: All the Right Moves
Kerry Murphy of DuMOL sits in the flagstone cellar of Sonoma's exclusive Mayacama Country Club drinking his own 2003 Viognier, his bushy eyebrows dancing. One of 28 vintner members, along with representatives of such wineries as Harlan, Araujo and Silver Oak, he's up from his Bay Area home, ensconced in one of the club's casitas. "We probably have the most magical place in the world," he says of Sonoma. A glimpse at the view over the golf course confirms the sentiment.

Murphy is new Sonoma royalty, a living example of how its wine industry has come of age. The formula consists of scores in the mid-90s, tiny volumes and high prices justified by the flavors in the bottle. "Granted, I'm a bottomless pit of enthusiasm when it comes to our wines," Murphy says. "But I'll put these against any in the world."

In 1987, when he was 45, the Oakland-born Murphy sold eight companies to Goodyear Tire. He retired and started collecting wine. A hundred bottles grew to 4,000, and a passion for Burgundy became the yearning to create his own. DuMOL started in 1996, in partnership with investor Michael Verlander.

The wines that have emerged—as made by Andy Smith, who has worked with Paul Hobbs, Littorai's Ted Lemon and the formidable New Zealand producer Dry River—are known for a purity of fruit rarely seen in the Côte d'Or. "Our wines have a dimension that the wines of Burgundy don't have," Murphy boasts.

He's talking about Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, those Burgundian staples, but also prodigious Syrahs and, lately, Viognier, varieties indigenous to the Rhône Valley. If that combination seems odd, well, it is. Perhaps only in Sonoma, with its varying pockets of terrain and multitude of microclimates, could a boutique producer make world-class Pinot Noir and Rhône varieties, too.

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