Icons and Knockoffs

By Celia Strong

In the wine business, like so many others, there are the originals, and then there are the copies. For centuries, wine producers have made their best wines with their best grapes. These wines maintain their reputations and profitability. Decisions about what to do with the other grapes are not always easy to track, partly because there are several ways winemakers can choose to use those grapes. Plus, their decisions are not necessarily the same every year. Sometimes, they use their own leftovers to make “second label” wines. And sometimes they sell the leftovers and don’t reveal to which winery. Either way, the use of these leftover, lesser grapes can still produce really good wines. Our job is to find and enjoy some of these wines.

Our winery for this week is Louis Martini, and the version of the Napa Cabernet that they make for restaurants.

The history of the Louis Martini winery is one of the longest in California since the end of Prohibition. Louis Martini came to the United States from Italy in 1900, when he was 13 years old. In 1906, Louis and his father made their first wine at home, then he was sent him back to Italy to study winemaking at the University of Alba in Piedmont. Five years later, Louis returned to California and made his first Martini wine in Pleasanton, about 40 miles inland from San Francisco. In 1922, L M Martini Grape Products Company was established, which made medicinal and sacramental wines since it was during Prohibition. In 1933, Louis built a winery in Napa Valley that was one of the five original Napa wineries founded after Prohibition ended.

Since then, Louis Martini and his descendants have been pioneers in producing great wines. Temperature controlled fermentation tanks, establishing the Napa Valley Vintners Association, wind machines to keep frost off the grapes, use of hand-selected quality barrels, and buying some of the best grape-growing land in both Napa and Sonoma counties — these are just some of the winery’s accomplishments. The third generation is working now in partnership with the Gallo company.

Louis Martini Winery is known for its Napa Valley Cabernet, which is big and bold in its colors, aromas, flavors and textures. It is a deep, dark burgundy color with aromas of dark red and black fruits — black cherries, black currants, blackberries, dark plums — that pop out of the glass. Along with smoky cedar and herbs, the juicy, silky tannins roll around with the flavors to create a weighty texture that spreads all over your mouth and has an exceptionally long finish. Small amounts of Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah add layers of complexity, as does aging in French, American and Hungarian wood. It’s easy to understand why many consider this wine an icon in the world of Napa Valley Cabernets. Usually, this wine costs about $35 to $45 dollars. But it can be found at Bill’s Liquors on Lady’s Island for $31.97.

In this case, the “knockoff” to this iconic wine is a version of their Napa Cabernet that Louis Martini makes for restaurants. By the time a wine like the Napa Cabernet gets priced on a wine list, many will be excluded from enjoying it too often. A less expensive version is a great way to attract new drinkers and to let fans drink better wines for a lower cost. For this wine, Louis Martini California Cabernet, because the appellation “California” allows it, grapes from Napa and Sonoma counties can be used. This lets the winemaker use better grapes, although probably not the best of the best from each source, than if he had to buy them from other growers. That means we get Martini grapes in a wine made by the Martini winemaker.

This California Louis Martini Cabernet is a true surprise. It is deep and dense, dark-ruby colored, with intense dark fruit aromas and flavors including smoky vanilla notes, a lingering finish, juicy textures. It’s like a glass of the Napa Cabernet just diluted a tiny bit. But this wine is available for only $14.97. That’s the whole point of knockoffs — finding the really good ones and making them yours. Enjoy.

Celia Strong works at Bill’s Liquor & Fine Wines.

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