Cover: Water tower at entrance of Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery, Sonoma County, California
Photo: Greg K. Hull, Cool Adventures © Chasing Light Media
Article by Kim Hull
Driving up Laguna Road toward Martin Ray Winery, the first thing you’ll notice is a water tower soaring high above the vines against a perfect Sonoma sky. As you turn down the long drive, vibrant flowers and olive trees welcome you to the beautiful, historic winery just west of Santa Rosa.
While we’d tasted Martin Ray’s wines over the years, this was our first visit to the winery and we quickly realized we’d uncovered a gem. Serene and lavishly landscaped, the winery is one of those where you grab a glass, find a chair near the vines or a table next to the gardens, and casually enjoy the wine country experience.
We visited on a Saturday afternoon during Grill 116, a tasting event hosted by 12 wineries along Route 116 in West Sonoma County where attendees sampled their way through wines and grilled specialties along the route.
As visitors meandered about, enjoying the food, wines and a glorious Sonoma afternoon, we caught up with Andy Barker, Director of Consumer Sales & Hospitality, who gave us a tour and shared a bit of the winery’s history along the way – and quite a history it does have.
The oldest continually operating winery in Sonoma County
Oh, the stories the vineyards surrounding the winery could tell. Martin Ray is the oldest continuously operating winery in Sonoma County and one of the oldest in all of California.
Back in 1881, Twin Fir Winery set up a vineyard and winery on this spot in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County. In 1902, an Italian immigrant, Rafael Martini, purchased the winery and, in the years following, Martini further developed the estate, building a stable and bunk house where Italian immigrants stayed during harvest. Today, the Martin Ray Tasting Room is housed in this very structure.
Tanks were crafted from old-growth redwood in 1904 and, soon thereafter, Martini turned the operations over to his sons. The Martinis produced wines that put the winery on the map. Enduring prohibition by producing sacramental wines, the winery survived and the Martinis resumed making wines for the public after it was repealed in 1933.
In 1950, Enrico Prati joined the Martini family, and the new Martini & Prati label produced wines at the location until the winery was sold to Courtney Benham in 2003.
Courtney Benham brings Martin Ray Wines to Sonoma County
One of the reasons I love visiting a winery is hearing the history of the vineyard, the winemakers and the winery while walking the grounds and tasting the wine. Somehow, from then on, when the wine fills your glass, the provenance, the terroir, and the winery visit converge in your glass along with the juice, bringing the wine country experience to you as you taste the wine, wherever you may be in the world.
By the time Courtney Benham acquired the Martini & Prati location in 2003, the winery had seen better days and was on the decline. Benham, who had acquired the rights to the Martin Ray brand in 1990, purchased the Martini & Prati vineyards and winery in 2003 and set about renovating the property, bringing it to modern standards, while still embracing its history and tradition.
Today, the winery is a great example of form and function coexisting. The beautiful barrel room serves as a stunning backdrop to parties and events but, when harvest rolls around, the tables are cleared out and the room is used as a production facility.
State of the art storage facilities are housed in buildings that once were home to over 1.5 million gallons of the old redwood storage tanks. Utilizing a variety of production equipment and fermentation methods, the Martin Ray winemakers have at their disposal the tools required to produce the award-winning, artisanal wines for which they are known and respected.
Leaving the barrel rooms and production facilities, we wandered over to the serene setting of the pavilion located under the water tower, which is available for corporate retreats and also used for winery events, such as wine under the stars evenings.
Speaking of wine, it was time to do some more tasting – next stop, the tasting room.
The Martin Ray tasting room
Welcomed by a knowledgeable and friendly staff, the low-key tasting room is just what you’d expect in such an inviting atmosphere.
Martin Ray Wines
We’d tasted the Russian River Valley Chardonnay & Rosé during our tour and we really liked both wines and decided to also try/take home a few of the limited release wines. For our chardonnay choice, we selected the 2014 Mill Station Vineyard-Dutton Ranch Chardonnay from Green Valley.
While I’m generally not a chardonnay fan, Greg is, so we try to find chardonnays that appeal to both our tastes. This one fit the bill, refreshing and not too oaky, with a richness and clean finish. As far as the rosé – we’d loved the 2015 Estate Grown Rosé. Bone dry, complex, crisp – just a perfect summer wine.
Next up, the 2013 Puccioni Vineyard Dry Creek Zinfandel. Robust with an earthy tone and nicely balanced. Liked it, and in the box it went.
Time to get serious, we moved on to the 2013 Martin Ray Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. A truly special wine, the Cab was full bodied, rich and simply divine. This one was a definite purchase and probably will make an appearance around the holidays.
Martin Ray has a small quantity of older vintages available in their library collection. Highly-praised by fans and pros alike, you can also find Martin Ray wines on many quality restaurant wine lists.
Certified Sommelier and general manager of Boulder, Colorado’s L’Atelier, Ryan Hull explains why he regularly features Martin Ray wines in the restaurant:
Martin Ray was legendary…one of the first to bring the French philosophies of wine making and vineyard management to California. The proof is in the pudding. This is apparent from the juice in the glass.
I was recently pouring the 2007 Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon by the glass and nearly every customer opted for a second. Amazing vintage, incredible complexity and luscious fruit.”
– Ryan Hull, CS & GM, L’Atelier
Visiting Martin Ray
Getting there: Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery is located on the quieter side of the 101, about 10 miles west of downtown Santa Rosa. The address is 2191 Laguna Road, Santa Rosa, California 95401.
Hours: The tasting room is open daily from 10am to 5pm.
Book a tour or reserve a box lunch in advance. The winery welcomes visitors to pack a picnic and enjoy the beautiful gardens while having lunch or, call two days in advance to order a box lunch for your visit. A variety of tours and tastings are available and can be reserved on the Martin Ray website.
Disclosure & disclaimer: Special thanks to Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery for hosting us as their guests. The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.