Multi Focused Life
Some people’s lives are singularly focused. They seem to have been born to do something particular. The kid who took apart watches at five becomes an engineer at 25. What will you be has an easy answer. Instead, Greg Martellotto has led a multifocal life. From age 5 to 22, he played soccer and expected to be a pro. At 19 he ran a house painting company and turned it into a franchise. At 20, he attended Stanford University on a soccer scholarship but studied biology with the thought of going to medical school. After graduation with a bachelor’s degree and the end of soccer dreams, he took off for three years and traveled to 55 countries. When Greg returned, his wine business took shape, made out of threads from his past, a love for cooking and wine, for entertaining friends. His business, too, is multi dimensional and includes an uncommon range of activities for a small company, from winemaking and viticulture to importing wines and distributing them. Each of his wines has a different story, a different label, a different genesis. If what you read here suggests a frenetic, fast talking persona, you’d be wrong. Greg Martellotto is calmly thoughtful and at 40 is still the athlete that he has always been. Only now, he has a yoga teaching certificate. According to photos, he stands on his head with ease, but also bends to plant grape vines in dirt. He shares a growing consensus among leading younger winemakers that vineyards should be farmed sustainably without an overdose of agricultural chemicals and that wine should be “naturally made and honest, not adulterated.” I repeat our conversation with minor editing for length and clarity.
What was your intention when you majored in biology?
I thought I might be a doctor and did all the pre medical requirements. I was at Stanford on a soccer scholarship, but unfortunately I didn’t have a great relationship with the coach. He ended up being fired after I left, and then the team got much better. It was my life’s first commitment. It was a dream that died hard. My cohorts went straight into medical school, or the other fashionable thing to do was go work on Wall Street. But I wasn’t that keen on either of those ideas. I thought well, I could travel. I was really excited about that opportunity after studying abroad in Florence in my junior year. My father passed when I was 15, and my mom was a nurse. I was a scholarship kid in high school too, so we didn’t have a lot of money. But I had run a painting company and franchised the business at age 19. It was somewhat successful so that in the mid nineties, I had $150 thousand worth of business over two summers and invested it in stocks that people said were good ideas. One was Intel and the other Microsoft, and they turned out to be pretty good investments. When I graduated, I was in the unusual position in that I had money in the bank. So I traveled around the world for three years. I visited over 55 countries. When I came back in the year 2000, I was 26 and got myself back into a graduate program to complete a Master’s Degree in Public Health with an international focus. I though okay, I like languages. I have all this travel experience. Maybe I’d want to be somebody like those Doctors without Borders. But I was 27 at that point, and the application process takes a year and a half. I’d be 29. Then I’d be looking at eight more years. I was thinking about being a surgeon, maybe 10 more years. So I would have been almost 40 years old, which is my current age, before I finished school. I was no longer motivated for that much schooling. I had really enjoyed being an entrepreneur, so I embraced that and started looking for other avenues.
What did you do with the new degree?
After I finished graduate school, I worked in public health for a year and a half in Georgia at the Centers for Disease Control and also in Rome for the World Food Program. But I realized that if I didn’t get a Ph.D. or a medical degree, I was always going to be just a middle level manager. So I closed that door. I started reading this book, Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow, and all that kind of stuff. I figured that I had always loved food and wine and in fact that was a major focus of my travels after college and even before then. I was throwing dinner parties when I was in high school. I was learning to eat well and learning how to cook proper Italian food. In college, I ran a restaurant in Santa Cruz. When the cook didn’t show up, I cooked for 150 kids. With regard to my travels, I would stay in hostels and cheap accommodations and go eat at 5-star restaurants. I would purposefully sleep cheap and eat and drink the best that I could afford. So it was already a focus, a passion, something I wanted to do.
What was your first wine job?
I had an opportunity in San Diego to work at a wine store that had a Grand Award from Wine Spectator, so with a degree in biology from Stanford and a Master’s in public health, I started working a $12 an hour sales position at a wine store. That was short lived, but I’m a quick learner and realized how wine was being sold. I learned about the three-tier system and said, ‘Okay, I think I can do that.’ I left that job after about three months and set myself up as a broker, particularly in Italian wines and then French wines and other wines. I had a little portfolio of wines that I was representing in San Diego and Southern California. I hired sales people and then established my own company in 2005, which was a wine import and distribution company. At that same time, I met some winemakers in Santa Barbara, who took me under their wings. I began to work harvests with them, and that’s how I got my own wine-making project started. I’m one of those people, who learns hands-on, and it doesn’t hurt that I have four years of biology, chemistry, and physics under my belt. So the fermentation science and organic chemistry that is a part of winemaking is something I’m very comfortable with. People who go to winemaking school learn fermentation science as a specialty. My science education was broader than that.
What were your wine-making influences?
Michael Roth was the founding winemaker at Demetria Estate in Santa Barbara, one of the highest rated wineries there, and he has been a sort of guiding light. He’s very well versed in biodynamic farming and is one of the people who likes to push the envelop in the sense of trying and tinkering and experimenting. So I’ve incorporated that in my own wines. When he started Demetria in 2005, I was his assistant for the first two harvests. We launched the Piro Piro Piccolo Pino Grigio together. Then I created the Wanderlust label after I met the three guys that founded the Lollapalooza music festival years back. They married the concept of music fest with yoga retreat and have seven of these events here in the U.S. and around the world. I hooked up with them because they started doing wine tastings and farm to table dinners. They suggested we make a branded wine and sell it at all the events around the country. It seemed like a natural partnership with me being into yoga and wine and sustainability and making, I hate the term, but let’s say unadulterated wine. I have a few other brands too. Sometimes it’s a special order for a wine club. Sometimes it’s a private label for restaurant clients or retailers.
Martellotto must be your major brand.
Those have remained my top wines and are my babies from grape to bottle. They’re vineyard specific wines that tend to be from biodynamically-farmed vineyards and tend to run less than 500 cases or so. I see these different brands as horses running a race. I like the creative aspect of creating labels and brands, and it wasn’t necessarily a problem for me as the back labels all say the same thing, produced by me. But yes, the long term view and picture for me is that I’m not going to get away from my namesake, and the branded wines with my last name are certainly the priority. But they’re also the top range. We have undergone a recession and it has been pretty difficult to be selling $30 to $50 wines. So these other labels are a realistic response. I give customers the less expensive wines that they’re asking for but not devalue or take away from what is my namesake brand, Martellotto.
What farming standards do you require when you buy fruit?
I have a pretty rational approach. I prefer to know that the vineyards are sustainably farmed. I like some of the biodynamic changes that are afoot, but I wouldn’t say that I’m wedded to them. It’s not my pure religion. I’m in the business of wine, and if I’m trying to succeed as a small business person, I’ve got to be aware of the market. It turns out that people aren’t willing yet to pay more for biodynamic or organic certification. A lot of my wines come from one particular vineyard in Santa Barbara, the Sierra Madre Vineyard, owned by Doug Circle. The Pinot Grigio, the Chardonnay, and the Pinot Noir are sourced from his vineyard, which is a very sandy loam vineyard with great drainage, so it doesn’t need much or any fertilizer. Really about the only thing it needs is sulfur spraying after rain. And so sustainable is his term. I’m not necessarily going for CCOF (California Certified Organic Fruit), and he’s not interested in a Demeter or biodynamic certification either. He’s sustainable, which can be a little open to interpretation. But I’m a person who cares about what goes into my body and what’s in my wine, what I ingest, and it’s important to me that the people I’m buying grapes from are also concerned about these things. That’s the case with Sierra Madre Vineyard. You’ll see on my back labels, on the Piro Piro Piccolo and the Pinot Noir, I’m putting all the technical specs on the back label.
Full disclosure on the label! Good for you!
Full disclosure, such as titratable acidity, the pH, alcohol, residual sugar, along with all these other things that winemakers in the past have been reluctant to share for one reason or another. We’re not adding anything. We’re not adding water. We’re not adding any acids. Or anything else. They’re naturally made wines that are honest, not adulterated. When you go down that road and start looking at commercial wine production on the macro scale, the grocery store wine brands, the Constellations, the Wine Exchange, Gallo, these guys are making wine like painting by numbers. They get consistent color and taste because they use all sorts of tricks in the book. And that includes color additives, Mega Red and Mega Purple, a lot of other stuff that I certainly don’t want to ingest. One of the biggest secrets right now is this lethal gas, Velcorin. It’s so tightly controlled, when they’re using it during bottling, that people are wearing gas masks. If you breathe it before it goes into solution, it’ll kill you. And when it goes into solution, it kills any germs, yeast, anything left in the wine. I think that particular aspect, when people become more aware what grocery store commodity wine looks like versus hand made wines that are made on a few hundred or a few thousand-case scale by an individual person who’s telling you what’s in the wine and that they didn’t add anything. It’s just grapes. A lot of us hope that consumers will become more aware of that and recognize there’s value added.
How does this sort of viticulture and more natural winemaking influence flavor?
Volatile Acidity is an interesting component. Some winemakers that I’ve spoken to in Italy will assert that if there’s no volatile acidity, there’s no nose, and if there’s no nose, there’s no wine. Some of the things that I love out of Piemonte and Tuscany and some French wines as well is these really alluring noses, aromas that are distinct, and you can pinpoint them, and you smell them. Yeah, that’s Barolo, that’s Nebbiolo. No doubt. That is Sangiovese. That is Brunello. Absolutely. So these are things that we’re just learning in young California. We’re learning about a sense of place, the varietal that speaks of its background, its history, and is varietally correct. These are issues that we’re still unraveling and will be unraveling for a long time. But volatile acidity is something that if it goes too far on the spectrum, yeah it’s vinegar. It’s acidic acid that smells bad, and it’s bad wine. But if there’s balance, and it’s in the low part of the range, it can be quite interesting. So that’s why I started printing the total acidity. It’s one of those secrets that a lot of winemakers don’t want to talk about, don’t want to reveal. So I started putting it on the back of the label. In terms of style, I’d say that I definitely prefer wines that are not heavily oaked. I prefer balanced alcohols. I had a winemaker in Paso Robles, who said that part of the terroir down there was 15.5% alcohol wines and above. Well that’s great. I don’t want to drink those wines, and it’s not the type of wine that I put in the bottle.
Would the import portfolio be dispensable if your wine production increased?
Importing and distribution is a necessary part of the business. I wouldn’t have so much access to so many different clients if I didn’t have a full portfolio of wines to offer them. If I only had five or six of my own wines, however many are available from a particular vintage, I wouldn’t have the attention from a variety of clients that I’m able to do business with. It’s precisely that I have a broad portfolio that I’m able to approach fine dining restaurants, small wine bars, wine clubs. I’ve exported my wines to Asia and shipped wines to the East Coast, not just mine but other wines from the portfolio. So I have a key advantage over other winemakers. I’m in the street selling and have direct access to retailers, restaurants, whatever. My own brand, sitting in the middle tier in the $30 to $50 price point, that’s a long range project. And I think it will be greatly enhanced when I can get my own vineyard and tasting room. I’d like to do that in Santa Barbara, perhaps in partnership with my friend Mike. That would give me a home. I think in the next two years, I can become a part of a vintners group, and have a stop on the tourist path so that I could have more visibility than I have now.
California Wines of the Month
Martellotto 2010 Tempranillo, Santa Ynez Valley
Greg Martellotto’s Notes
Wanderlust is the world’s best music, yoga, and art’s festival. In 2012, four events took place throughout the U.S. and Canada. This wine is made from Tempranillo, the tasty grape that hails from Spain but also thrives in the warm Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara. Dark berries, toasted coffee, vanilla, and a hint of fennel lure you in at first sniff. The palate is ripe with black cherries, complemented by a taste of the earth from the vineyard where it is grown. The finish is surprisingly soft and supple. Wanderlust is a wine you just want to keep drinking! Perfect for roast meats or just sharing with friends on its own (Alcohol 14%, Total Acidity 5.88, pH 3.62, Residual Sugar 0.3118).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Greg made just 200 cases of this delicious wine. Consider decanting the wine to access its full spectrum of aromas and flavors. I noticed that the wine developed over hours in the glass. You can shorten the process by decanting. Dark berries and spice will be the first flavors to enter your consciousness, but the wine offers more and could pass as a Tempranillo from Spain. Serve at cool room temperature.
Martellotto 2012 Piro Piro Piccolo, Santa Barbara County
Greg Martellotto’s Notes
Piro Piro Picolo, the Italian name for sandpiper, is a small bird commonly found on the beaches around Santa Barbara. The wine is a partner project between Greg Martellotto and Mike Roth of Demetria winery. This is stunning 100% Pinot Grigio that delivers joy and delight to the connoisseur who has grown dejected about quality from a varietal that has been, at times, unjustly dismissed. Careful selection was followed by a portion fermented in stainless steel tanks. The wine rested in neutral French oak barrels for six months. The components are blended together prior to bottling. The wine has unusual depth of flavors including crisp green apple, a touch of pear, and a lingering zing. The wonderful mineral element yields a truly balanced wine that is easy to drink and is delicious (Alcohol 13.9%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The Piro Piro Piccolo has intense and layered flavor equal to many reds. I agree with Greg that the wine is stunning, in small part because we don’t expect a California Pinot Grigio to have this much flavor. Greg made 330 cases. Serve chilled.
Martellotto 2010 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County
Greg Martellotto’s Notes
Professor John Langdon is the world’s leading exponent of ambigrams of Da Vinci Code fame. He designed the Martellotto label as a totem that is a mirror image and symmetrical down the middle. The label heralds a new era in wine label design and art. Wine combines nature, organic chemistry, and science as well as the artistry of the winemaker’s hand. If you look closely at the label, you can find the ARTE in this wine. The Sierra Madre vineyard consists of sandy soils about 15 miles east of the ocean. The wine slept in French oak barrels for 14 months, 50% of which were new. Aromas of raspberry and blueberries are wrapped in crushed violets and baking spices. Well rounded and balanced, this Pinot is delicious now but will reward the patient collector over the next decade. The name Le Bon Temps Roule is a Cajun term and corruption of the original French for Let the Good Times Roll (Alcohol 13.6%, pH 3.38, Total Acidiy 6.62, Residual Sugar 0.4).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This robust Pinot Noir is wonderfully balanced with enticing fruit flavors, acid, and smooth but apparent tannins. Intense aromas and flavors mark all of Greg’s wines, but they also exhibit a lean and clean elegance. Flavors will expand in the glass, but you can speed up the process by decanting the wine.
Martellotto 2006 G.S.M
Greg Martellotto’s Notes
Located in Puglia, Italy, where Greg’s family originated, the trulli are uniquely constructed limestone dwellings without mortar, topped with slate roofs, and recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage. You’ll see a recessed image of a trullo on the label for this 2006 vintage. This is a true Rhone blend of six grapes from the Demetria vineyard, a biodynamicallly farmed site north of Los Olivos. Frequently in Cote Rotie, vignerons will co-ferment white and red wine grapes to raise the acidity and aromas and to add texture to the mid-palate. This wine has touches of the white grapes Viognier, Marsanne, and Rousanne that confer an intoxicating floral nose of lavender, rose, and peach blossom. The wine is boldly layered with enticing layers of spice, smoke, and umami. The Grenache adds texture and body, the Syrah delivers red fruit and velvet, and the Mouvedre brings lingering tannins and a lip-smacking finish. In the European tradition, blends are better, and California wines also achieve elegant intrigue when they are a blend of different grapes (Alcohol 13.8%, pH 3.55, Total Acidiy 6.5).
Anna Maria’s Notes
The G.S.M. is a blend of 45% Grenache, 40% Syrah, and 15% Mourvedre from the Demetria biodynamically farmed vineyard north of Los Olivos. Biodynamic farming is the most rigorous and completely sustainable farming method for vineyards and other crops. Any nutrient that the soil might require must be created on the property, for example by growing a particular cover crop and plowing it back into the soil. This beautiful wine was made eight years ago but has the same fresh fruit aromas and flavors as a recent vintage. Greg Martellotto’s wines recall their European heritage as does this one. Decant and serve at cool room temperature.
Menu of the Month
Easter, Passover, Nowruz, Celebrations of Rebirth
Fresh and dried mushrooms braised with garlic and parsley,
served over slices of toasted country bread.
Leg of lamb roasted with garlic & rosemary
Roasted red French fingerling potatoes
Slightly steamed asparagus drizzled with olive oil & served with lemon wedges
Red leaf lettuce with a grating of raw beets together with finely sliced red onion
and chopped flat leaf parsley,
dressed with olive oil & seasoned rice vinegar
Ricotta tart served with strawberries marinated in triple sec and fresh mint
Recipe of the Month
Riccotta tart in various guises is a common Easter dessert throughout Italy. Not overly caloric, it can be enjoyed with fresh strawberries, the first fruit to ripen in the spring. We adapted the following recipe from Lorenza de’Medici’s Tuscany the Beautiful Cookbook. This winter has been a particularly bitter one in most of the country so that spring inspires us with even greater feelings of relief and gratitude. We wish you a very happy holiday.
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 egg, lightly beaten with a fork
1 1/4 cups ricotta
3 eggs, separated
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. To prepare the pastry combine the ingredients in a mixing bowl and beat together with a wooden spoon until the dough begins to come together in a ball. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate for about 1 hour. Meanwhile, to prepare the filling, combine the ricotta, egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla in a mixing bowl and blend well. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff, moist peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the ricotta mixture. Select a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, and grease the bottom with butter. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a round about 10-1/2 inches in diameter. Carefully transfer it to the prepared pan and press gently against the bottom and sides. Trim the dough even with the rim of the tart pan. Spoon the filling into the pastry shell and smooth the surface. Bake the tart until just golden, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack. Transfer the tart to a platter, dust with powdered sugar, and serve at room temperature. Serves 6.