The patriarch and matriarch of Martinelli Winery left a small village in Tuscany, eloped somewhere along the way, and came to California, via Minnesota. Giuseppe Martinelli and Luisa Vellutini were ages 19 and 16 at the time. By the time Giuseppe was 21, he had saved enough money to buy land that included the perfect hill –– a hill that had a 60 degree slope, and a southeasterly face. The Mr. and Mrs. worked together and planted Zinfandel and Muscat Alexandria grapes. The hill became known as Martinelli’s Jackass Hill (see that story below) originally planted 116 – 120 years ago. The slope in the Russian River Valley is still producing award-winning Zinfandel and is the “steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County.”
This story caught my attention when Wine Spectator magazine gave the top prize for 2015 videos to Tim Clott and Noel Resnick. Their fascinating footage catches Lee Martinelli, the grandson of Guiseppe and Luisa, on a tractor “discing” the treacherous slope. He takes out a few vines as he makes his way between the rows, looking at a possible fatal fall if he can’t hang on. You have to know how to handle the tractor, is Martinelli’s point. Before you go to Wine Spectator to view the video linked below, take at look at the one I found with those gnarly old vines in bloom -– a beautiful sight, embedded below.
You always have to ready for anything that can happen, cause if you hit the wrong lever, or do the wrong thing, you can’t just push a button and correct your mistake. The tractor is going to go in a different direction than you want it to go. Your mind has to be clear, don’t worry about anything else. … You have to make split decisions, and if you have to think about it, it’s too late. … When the tractor is on a sixty percent slope, it can’t go up hill. It can only go down hill.~ Lee Martinelli (In the video, you can see the tractor begin to slip at about 1:55-in. I can’t grab the video. You can view it here.)
Lee Martinelli’s step-mother called his father a “jackass” for stubbornly tending the dangerous slope –– for 75 years. So the name Jackass Hill was born.
In the video below, Martinelli talks about his vines, how little moisture there is on the hill and how the vines (St. George rootstock) have to go deep to find water. The soil is shattered bedrock. He says his vines are “content here,” and “have been content for 100-plus years.”
You could take a glass of this Zinfandel off of Jackass Hill, and it’s a meal in itself. It’s a meal before a meal. It’s good with a meal, and it’s good after a meal. The fact is, when I get through farming Jackass Hill, that night I’ll go home and open a bottle of Jackass Hill and say, ‘yes, it was worth it. That’s why I farmed it.~ Lee Martinelli
Jackass Hill Zinfandel, with small yields and only three acres planted, is expensive. The price varies from $85 per bottle to $325.00. It is one of the most, if not the most, highly regarded Zinfandels in the United States.
Critics have scored this as the best available Russian River Valley wine: The Wine Advocate gave the 2011 vintage a score of 96… .
This is among the highest-priced wines from Russian River Valley. Over the past year the price has been trending upwards.
This is one of the most popular wines from the region (with Wine-Searcher users). This wine has been becoming increasingly popular over the past year. Source
Just three acres planted on Jackass Hill, but the Martinelli’s grow grapes on about 2,000 acres. Ninety percent of those grapes are sold to other wineries. There’s a lot more Martinelli legacy story-telling than I have room for here –– like Helen Turley’s time winemaking/consulting,
Below, there is actually more harrowing footage and dramatic scenery than the Wine Spectator video. Both are good, and show a side of the wine industry you seldom see.
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