Wine and Memory

In my last post I explored how taste and memory work together and suggested that we can have chemical absolutes in aroma (the chemical difference is clear between the main aroma molecule in apples and pears) but has some practical issues with our decidedly non-chemical memories where our experience with different fruits clashes. My son had a lot of mashed pear as a baby and to this day he has a greater sensitivity to that fruit aroma than I do.

Our individual experiences help shape our associations and play a role in our wine preferences in other ways as well, something that came to me in a flood of memories when I was recently given a bottle of wine as a gift. Here’s what happened:

 Louis P. Martini and and his father Louis M. Martini, probably in the early 1960s (Photo: Louis Martini Winery)

Louis P. Martini and and his father Louis M. Martini, probably in the early 1960s (Photo: Louis Martini Winery)

As a college student (this was many years ago!) there were a lot of wines priced outside my budget, but I found a cabernet sauvignon I loved and could afford on occasion - Louis Martini’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I first discovered the Martini wines through zinfandel, but it was the Napa cabernet that became my go-to wine for special occasions - at the time it cost nearly $5.00 a bottle and, on a student budget, that was a stretch. When I got my first full-time job, I celebrated by buying a full case of Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet. This was, to my 21-year-old sensibility, a huge commitment. At a time when I could hardly afford to purchase three bottles of wine at a time, I decided I wanted the experience of enjoying a single wine as it matured, and it was an experience I enjoyed immensely, carefully opening one bottle every 5 or 6 months for five years. I learned to keep wine notes with Louis Martini cab so I could track its progress and I think of that wine as being what made me a serious wine lover and not just an occasional consumer. And when I visited Napa Valley for the first time, Louis Martini Winery was my first stop.

Louis M. Martini was one of Napa’s pioneer figures, a farmer who made his own wine and first purchased grapes in the then-remote valley in 1918. Eventually he decided to make wine full-time and bought his winery in 1933 as Prohibition was ending, releasing his first wine in 1940. Over the next nearly 60 years, the winery was an anchor in the effort to bring Napa Valley to public attention. I never met Louis M. Martini, who died in 1974, but I did get to meet his son Louis P. Martini, the winemaker who crafted that first of many Martini wines I loved. By the time he died in 1998, his son Michael Martini had been winemaker for several years, and I’ve had the pleasure of being friends with Michael for more than 20 years. 

Today, visitors to Napa Valley know the Louis Martini Winery as one of many facilities along the valley’s main Highway 29, but for me it remains a place where magic happens. When it was built, it was one of fewer than 35 wineries in the Napa Valley, and Louis P. Martini collected many firsts in his time there: in 1952 he bottled the first pinot noir grown in the now-famous district of Carneros (at the time, few thought it suitable for more than grazing sheep); he bottled the first varietally labeled merlot in the United States (this was in 1970!) and he was influential in improving wine education in the California university system. 

 Louis Martini Napa Cab with the Riedel glass designed to showcase its qualities (Photo: Louis Martini Winery)

Louis Martini Napa Cab with the Riedel glass designed to showcase its qualities (Photo: Louis Martini Winery)

In 2002 the Martini family decided to sell the winery to another family of Italian immigrants, the E. & J. Gallo family, now the second largest wine company in the United States (and still family owned). In the handover I lost track of Louis Martini wines for a time, but when a friend at Gallo sent me a bottle of the 2015 Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon a few weeks ago, I opened the box with a smile, and I opened the bottle with enormous pleasure and a flood of memories, sensory as well as nostalgic. The wine is more expensive now of course but the pleasure it affords remains. My sensory recollections echoed within the glass - a foundation of tannin and acidity that amplified rather than detracted from the beguiling blend of earthy violet and fruity blackberry, blueberry and black cherry with just enough oaky spice to give added interest. I love the core of earthiness in this wine, the quality the French call sous bois, or forest floor. It's elegant, too, and surprisingly the 15.4% alcohol doesn’t feel hot or ungainly. What is especially appealing to me about this wine is the sensation that while it is approachable and enjoyable now, there is enough stuffing to the silky tannins that it will go on for another 15 to 20 years. Not that I want to wait that long, but I’m certainly willing to open a bottle every four or five months for the next few years.

A nice bonus in rediscovering this wine is the announcement that Riedel, the highly regarded Austrian wine glass company, worked with winemaker Matt Eddy and his team to create a glass especially designed for the Louis Martini cabernet (there are several cabs, and I’m sure they will all taste wonderful in this new glass). I like the glass, though I’m not about to toss my beloved Gabriel glass collection to make space for more than a couple of them. Still, it’s absolutely my favorite Martini glass!