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The name Dennis ‘Denny’ Martin comes up often when the question at hand is on the order of, “Who’s got the best palate in Wine Country?”

Martin, a Healdsburg resident who retired two years ago after three decades as a winemaker with the giant Fetzer Vineyards, humbly endured star quality among the most sought-after judges for wine panels and competitions, both locally and across the country.

“He probably judged more wine shows than anyone I know,” said Daryl Groom, also an acclaimed Healdsburg vintner and tasting judge. Groom said his friend Martin was distinguished as well by his eagerness to mentor relative newcomers to the judging table.

“He was the best judge you could ever get,” said Groom, who just last Friday sat with Martin at a quarterly winemakers’ luncheon at Valette restaurant in Healdsburg.

Martin died from prostate cancer on Sunday. The husband of Carla Filgas and father of two was 69.

He grew up in the Central Valley, studied agriculture, enology and food science at Fresno State and worked a couple of wine-industry jobs in the valley before Fetzer winemaster Paul Dolan made him his assistant in 1985. Upon the 1992 purchase of Hopland-based Fetzer Vineyards by the Brown-Forman spirits and wine company, Martin was named director of winemaking.

Four years later he became responsible for oversight of all production at Fetzer as the firm’s vice president of winemaking. Fetzer was sold again, to Chile’s Vina Concha y Toro in 2011.

Martin directed the making of large-volume wines such as Sundial Chardonnay and he relished the creation of Fetzer’s Bonterra organic wines and smaller production labels that include Sanctuary Estates and Jekel Vineyards.

Fezter’s current vice president of winemaking, Bob Blue, worked with Martin for 29 years and valued his colleague’s complexities, his “love affair with pinot noir,” his refusal to make “caricature wines” and the discipline that allowed him to avoid injecting himself too much into the process of making wine.

“He knew when to be hands-off,” Blue said. “He could be completely relaxed in winemaking and let the wines do their thing and have tremendous patience to let them develop.”

Fetzer CEO Giancarlo Bianchetti called Martin “a terrific winemaker and inspiring colleague who left an indelible mark on those he knew.”

Groom came to Sonoma County from his native Australia in 1989, and soon after met Martin, who, with his discerning palate, had established a reputation among fellow North Coast winemakers.

Groom came to regard Martin as the ideal wine judge.

“He proved that time after time in wine competitions,” Groom said.

In addition to all the winemaking and judging he did, Martin was a former director and president of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture. In his free time, he enjoyed being home with his family in Healdsburg.

“I’m pretty much a homebody,” he told wine blogger David White in 2011. “I putter around my house and yard ... I do put in a garden of mostly heirloom tomatoes in the spring and tend it during the growing season so that I can enjoy a caprese salad every evening. I also have Koi and chickens to tend to as well.”

Asked by White about what was in his home wine cellar, Martin said that at his 50th birthday party he and some friends essentially raided it.

“I can’t drink all of that wine in the remaining time I have left on this earth,” the winemaker said, “so that is why I stopped collecting a few years ago.”

Though he struggled with prostate cancer, Martin didn’t miss the opportunity to meet and eat and taste with about 60 fellow winemakers five days ago in Healdsburg.

He looked a bit frail, Groom said, but he didn’t say much about his health. “He didn’t want to bother people with it.”

He added that he found it a bit comforting that right to the end Martin was “out doing what he has always done.”

In addition to his wife of 44 years in Healdsburg, Martin is survived by daughter Astin Martin Romero of Novato and son Remy Martin of Healdsburg.

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