Martinelli Winery vintners honored as icons of Sonoma County

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Lee Sr. and Carolyn Martinelli, vintners of Martinelli Winery in Windsor, were among a group of people recently honored for being icons of Sonoma County.

The event, at Healdsburg's Williams Selyem Winery, was on the eve of the first Sonoma County Barrel Auction on Friday.

The auction raised $461,700, roughly a cool half million from lots snapped up by bidders impressed by Sonoma County wines and, naturally, its icons.

Seventy-six year old Lee Martinelli joked, “I guess when you get older and you’ve been around for a long time, you become an icon.”

Martinelli is the third generation of his Italian family with deep roots in Sonoma County.

The Martinelli lineage is best explained through Jack Ass Hill, an ungodly steep vineyard near the winery. It has a 60-degree slope and today nothing is permitted steeper than a 30-degree slope.

Giuseppi Martinelli first planted Jack Ass Hill in the 1890s, after using a horse and plow to clear away the redwoods and oak trees.

When Giuseppe died in 1917, his son Leno Martinelli took the lead in farming the treacherous vineyard, but he quit when he was 87. Since 1993 Lee has farmed the vineyard and continues to in his mid-seventies.

“I’ve been farming Jack Ass Hill for 21 years,” Lee said. “You’d think it would get easier, but it’s getting harder. It feels like the hill is steeper and gravity is stronger though it’s the same … so every year I have more hesitation.”

Martinelli said he rides the tractor with his shirt unbuttoned and his shoe laces untied so he can slip out of either should he need to.

No cell phone is permitted on the job.

“Up there you have to be quick to make the right response,” Martinelli explained.

At the end of the day, Martinelli said he always decides to farm Jack Ass Hill yet another year.

“I go down to the cellar and uncork a bottle of the Jack Ass Hill Zinfandel. Then I say, ‘Yes, I’m going to do this next year.’ Those vines are part of my family so I have to continue to farm them.”

Martinelli said he’s loyal to his Sonoma County roots, and the Sonoma County vintners said the same is true for the other icons they honored. The list includes: John Balletto, Jean-Charles Boisset, the Dehlinger family, Steve and Joe Dutton, Paul Hobbs, Zelma Long, Joel Peterson, David Ramey, Joe Rochioli Jr., the Sangiacomo family, Dave Stare and Burt Williams.

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