Berger on wine: A tribute to longtime Fetzer winemaker Dennis Martin

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In late 1991, as wine editor of the Los Angeles Times, I named Paul Dolan of Fetzer Vineyards as Winemaker of the Year and called him to set up an interview.

“Sure,” said Paul, “but I’d like to bring Denny Martin along. He deserves most of the credit for what I do.”

The generous gesture wasn’t lost on me, and at our meeting it was obvious that the close personal as well as professional relationship between the two men included great respect for each man’s talents.

Dennis Martin, who passed away Sunday at age 69 following a battle with cancer, was as low-key and self-effacing as Dolan, and the two talents meshed perfectly to make Fetzer one of the state’s greatest wineries during its heyday in the 1980s. Martin was a part of the winemaking team at Fetzer for more than 30 years, serving as Dolan’s assistant. After Dolan left nearly 20 years ago, he became vice president and director of winemaking.

Perhaps the two winemakers’ greatest contribution to California’s North Coast was their insistence on harvesting fruit with perfect balance, making for some of the most stylish yet still value-oriented wines in the state.

During the time that the two men expanded the fortunes of the family-owned brand, some of the wines grew so rapidly in volume that the men were hard pressed to find quality fruit to keep quality as high as it had been when it was made in lower volumes. One such wine was the widely recognized Sundial Chardonnay.

Although the Fetzer brand was based in Mendocino County, it was obvious that to keep quality high and prices reasonable meant going to other regions for grapes, and Martin pioneered the use of fruit from Lake and Monterey counties in particular.

Lake County was not yet widely known for the high quality of its sauvignon blanc, but Martin was a huge fan of how the Lake fruit worked to give Fetzer’s Valley Oaks Sauvignon Blanc the perfect aromas.

Even riskier was Martin’s love of fruit from the Central Coast. It was a time when Monterey and even Santa Barbara were being disparaged in some quarters for having herbaceous flavors in some grapes. Martin regularly traveled hundreds of miles to meet with growers in the Salinas Valley, Santa Maria, and elsewhere, using the latest viticultural concepts to produce fruit with properly ripe flavors.

Martin and Dolan also were insistent that their wines have moderate alcohols and identifiable varietal characteristics.

Most Fetzer wines were seen as great values, but that didn’t preclude them from making world-class wines as well. A great example was a Fetzer 1985 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that frequently beat higher-scoring wines in blind tastings at which I was a judge.

Martin also was a huge fan of various sub-regions of Santa Barbara County for pinot noir. Even though Fetzer had no particular need for small quantities of esoteric, pricier wines, Martin persuaded the company to make a few cases of some reserve-style pinot noirs.

Tiny amounts of these pinots were produced, many with fanciful labels that carried Martin’s name and signature on the back label. Every one of these I tasted was a gem.

Martin, long a resident of Healdsburg, was widely liked throughout the wine community and was a regular taster with an informal winemakers’ society, the Vintage Hills Tasting Group in northern Sonoma.

He also judged at many major wine competitions, and even though he was ill, he was a judge at the 39th annual Mendocino County Wine Competition in early August in Boonville.

At the Thursday evening dinner for the judges, I brought a three-liter bottle of 1986 Fetzer Barrel Select Cabernet Sauvignon that Martin had made.

The wine proved to be sensational. and Martin commented about the fact that its 13.5 percent alcohol was one of the key reasons.

And then in typical fashion he gave credit to Dolan: “This wine wouldn’t have made it this long if it didn’t have the low pH that Paul wanted — low enough for it to age.”

“Denny and I met when we were in our 20s, and we grew up in life and in wine together,” Dolan said after learning of Martin’s death. “We were both there to catch each other’s missteps ...

“Denny was admired by all those who worked with us. He gave people the space to work, to do their own things,” he added. “That goes all the way back to (founder) Barney (Fetzer), and John and Jim (Fetzer) carried on that tradition.

“We will all miss him greatly.”

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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