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Wine Legend: Martinelli, Jackass Hill Zinfandel 1994

Why this wine joins the other Wine Legends...

Wine Legend: Martinelli, Jackass Hill Zinfandel 1994, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California, USA

Bottles produced 3,300

Composition 100% Zinfandel

Yield N/A

Alcohol 14.9%

Release price $16

Price today $130

A legend because…

The Martinelli family have been grape growers in Sonoma since the late 1880s. It remains their primary business to this day, with most of the fruit contracted to other wineries. The family stopped producing their own wines after 1949, but the winery reopened in the late 1980s under winemaker Daniel Moore. Helen Turley came on board in 1992 as consultant winemaker; she only left in 2010. Turley was a name to conjure with, admired by Robert Parker and other influential wine writers. Sonoma Zinfandel was typically a big, ripe wine with more heft than finesse. European palates often found it Porty and fatiguing, but Americans – the main buyers of these wines – adored it, their predilection boosted by wine critics’ rave reviews.

Looking back

Visitors flocked to the Martinelli facility on River Road in droves after the reviews of the 1990s. They must have been surprised to find it a large, rather scruffy former hop-barn. There was no Napa Valley bling here at that time, although today the tasting room has been expanded and tidied up. Indeed, this rustic atmosphere and the welcome from the family members were part of the appeal. This was also a period when bold, full-bodied, high-alcohol wines were in fashion. Helen Turley’s brother Larry founded his own winery in Napa Valley, where he produced numerous single-vineyard Zinfandels in exactly this style.

The vintage

The spring this year was cool, with some stormy weather. The summer was warm and mild, giving slow and consistent maturation, and the grapes retained good acidity. The autumn was cool and the harvest free of challenges. Problems at flowering did result in a below-average crop of Zinfandel, although the low yields didn’t impact quality.

The terroir

Jackass Hill is an estate vineyard on a southeast-facing slope that was planted in the 1890s by Giuseppe and Luisa Martinelli. This served as the mother block for massal selections for other Zinfandel vineyards planted by their descendants. Jackass Hill is believed to be the steepest unterraced vineyard in Sonoma county, with a 60°-65° slope, which it would be illegal to plant today for safety reasons. The site is dry-farmed and composed solely of bush vines.

The wine

The grapes were picked by hand and fermented with natural yeasts, and then aged for 10 months in 50% new French oak. The wine was bottled without fining or filtration.

The reaction

In 1996, Robert Parker was impressed: ‘The 1994 Jackass Hill Vineyard Zinfandel… rivals the extraordinary 1994 Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel produced by Turley Cellars… Martinelli’s Zinfandel is amazingly rich and unctuous, with huge flavour concentration, and a blockbuster finish that must be tasted to be believed.’

That same year, Wine Spectator was slightly less enthusiastic: ‘Dark, ripe and intense. Delivers an elegant core of complex, rich, plush plum, cherry, currant and berry flavours, with a tarry, spicy aftertaste. Delicious now and worthy of short-term cellaring.’

In 2018, Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW reviewed the wine on the Parker website: ‘Medium garnet with a touch of brick… scented of potpourri, Chinese five spice, citrus peel, liquorice and chargrill with a core of dried mulberries, preserved cherries and figs plus a touch of smoked meats. Full-bodied, super-concentrated and still sporting a firm frame of chewy tannins, it delivers incredible freshness and a very long, savoury finish.’

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