Interview with Winemaker Courtney Robinett Wagoner.
For over 135 years, the Martinelli Family has been nurturing their vineyards, creating a legacy that spans six generations of wine growers and farmers. From a young age, the Martinelli children and their children have been learning the ropes in the fields.
The stewardship of the land instilled a strong work ethic that became a way of life. It was a gift to support your family and a privileged duty to pass on to future generations.
Experience the charm of their historic turn-of-the-century hop barn in the picturesque Russian River Valley. Indulge in a range of tasting options, from relaxed seated tastings of their estate-grown wines to immersive and elevated wine and food pairing experiences.
We interview Martinelli Winery and Vineyards Winemaker Courtney Robinett Wagoner to learn more.
Q: What type of wine do you specialize in?
Winemaker Courtney Robinett Wagoner: Pinot Noir and Zinfandel
Regarding zinfandel, the uniqueness of our wines can mostly be attributed to the clones that we use. Jackass Hill was planted back in 1892 by Giuseppe Martinelli, while Jackass Vineyard was already an established vineyard dating back to the 1880’s. We use these heritage clones in all our zinfandel production which really sets them apart.
For the Pinot Noirs, it’s all about location, location, location! We have 11 different ranch sites planted to Pinot spanning all over Sonoma County farmed by the Martinelli family themselves. I like to think this gives a sense of place from our pinot noirs.
Share a popular tasting experience.
Courtney Robinett Wagoner: We offer a handful of different experiences for guests, but a favorite is our walking vineyard tour. Guests get to taste wines at different locations on our Estate property while enjoying beautiful views.
The experience ends with a tasting flight under a giant 175 year old Oak tree overlooking the winery. It is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
Q: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?
Courtney Robinett Wagoner: Martinelli Winery only receives a total of 12% of the fruit that is farmed by the family. Our goal as a winery is to be the best bottle on the market made from that fruit we produce. The amount of dedication, skill, and hard work that goes into our winemaking is second to none and it really shows in the quality.
We don’t let production case counts dictate what we do and only make decisions based on what’s best for the wine.
Q: How did you get started in the wine industry?
Courtney Robinett Wagoner: While in college at Cal Poly, I took a class called “Wines and Fermented Foods”. I loved this class and found fermentation to be such a magical process. When I decided that I wanted to go into winemaking, my professor told me I needed to start looking for a harvest position to get my feet wet.
Luckily my grandparents lived in Napa, so I was able to move in with them and start working my first harvest that really sparked my passion for the industry.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the winemaking process?
Courtney Robinett Wagoner: As a winemaker you must learn to adapt to what mother nature throws at you. One year it’s too much rain that leaves you with mold and big berries, then next year you’re seeing record heat or fires that leave you with dried out fruit.
You learn to roll with the punches and keep on improving quality. If you stay status quo and never evolve as a winemaker, then neither will you or the wine.
Q: Describe your winemaking approach.
The winemaking approach I lend myself to would be described as high touch with low intervention. That may seem like an oxymoron but let me provide an example for you. During active fermentation, the winemaking team tastes every fermenter daily which could be as many as 70+ samples.
By tasting them so often it allows us to make all the small changes that the wine might require to either benefit quality or prevent issues down the line. Taking out the small issues up front leads to a lot less bigger issues down the road for the life of the wine.
Q: Do you have a favorite story about working at your winery?
Courtney Robinett Wagoner: Our red fruit processing area for harvest happens to be a very tall gravity fed system with a sorting table that sits about 14 feet off the ground and has a ladder that starts about 3 feet in the air.
During the harvest of 2022 I was running around the cellar trying to make sure everything was going according to plan when I look up at the sorting table and I see Lee Martinelli Sr. at the top just sorting away with the interns.
Keep in mind that he’s a spry 82 years old at the time. This just really showed me the commitment and support that we receive from the family in production which is one of the reasons I love working for a family winery.
Q: What do you love about winemaking?
Courtney Robinett Wagoner: People love to describe winemaking as a delicate blend of art and science. At an early point in my life, I once considered a career in music. Being a musician, I was able to convey emotions to the listener through my music. In many ways I still get to do this but through the notes of my wines on the palate just like the notes of music to the ears.
Q: Do you have any winery traditions with your team?
Courtney Robinett Wagoner: We like to take our employees to the different vineyard sites and have them hike up Jackass Hill for the first time. It gives them respect for the farmers and vineyard workers who work in that field during the season. You can’t really get an idea of what a monster it is until you’ve climbed it.
Q: How does your team help you as a winemaker?
Courtney Robinett Wagoner: A leader is only as strong as their support system. Our consulting winemaker, Erin Green, has been mentoring me from the moment I started here at Martinelli, and we have come a long way together.
Over the years we have done a lot of work to improve winemaking and vineyard practices. To implement these changes and vision, I must have a strong team from the cellar to the lab as well. Without support we couldn’t achieve our continued reputation as an ultra-premium wine producer.