Personal success is one thing. Professional success is another. But both? It’s rare that one person can manage to capture both, and with grace.
John Martini’s achievements in both realms are extraordinary, and in recognition of his accomplishments, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation has honored him with the Jim Trezise Lifetime Achievement Award.
We had to ask the husband of 1, father of 4, grandfather of 12, owner of Anthony Road Wine Co., and member and active participant in multiple professional and civic organizations—including the New York State Wine Grape Growers, New York Wine Policy Institute, Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, National Grape Research Alliance and Winegrape Growers of America— “what’s your secret?”
His simple, but ultimately profound answer: “Show up, stand up, speak up.”
That mantra has served Martini well, and it is responsible, at least in part, for his arrival in the Finger Lakes in the first place.
“My wife Ann and I were living in Baltimore, Maryland, and a good friend of ours told me to quit my job and come up to Geneva to grow grapes,” Martini recalls. “That was back in 1973. Ann and I both grew up in New Jersey, but we were familiar with the area because Ann’s parents retired there and we had some friends, so we figured, ‘what the hell?’ We’ll settle on Seneca Lake and raise our kids there.”
The pair landed on the west side of Seneca Lake, and planted five acres of Maréchel Foch initially, on the recommendation of the Taylor Wine Company. No grapes had been planted on that plot of land before, but it turned out that the high-lime, moderately well-drained soils, and the moderating effect from Seneca, made the 100-acre farm ideal for growing grapes.
But they soon found that selling five acres worth of Foch didn’t pay the bills.
“I got a job at Cornell University’s Agricultural Experiment Station, which ended up providing incredible opportunities for learning in other ways,” Martini says. “Ann and I kept planting in grapes, and at a certain point in the 1980s we realized if we wanted to get serious, we’d have to start planting vinifera. The market for non-vinifera was diminishing, so it was either go big or get out.”
The Martinis dug in, planting Riesling, Seyval Blanc and Vignoles. Meanwhile, the wine industry in the Finger Lakes continued to evolve. Taylor was purchased by Coke, which then sold it to Seagram’s, and later, Vintners International.
Another “go big or get out” moment.
“The Finger Lakes were starting to be taken seriously on the world stage,” says Martini. “Winemakers were winning important awards for Riesling, even in Europe. Ann and I realized we had an opportunity to join the movement as growers and winemakers.”
In 1990, they opened Anthony Road Wine Company, bottling the 1989 crop from their own estate, and Chardonnay grown by friends. The winery was created in true Martini style, with a foundation of gusto, smarts and spirits, and materials sourced on the go.
“The building was a renovated farm shop, and our equipment was mainly used and borrowed tanks and pumps, old apple presses,” Martini recalls. “Our four children Peter, Sarah, Maeve and Elizabeth helped out in the vineyard and the winery as needed.”
That get ’ur done attitude has helped propel the family and the winery to success beyond their dreams, from a DIY winery with 3,000 cases in production annually to an internationally recognized and distributed brand with 10,000 cases in production annually.
But the labor of love was a collaboration with his family members, and the wine community, Martini says.
“We have always had a winemaker, starting with our business partner Derek Wilber, and then Johannes Reinhardt and now, Peter Becreft,” he says. “And they all also taste and work collaboratively with other winemakers in the region. We all help each other, and try to make not just better wines individually, but as a region.”
Martini admits that the success of his winery is gratifying in its own right, but for him it is, and always has been, about family.
“I never wanted to push my kids to come back and join the winery, but eventually, they all did, and that has been a real source of joy for me and for Ann,” he says.
Their son Peter is the vineyard manager, and their daughters Sarah, Elizabeth and Maeve also work in the vineyard and tasting room. Their collective 12 children can be found manning the bottle line and working as needed in the vineyard and tasting room on occasion.
“Doing this together as a family is what keeps me coming back for more,” Martini, who turns 80 in June, says.
It’s fitting that Martini has been honored with an accolade named for the man credited with building the modern wine industry in New York. Martini was, and is, not only a key architect of that structure but also one of its top engineers, construction workers and window washers. He does indeed show up, stand up and speak up. And the world is a tastier place because of it.
About the Unity Awards
The Unity Awards were created in 1990 as a way to recognize, encourage, and celebrate cooperation among grape growers, wineries (and their staff), researchers, retailers and others to advance the entire industry. The winery and grower community in New York state has a rich history of working and succeeding together despite facing a variety of challenges through the years. Recognizing the longstanding and bold spirit of our community members and their numerous achievements, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is proud to continue honoring industry leaders & champions of New York wine for more than 30 years.