Like many people, I have long fantasized about making wine- not just some box kit wine but real wine, from the vineyard to the bottle. Not because I thought it would be easy, but because it was just one of those things on the bucket list that wouldn’t go away, along with skydiving (done), climbing to Machu Pichu (soon), and dating Angelina Jolie (call me). So I began taking winemaking and viticulture classes through UC Davis, and after about a year, I realized I needed some real world winemaking experience. That’s when I stumbled upon Marty Mathis, son of Kathryn Kennedy and winemaker/ proprietor of Kathryn Kennedy Winery.
The Kathryn Kennedy Winery is located on the inland side of the Santa Cruz Mountains off Pierce Road in Saratoga, California. In 1973 Kathryn Kennedy planted her 8 acres of land of Cabernet Sauvignon vines from cuttings she obtained from David Bruce. The only way to keep her land from being subdivided for housing was to keep the land agricultural and thankfully for us, she decided to plant grape vines rather than Christmas trees. By 1979 and with some UC Davis courses under her belt, Kathryn Kennedy took a gamble and made her first wine, an ultra premium Cabernet. Two years later her son Marty Mathis took over as winemaker, maintaining a sharp focus on creating an artisanal style of wine, while emphasizing the uniqueness of the grapes and vineyard site, hand harvesting the grapes from low-yield vines and with minimal handling during the winemaking process. Since the passing of Kathryn in 2009, Marty has continued to specialize in producing his flag ship estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon ($119.99), “it is immensely concentrated, dense, and reminiscent of Chateau Latour in its massiveness. It is classic Santa Cruz Mnts” –Matt Kramer ‘Making Sense of California Wine.’ Marty also produces several wines from purchased grapes: Lateral ($32.99), a Bordeaux blend of Merlot & Cabernet Franc; Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon ($34.99) from local Santa Cruz Mountain vineyards; and Sauvignon Blanc ($18.99) from organic grapes grown in 3 North Coast Counties. I recently had an opportunity to ask Marty a few questions about his wines and winemaking:
Will S: Before your mother planted her land to grape vines, was she passionate or knowledgeable about wine or viticulture?
Marty M: Wine was never on our dinner table when I was growing up… However my parents did go out for fine dining and she recounts how she was inspired by some great Martin Ray Cabernets in the 1960’s, in particular when dining in the Sardine Factory in Monterey (which was the premier restaurant in that era and Fred Dame was their Sommelier. As you may know he was the first to gain the Master Sommelier title in all of California).
Will S: How did you learn the craft of winemaking, did you take classes or have any mentors?
Marty M: Even though I graduated from UC Davis, I never took a single winemaking or Viticulture course there. When I came home after college, my mom handed me a hoe. Literally, I learned from the dirt up. My mentor was Bill Anderson who was at Mount Eden Vineyards in 1977 and 1978; he then became the longtime winemaker at Chateau Julian in Carmel Valley. He taught me the rules of a good wine cellar.
Will S: How would you describe your winemaking style?
Marty M: My salesman Eric always tells me to “make it taste good,” so I guess that’s the bottom line. I shun Cabernets that aim for brute force and brash personality. I always believe wine should be graceful. Therefore, I look to traditional styles like “old California Cabernet” or European “Claret” models. One that develops with time and passes by the obvious fruitiness of youth to arrive at a sophisticated and complex character. So I focus on mature grapevine physiology rather that sugar ripeness. I avoid using grapes that need any acid adjustments and practice minimal intervention fermentation and cellar techniques. I select the finest inputs like barrels and keep their impact to a level that doesn’t obscure the sense of place nor the varietal flavors.
Will S: Excluding your own wines, what are some of your favorites?
Marty M: Top flight Bordeaux, (Margaux, Mouton, Haut Brion and St. Emilions) Barbaresco, Loire Valley whites including the dessert wines, Rioja, Portuguese dry reds, Tawny Port, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and very expensive Sparkling Wine.
Will S: Why do you focus on using organic grapes?
Marty M: Three reasons really: the “aahha” moment was when I realized my family, my dog and myself were being exposed year after year to chemicals whose safety is very questionable. Secondly is to provide a healthier and truer product to my customers and in conjunction help the industry evolve and learn to do right by the earth (by which I mean the globe). Lastly, are my commercial motives, “green is the new black.” In specific, the retail wine scene is very, very competitive. To rise above the crowd you can use certified organic status to ensure business success.
Will S: What do you find unique and special about the Santa Cruz Mountains for grape growing?
Marty M: Not only is the climate a bit more marine influenced and cooler (but without the foggy/sandy conditions of the central coast), the size of the winery estates are small and more closely represent what some have called “real wine.” The owner is often the winemaker and the guy on the tractor. The end results are more classic European with elegance, depth and usually lower alcohol levels than from Napa.
Will S: I recently tasted your sparkling wines and thought they were wonderful, can you tell me a little about why you decided to make sparkling wine and how tough the process was?
Marty M: Not only was I drawn to great Champagne by the way it tasted, felt in my mouth and made everyone yell “Yahhooo” more times than not, there is one story in particular I can share. Everyone remembers the hype of the millennium and all the pressure to go to the best party of your life. Well my sister was with a fellow at the time who was very wealthy and they threw a massive party at a private residence on the shores of Lake Tahoe… Basically over the top style. Anyway, I was tasked with gathering a full case of really, really good Champagne, so I bought a selection of $100+ ten year old bottles like Salon, Krug and Tattingers. Well the big weekend arrived and I got the flu, really bad flu, so I never even attended the party and I kept all the bottles for myself. So starting in the spring of 2000, I drank a bunch of inspirational sparkling wines and by the time harvest 2000 came, I was buying Chardonnay to try my hand.
Will S: If you were not a winemaker/grape grower what would you have been doing as a profession?
Marty M: Probably a professional in the Ski business, when I was younger, I loved deep powder.
Will S: Have you ever been to any tastings at Beltramo’s?
Marty M: Several in the 1980’s and they were very impactful to me. Not only did I appreciate the professional way they were conducted, I learned to love the great wines of the world in that back room. In particular, I never would have learned to love Barolo and Barbarescos if it hadn’t been for the Beltramo’s staff. At the time it was Gregg Sinclair, old man Carl and Gary. One night in particular a funny thing happened (maybe not funny to the store staff); it was near the end of a great tasting of those Piedmontese wines and there was one of Scavinos bottlings that was rare and in short supply. So just as the tasters were leaving the back room, Gary made an announcement highlighting that situation with the Scavino but made a poor choice of words when he said “this wine is really rare and special, so be sure to grab some on your way out.” I guess you can tell there was quite a scene near the cash registers when about half the guests tried to leave without paying for those bottles.
I am forever indebted to Marty for fueling my passion for wine and winemaking. His knowledge and focus toward the art and science of grape growing and winemaking are unparalleled. Unfortunately there is no tasting room at the Kathryn Kennedy Winery but luckily for you we carry several bottlings from the Kathryn Kennedy lineup. Come on in and try a couple, I promise you will not be disappointed!
Will Sundquist- Beltramo’s Assistant Manager and Wine Consultant