Juan E. Micieli-Martinez
Winemaker at Martha Clara Vineyards
Locally on the North Fork, Martha Clara Vineyards does so much more than just make wine. With concerts, a menagerie of animals and regular charity events, people can spend a day at Martha Clara without ever getting to their wine, which would be a shame. The man behind their wine, the driving force for both what goes into the bottle and the heart and soul of the winery is Juan E. Micieli-Martinez. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Juan and asking him a few questions.
People need to understand the importance of supporting the East End. If we don’t support it, it’s going to go away and once it goes to development, it’s gone. No one ever tore down a condo to put in a winery.
What was your first experience with wine that made you see it as something more than just a beverage?
I was a late bloomer. I didn’t start drinking until I was a junior in college, and I hate to admit it, but back then I drank Zima and grenadine. That quickly evolved to Guinness. I lived off campus and my housemate was a senior. I had a passion for cooking and we used to have dinner parties. When he turned twenty-one he started buying wine for those dinners. Of course everyone was making fun of him, calling him Mr. Hoity-toity, but as I started tasting them I began noticing the different flavors and that generated the interest. When I turned twenty-one I started visiting the local wine shop and I discovered Argentinian Malbec. Growing up on Eastern Long Island I had seen the vineyards out on the North Fork, so when I graduated college I decided that I would get a summer job in the industry to learn more about wine; that understanding the varietals and learning what I liked might serve me later in career and life.
The first vineyard I visited was Palmer; she sent me to Pelligrini where I spoke to John Leo who was the tasting room manager there at the time. I fell in love with Pelligrini , both the physical place and their wines. Russell Hearn was the winemaker, and I started pouring in the tasting room. One day, the woman who handled the lab analysis left. I had gone to Binghamton for biotech. I had been in chemistry and bio labs and figured I could jump into the lab and figure it out. I started doing analysis and when harvest came I was pulling samples from the field and thought I could see myself doing this. As harvest progressed, I helped in the cellar as a cellar hand, shoveling out tanks. I enjoyed the work but after harvest it ended. I was referred to Phil Markowski at Southampton Public House, who was the brew master at the time. He was looking for an assistant brewer. Although I knew I wanted to stay in the wine industry I took the job. I learned a lot about working with yeast, things that I’d never learn as a winemaker because they handle yeast very differently when brewing beer. It was a great experience, and beer is still a passion of mine. I went back to the wine industry in 2001 at Premium Wine Group as a cellar hand. Russell Hearn, the winemaker there helped make a few connections and in 2002 I went to Western Australia and worked at Wharton Wines. When I came back I took a position at Pelligrini as production manager and worked with Russell, where, as I like to call it, I worked as a winemaker with training wheels. In 2006 I worked for Shinn Estate Vineyards and then came to Martha Clara in 2007 as winemaker. In 2010 I also became the general manager. I like to joke that I’m still working my last summer job. I’ve been taught by a lot of amazing people but also did a lot of independent reading, buying the same organic chemistry of wine that students read at UC Davis.
As a side note, I try to incorporate the wines of the people who helped and influenced me and incorporate their wines into our wine club as a way of showing my appreciation and introducing people to how great their wines are. Things can come full circle.
What is your favorite part of being a winemaker?
Harvest. If you sat me down in August and asked me about harvest, I’d give you a list of my protocols for all the wines I’m planning to make. It allows me to have everything in place. Then harvest comes and everything changes. Each component is its own variable – there aren’t too many constants in winemaking – so I need to execute my plans according to the grapes. Some years are great or amazing while others are challenging and each season influences the process. I love having to think creatively on the fly.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a winemaker?
The weather. As I said, everything is a variable and that’s the think I love the most and hate the most. I think not knowing what’s going to happen breeds creativity.
Which is your favorite variety? Local or global.
I almost hate to admit but it’s Pinot Noir. For a very long time I didn’t get Pinot. People get crazy over it. As a winemaker I have grown to love it. It’s a varietal that’s purely the result of the year you had and the viticulture, and even then you really have to work it. I love Merlot; we joined the Merlot Alliance two years ago and I was elected president this year, and I don’t mean to say there’s not art in that, but Pinot is just a little beast. I really like the challenges in winemaking and Pinot is the most challenging.
What are some things people should look for at Martha Clara, new or up and coming?
For a number of years we’ve been evolving our packaging and we’ve been working with rebranding and changing some of the labels, and one of the ones I’m most proud of is called Northville. If you look at the world of wine we all know Burgandy, we know Cote du Vie and Cote du Vone and within these regions there are sub levels, the Village, left bank, right bank, Pomeroll, all these where here we’re the North Fork of Long Island and there hasn’t been this delineation. Let’s dial into Roanoke Hills, Northville, all these AVA’s on the North Fork. So Northville was my flag in the ground, that we’re going to claim this area which is know to be an agriculturally superior area on the north Fork, which is what the Hallockville Museum has said. Northville is a name that has kinda been forgotten, even though it’s all over here on signs like Northville Turnpike. So Northville is this new thing that’s picking up steam and some other brands we’re retweaking. 6025 is a red which is our address here. Mr Entenmann is 88 years young and I told him that I want some wine that pays homage to him. I want to have a wine for him. We’re working on Robert’s Blend and that will be our OB, the “E” in Blend will be the familiar big E, so that will replace 6025. A Northville Blanc, Northville Creamant blanc and rouge as sparkling wine. So we’re rebranding some things and coming out with some new blends. I’m Mexican and we brought out this wine called Savor (sounds like sabour) which means Flavor in Spanish and we added the natural flavors of pineapple and coconut. It’s not intended to be a classic wine but something for new consumers. Latinos are a growing population and I think we need to invite them into this world of wine, and will be relaunching and rebranding that.
6. When you’re not making wine, how do you have fun on the North Fork?
I love spending time with my wife and son. He’s three and I love spending time with him. I also really love golfing. It clears my head-space. Going for a walk and trying to manipulate that little ball gives me a sense of control. I don’t know if it’s real or just perceived control.
Other than your own, which is your favorite North Fork winery/winemaker?
John Leo of Leo Cellars, Leo Family Red. I think – and I’m saying this as a winemaker who produces wine on the North Fork – that John is producing the best wine out there. I think in five to ten years his will be our cult wines.
If you weren’t making wine, what would you be doing if you could do anything?
I think I’d be a tailor. Being a larger guy, I can’t buy off the rack and things have to be altered. I like that process, like when you buy a good suit and tailor it to fit well. My mother was a seamstress. Growing up I watched her work and so have a sense for that. I remember going to bed with her sowing machine running. I’m sure she slept and woke up early, but I’d wake up to it most mornings.
What do you see happening or want to happen to the North Fork wine industry in the coming decade?
I’d really love to see more vines going into the ground. The North Fork is becoming more discovered and I hope it’s not being discovered for housing but for planting vines and support. That’s what I’d love to see. It’s going to be an unfortunate thing if the wineries start going away. You’ll have lots of people saying they can’t believe this is happening but it happens every time someone goes into a wine store and grabs that magnum of cheap Australian or XYZ wine as opposed to something produced locally. I hope there’s continued growth in the industry, a new generation of people coming in and discovering wine and not just keeping the vineyards here but adding more.
Anything you’d like to say or add?
Just that it’s so important for people to support not just the local wineries but local breweries, farmstands, and restaurants. The whole idea of “local” needs to become a way of life. I don’t mean to knock the big chains, but they lack the artisan craftsmanship that is delivered by smaller breweries or wineries. Here on Long Island, Martha Clara Vineyards is seen as a big producer, but our biggest production year is about 24,000 cases of wine. There are wineries in the world for whom that accounts for a single days’ bottling. We’re still a boutique winery. People need to understand the importance of supporting the East End. If we don’t support it, it’s going to go away and once it goes to development, it’s gone. No one ever tore down a condo to put in a winery.