Miguel Martin was born in Córdoba, Spain, a small, sunbaked city that was a prosperous hub for intellectualism in the 10th century. But it was in Madrid, where he grew up, that wine became a key part of his life. His father, José Martin, was not a winemaker but taught him that drinking wine can be a ritual in itself.
“In Spain, you drink more wine than water,” Martin explained. “Nobody can stand the idea of having water or a soft drink with your meal. Wine is part of the meal.”
Martin has traveled the world learning about and making wine — he has spent a quarter-century in the industry working in Spain, California, Australia and Chile — but he remains close to his roots: community and passion. Now, after nine years as winemaker at Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead, his 18-year-old daughter Ana wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a winemaker.
“Wine is a wonderful thing,” he said with a beaming smile.
Although he gives off an easygoing air and insists there are “no magic tricks to winemaking,” the Andalusian has been proactive and created new projects at Palmer since he began there in 2006.
“What I love about working here is that I don’t get stuck making merlot and chardonnay,” he said. “You have such diversity of grapes that give you a lot of different options for blending and experimentation.”
He makes plenty of the ubiquitous varietals, sure, but he also brings forth new ideas, many of which are drawn from his Spanish heritage. Martin is the first winemaker on the North Fork to make a 100 percent varietal albariño, a grape that originates in Galicia, Spain, where Martin also worked. It has become his most popular offering.
“It’s a very summery wine,” he said. “It has beautiful floral notes and a nice, briny acidity, almost like a bit of salt in the aroma. It’s bone-dry. It goes so well with local seafood.”
Albariño grapes flourish on Long Island, Martin explained, because they are well suited to the area. with thick skin that can withstand long winters.
His wines, sold in stores and restaurants from Montauk to New York City, have considerable reach. In May, he represented Long Island at the London Wine Fair, where he said people had some comical confusion about the area’s industry.
“People came to our stand and said, ‘New York? Where do you grow grapes, Central Park?’ ” he recalled. “We had to tell them New York is a state, not Manhattan. You have beautiful vineyards an hour and a half from the city.”
And to drive home his point, Martin had those naysayers taste the wine.
“They said, ‘Oh my god, those wines are unbelievable! They’re incredible! Well balanced, great acidity, nice aromatics,’ ” he recalled. “They were really surprised about the wines coming from New York.”
Although he sees some similarities between his current locale and Galicia, Martin said Long Island is the most challenging climate in which he has made wine.
“There are no two years alike,” he said. “The weather here is very temperamental. Most of the places I made wine were hot and dry climates where you don’t pay a lot of attention to the weather.”
Now, he must survey the forecasts almost constantly and adjust on the fly to make the most of a changeable environment in which neither 80-degree September days nor snow in late March are uncommon.
“The weather can determine what to grow and how to grow and how you manage the vineyard,” he said. “You really have to be on top of the vineyard.”
Martin is well poised to face that challenge, though: He has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and a master’s degree in horticulture and agronomy from the University of California atDavis.
Those degrees are evidence that he views winemaking in a holistic sense, which allows him to get the most out of his grapes, even when the weather can be volatile.
To me, it’s very important that you know the principles of how wine is grown,” he explained. “To understand better the wines, you need to know the agricultural aspect.”
t Palmer’s rustic, charming estate, Martin expresses that expertise by keeping himself involved in almost every component of the process. On any given day, he can be spotted trudging diligently up and down more than 90 acres of grapes, studying the vines and looking to dispose of any fruit that is less than perfect.
I share a lot of ideas and comments with the vineyard manager,” he said. “They’re not the ones that will be making the wines. I don’t want to get any surprises when I get the fruit at the crush pot and have someone say, ‘Here are the grapes, make wine with this.’ It’s very important to have open communication and share ideas and opinions. It’s in the best interest of the winemaker to grow the best grapes to produce the best wines.”
Despite being so involved, Martin is coy about receiving all the praise for Palmer’s well-received offerings, and he repeatedly gives credit to his colleagues. Using soccer as an analogy, he asks who is the most important on a team? The goalkeeper, defense, midfield or forwards?
The answer: None of them. Each one is as necessary as the next.
“I always try to find people that have mutual goals and that have passion for the job,” he said. “They don’t mind spending an extra hour at the winery. They don’t mind talking about wine outside of work. They are people that transmit passion and energy to customers.”
Martin claims there is no big secret behind his success, no “magic tricks” to excelling at winemaking across the world for more than 25 years. The one catch?
“It’s important that you enjoy the wine,” he laughed.
This story originally appeared in the fall 2015 edition of the Long Island Wine Press