Nov./Dec. 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kirsten Fairchilds
Photos by Shmuel Thaler and Trina Wood
Sparkling apple cider makes for the perfect toast.
Brothers Dave and Rob Jensen grow Newtown Pippin apples exclusively for S. Martinelli & Co., best known for sparkling cider.
Bringing a bottle of bubbly when invited for dinner is a long-standing tradition. For Dave Jensen, showing up with a single bottle or two just won't do.
Jensen's host or hostess gift of choice is a case of Martinelli's Gold Medal Sparkling Cider, the signature product of the Watsonville-based S. Martinelli & Co. A resident of Corralitos—near Watsonville in Santa Cruz County—Jensen is more than just a fan of the top-selling sparkling cider in the United States. Along with his younger brother Rob, he also plays a role in making the non-alcoholic, family-friendly product.
Jensen Bros. Farming grows 20 acres of Newtown Pippins solely for S. Martinelli & Co., more casually referred to as Martinelli's by those familiar with its goods. After the four- to five-week harvest begins in late September, the apples are picked, sent directly to Martinelli's and placed in cold storage to keep fresh. The Jensens deliver between 800 and 1,100 bins of fruit in any given year to Martinelli's—approximately 1 million apples.
"If we didn't have Martinelli's, there wouldn't be an apple industry in Watsonville any longer," said Jensen, of the city known as Apple City in the early 1900s due to its reputation as one of the largest apple producers in the world. "The way the economy is now, the value of the land dictates the crop that is grown. If an apple orchard comes out, it probably won't go back in. Raspberries or strawberries probably will. It takes five to seven years for an apple orchard to pay for itself. With strawberries and raspberries, you get your investment back right away."
From left, Warren Sampson, Stephen C. Martinelli and S. John Martinelli continue their family's heritage of producing apple cider in Watsonville.
With the vast majority of its fruit grown in Pajaro Valley orchards such as Corralitos and in the nearby San Juan Bautista and Hollister areas, Martinelli's represents not just the financial means for apple farms to survive, but also a sense of pride for farmers to be associated with a company known for making quality products for more than 140 years.
Established in 1868 by Swiss native Stephano Gaspare Martinelli, the company first created a bottle-fermented, champagne cider from apples grown in Watsonville. The cider eventually garnered 50 gold medals from fairs and expositions, including the California State Fair. In 1885, the business relocated to a plant across the street from Watsonville High School, where the company's headquarters remain. Martinelli's has 250 employees and adds another 50 during harvest time.
Chairman of the Board Stephen C. Martinelli, 82, represents the third generation of the family involved in the business, while his son, S. John Martinelli, 55, is president. Warren Sampson, 25, is the company's social media coordinator and represents the fifth generation.
Santa Cruz County farmer Rob Jensen loads Newtown Pippins for same-day transport to Martinelli's.
"Hard (alcoholic) cider was a staple back in those days, and our company was founded on hard cider," said John Martinelli of the company's early years. "My great-grandfather, Stephano, liked to experiment with carbonation. Hard cider has a lower level of carbonation, so he created a champagne cider that was more effervescent. That really set the stage for the transition to our sparkling (non-alcoholic) cider during Prohibition."
Two years prior to Prohibition, Stephano's son, Stephen G. Martinelli Jr., graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where he had participated in the development of a pasteurization process to preserve bottled apple juice. John Martinelli credited his grandfather's knowledge with keeping the business alive.
Gustavo Coronel adds his harvest to a bin.
"Pasteurizing juice was new at that time," he said. "Imagine if my grandfather wouldn't have learned to do that. Our signature product would have been illegal because of Prohibition. Instead, we converted our champagne cider to a non-alcoholic version. That really created the platform for launching the face of our business since then."
Martinelli joined the family business in 1979 after graduating from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in economics. He implemented blended versions of the sparkling cider, beginning in the mid-1980s when he purchased olallieberries from nearby Gizdich Ranch to make an apple-olallieberry blend. Martinelli's current line includes its traditional apple juice and eight different sparkling apple cider products.
The peak production cycle for sparkling cider mirrors the traditional apple harvest of mid-September to the end of October. That means the majority of sparkling cider enjoyed during the winter holidays is produced with fruit from that season's crop.
"It's just so fresh," Martinelli said. "Literally, the apples could be picked and pressed within a day or two. We have a cold settling and filtration process. We let the juice sit refrigerated in tanks for 12 to 18 hours—that allows the natural sediment to settle in the tanks. We filter it and make it crystal clear and immediately carbonate and bottle and pasteurize it in the bottle. We do not use preservatives. Bottle pasteurization is more difficult and costly, but it literally preserves the juice without any chemical preservatives and locks in the fresh apple flavor."
Martinelli's buys only U.S.-grown fruit and does not use concentrates. In the past, the company has never owned apple orchards, but demand for fresh apples compelled Martinelli's to develop a plan for growing some fruit to allow it the freedom to grow the varieties most desired for its products.
Events pivotal to Martinelli's success include the 1933 development of its slogan, "Drink your apple a day," as shown on the truck above.
"It's an act of desperation," Martinelli said. "However, in no way does that threaten our local growers because we will buy everything they have for us. We just need more."
Martinelli's has expanded its product line further. It took five years to come up with an approved formula, but in 2008, Martinelli's got into the lemonade business. Its first releases included a classic lemonade and a prickly passion lemonade, made out of lemons, prickly pear cactus, passion fruit and raspberries.
It currently has four different sparkling lemonade products and six non-sparkling products including 50-50, which is Martinelli's take on the increasingly popular Arnold Palmer drink of lemonade and iced tea.
"The lemonade business is good for us because it gives us a product line we can promote in the heat of the summer," Martinelli said.
The company also plans to debut a refrigerated pomegranate-blueberry juice blend as another way to diversify its product line.
While adding variety to its product line gives Martinelli's more appeal year-round for some consumers, Jensen and Martinelli enjoy sparkling cider anytime—and they're not alone. Easily recognized by its traditional champagne-style bottle, Martinelli's Gold Medal Sparkling Cider has received its fair share of fan mail over the years.
Martinelli's uses only U.S.-grown fruit. Its juice is filtered, carbonated, bottled and pasteurized in the bottle.
"We get letters, phone calls, tweets, likes and blogs—all from customers who want to tell us how much they love our sparkling cider," Martinelli said. "People send us photos of their special events and share how our cider played a part in it. When you touch people with a wholesome product that enhances their lives and they feel compelled to thank you, it feels really good."
The fab five
S. John Martinelli ranks the top five apples used in his family's products.
With an ideal balance of tartness and sweetness, the Newtown Pippin—also called the Newton Pippin—is truly No. 1 when it comes to fulfilling the company's desire for a robust apple flavor in its products. "The Newtown Pippin is by far our signature apple."
Called the Crispin by some, the Mutsu is a cross between a Golden Delicious and the Indo apple. It has been part of the Martinelli's blends for the past 20 years. "It's the closest to a Pippin that we can find in terms of the balance between tart and sweet. It makes great juice."
Another favorite of the company with good balance and apple-flavor characteristics, the Gala has one shortcoming: "They're just hard to come by. They're so popular with the fresh market, little is left over for processing."
Tie between Red Delicious and Fuji
Sweet with good flavor, both lack the company's ideal tartness in an apple. "The other three apples pretty much can stand alone, but we need a Granny Smith to balance out the Red Delicious and Fuji."
Extremely tart, the apple often favored for pie must be blended with the sweeter Red Delicious and Fuji varieties. "Together, they make a wonderful juice."