New Orleanians are well-known lovers of nostalgia, so any time a place that “ain’t dere no more” is reborn, it’s cause for celebration. We recently saw that with Brennan’s, the French Quarter grand dame that saw some struggles and closed, only to be bought, renovated and reopened by family member and December 2014 Persona subject Ralph Brennan, who promised to restore it to greatness. A causality of Hurricane Katrina, the original Martin Wine Cellar on Baronne Street Uptown didn’t reopen for years – instead, the Martin family focused their attention on stores on Magazine Street, Metairie, the Northshore and Baton Rouge. After waiting for years for the right economic conditions, patriarch Cedric Martin finally brought Martin back to Baronne Street. The wine seller, which like its Metairie counterpart includes a deli and lunch and dinner service, opened just in time for the holiday season. We talked to Martin about the opening and got his wine advice.
Q: What is it like with the store being open? A wish come true. It’s been a long time coming. This is where I grew up and learned the business. It was hard to leave there after the storm, and I always hoped this day would come. It’s just so nice to be back where I started, and the whole area is coming back. It’s also a shorter drive to my house. (laughs)
When I grew up (in this neighborhood) there were a lot of little stores, and that’s how my father started (the original Martin). Around there was a grocery store, barber, hardware store, bakery – a number of things. I used to go to a theater around there – I think I paid a nickel, or maybe a quarter, and a Blue Plate mayonnaise label to get into the movies.
There was a lot of retail in that neighborhood back in (19)50s and ’60s. I think it’s going to come back.
Q: What are some of your memories of being a child in the store? My father always said start at the bottom and work your way up. I did everything from learn the hand-set type machine to print labels, unloading trailers coming in early in morning and making room in the warehouse, doing inventory – my mother and I used to take the whole store and come in Sunday at 2 get out at 1 in the morning. It started out as a mom-and-pop business and it grew from there.
Q: Did you always think you would stay in the family business? I did some other things, but my father sat down with me one day and said, “Do you really want to be in this business?” and I said “Yes, I do” and he said, “I’ll keep it, then.” I learned a lot from him and we got along really well, which is unusual for a family business. I did everything he didn’t want to do, he did everything I didn’t want to do or have the talent to do. He let me make a lot of mistakes, and I learned from those mistakes.
Q: What do you find interesting about wine? Wines are constantly changing, because they’re an agricultural product. For example, every year France has a vintage, and maybe something with the weather happened, so the wines are lighter. Same thing happens in California, Argentina. You have to be pretty versatile in the wine business to know what years, areas and producers are great. That’s what you look for. It’s fun, because it’s always changing. So are other products like liquor – if you look at the bourbon explosion, tequila explosion. There are so many new products on the market it’s hard to keep up. But wine changes each year.
We constantly dedicate ourselves to learning. I send people to Chile, Argentina, France, California, to meet people who grow the grapes so they can have a personal experience when they talk to a customer. Education is big on our staff. I love sending employees around the world.
Q: What do you think are some of the best wine producers that aren’t the most well known places – Italy, France, Spain, California? Portugal. Fifteen years ago I went to Portugal, which is known for port, but I had some of the wines there and they’re very good. Not many people know about them – they didn’t export wines for a while. Now the country is starting to produce better wines, and they’re not expensive. South Africa is also producing some good wines. They’ve been around a while; when I was young, they had mainly co-ops (producing wines). Now they have small growers. Same with Portugal. And there are a lot of very good wines made in Oregon.
Q: What advice to you give to people who are interested in wine but are overwhelmed about where to begin? We do teach wine classes. Those start after Mardi Gras, and that’s where people learn about wines. They cover the basic countries and you get to taste six to eight wines per class; there’s six classes, and there’s some handouts in every class.
Drink what you like because there’s no right or wrong. Everyone has a different taste. And sometimes wines are better with food – drink wine with food.
Age: 63 Profession: President and Owner, Martin Wine Cellar Born/raised/resides: Uptown New Orleans Family (wife and kids’ names): Wife, Pamela, children: Hope, David and Ardenne Education: Louisiana State University Favorite Band: “I changed this one to talk show – I love ‘Car Talk’ on NPR.” Favorite Restaurant: No comment Favorite Food: Roasted lamb Favorite Book: Kissinger by Walter Isaacson Favorite Vacation Spot: Washington, D.C.
I enjoy watching soccer and the ballet.