Heart and Soul
the pursuit of passion, perfect and peace of mind at Maison Bleue
BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
PHOTO BY CAROLE TOPALIAN
In just four years, Prosser’s Maison Bleue has vaulted into the top tier of Washington wineries. It therefore seems hard to believe that less than five years ago, Maison Bleue winemaker Jon Martinez was living nearly 2,000 miles away, working as a successful dentist in Kansas City.
The story of Jon Martinez’ entry into the world of wine begins in an unassuming spot, working in the cheese department at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City at the tender age of 22. “We had the largest selection of cheeses in all of the state of Iowa,” Martinez says proudly. Equally important, the store had an extensive wine department. As Martinez worked with the wine steward to create pairings, he found himself increasingly intrigued by the world of wine. “I kind of caught the bug,” he says. However, as a twenty-two year old dental student, he was somewhat limited in terms of what he could afford to buy.
That problem was solved once Martinez graduated and started his dental practice in Kansas City. When he wasn’t working, he was attending as many wine tastings and events as he could to broaden his knowledge and palate. One of these tastings would eventually change the course of his life.
“Doug McCrea, he wasn’t there but his wines were,” Martinez says of Washington’s McCrea Cellars. With a love of Rhône wines, Martinez was dazzled by McCrea’s Syrahs. It was the first he had even heard of Washington State as a wine-producing region. “I had no idea what this place even looked like,” he says with a laugh.
His interest in wine fully piqued, Martinez began taking sommelier classes and reading everything he could about wine. “I probably bought like 25 different books on production, wines of the world, you name it,” Martinez says. “At that point, all I could do was read up about it though.”
That changed when a friend was establishing a vineyard and winery in Missouri and was looking for help. Martinez jumped in head first, offering to take on half of the work in the vineyard and winery as a volunteer. He also started taking courses at Missouri State and subsequently took two-year certificate courses at UC Davis and Washington State University, all the while maintaining his dentistry practice.
At the same time Martinez found his interest in wine exponentially growing, he also found his interest in dentistry waning. While he still loved the work, dealing with insurance companies was taking its toll. “I took care of my patients and staff, but the insurance companies didn’t really take care of me,” he says. Martinez knew he could have made more money by cutting corners, but it wasn’t in his DNA. “Like anything I’ve ever done in my life, I don’t cut corners. I’m a perfectionist,” he says.
Martinez soon found himself at the crossroads in his career. “I just got frustrated, and I started thinking about what I wanted to do,” he recalls. What he decided he wanted to do was make wine. For a young man with a thriving dental practice, leaving it all behind for an uncertain career as a winemaker might seem like an enormous leap of faith. To Martinez, who was and remains completely passion-driven, it didn’t seem like it. In 2008, after nine years as a dentist, Martinez sold his practice and headed west.
Martinez came to Washington with a clear set of goals. He knew he wanted to dedicate his winery to Rhône-style wines (his license plate even reads “RHONE”), and the McCrea wines had shown him that it could be done here. He also knew that he wanted to make vineyard-designated wines instead of blending across vineyards, as is typical in Washington. “I believe in terroir,” Martinez says of the elusive French concept of a sense of place in wine. “I believe that there is something distinct about certain sites. I thought, for a New World area, the best way to show terroir was going to be through consistently showing it through vineyard designates.”
Martinez already had some ideas of vineyards he was interested in working with based on the certificate course he had taken at WSU. One of them was Boushey Vineyard, whose Syrah grapes comprised one of the McCrea wines that had so impressed him years ago.
Martinez had introduced himself to grower Dick Boushey on one of his trips to the state for the WSU certificate program, and subsequently inquired about obtaining fruit. Of course, like any businessman, Boushey wasn’t willing to give away something for nothing, especially with his Syrah grapes among the most coveted in the state.
“He said ‘Well, I’ll sell you this ton of Syrah grapes if you take this little block of Grenache that nobody wants,” Martinez recalls. For Martinez, who had yet to make a wine from either grape, Grenache was a natural fit for his Rhône program. The two men shook on it.
While Martinez was now in at one of Washington’s most heralded vineyards, starting his winery would not be without challenges. “My first vintage, talk about stress!” he says. “In a matter of a few months I sold my practice. I got married. I changed careers. I moved halfway across the country, started a new business. I mean how many stressors can you put in someone’s life?”
Despite the adversity, Martinez made an immediate impression with the release of his 2008 vintage white wines. In fact, Maison Bleue may be just as well known for its whites wines, which account for 40% of the winery’s production, as its reds—something few, if any, Washington wineries can claim. However, his reds are also too good to ignore.
The Maison Bleue wines are notable not just for their extremely high quality but also for fitting in perfectly at the dinner table, part of the reason the wines have been particularly popular at restaurants. “Pairing food and wine has been part of my experience,” Martinez says of his focus on food-friendly wines. “That’s been part of the magic.”
While Martinez has been successful starting out in the wine business, let there be no mistake that Maison Bleue is a passion play. “I make these wines for myself first and foremost,” Martinez says. “Of course it’s a business and I want to make money, but this is part of my inner self, my inner being. My heart and soul are in these wines. I wouldn’t put my name and my wife’s name on the front label if I wasn’t proud of what I did.”
Now with four vintages under his belt and a bright future ahead of him, Martinez has no regrets about leaving his former career behind. “Peace of mind, happiness, that’s more important to me,” Martinez says. “I think people can be good at a lot of things in their life. But when you find something that you feel in your heart that you can excel at and be happy with, that’s what’s important.”
Sean P. Sullivan is editor of Washington Wine Report—an independent blog focused exclusively on the wines of Washington State. He has written for Seattle Metropolitan, Vineyard & Winery Management, Washington State Wine Touring Guide, and Wine & Jazz. Sullivan resides in Seattle.
Sidebar: A selection of the wines from Maison Bleue, with the stories behind their proprietary names.
***Maison Bleue ‘La Famille’ Rosé of Mourvèdre Olsen Vineyard Yakima Valley 2011
“The family” Martinez says, “It’s for my mom and dad. They’ve always wanted me to make rosé, so this is for them. Unfortunately dad’s gone but he would have loved it.”
***Maison Bleue ‘Jaja’ Red Wine Yakima Valley 2010
"An everyday wine" “Jaja is what you share with your friends that mean something to you,” Martinez explains. The only wine in the lineup that does not carry a vineyard designation.
***Maison Bleue ‘Gravière’ Red Wine Upland Vineyard Snipes Mountain 2010
“Gravel” Named after the rocky soils of Snipes Mountain, this is a southern Rhône-style blend of 75% Mourvèdre, 20% Syrah, and 5% Grenache.
***Maison Bleue ‘Liberté’ Syrah Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2009
“Liberty” Martinez says, “Dick Boushey was the first person to kind of give me the freedom to work with really high quality fruit in Washington, to give me that chance. It’s kind of for him.”