Robert Entenmann, proprietor of Martha Clara Vineyard, appears to be growing weary of reciting the fabled history of his family’s eponymous baking empire. The spry, blue-eyed, 78-year-old vineyard owner in his cluttered office overlooking the Riverhead winery’s 112 acres of planted vines clearly would like to move on. Poised to bolt from his chair, he announces: “It’s time for my exercises.” Outside, the rows of bare vines march across the snow-covered landscape like sentries.
Daughter Jacqueline, co-owner of the operation, gently asks him to hang on a few more minutes. “It’s all been said before,” he says, waving his hand, dismissing the entire topic with undisguised impatience. The “it” that Robert is referring to is, of course, Entenmann’s storied climb from a Brooklyn bakery beginning in 1898 to a leading place among the nation’s giant baked goods producers with classics, manufactured in its Bay Shore and other factories, like chocolate donuts and crumb cake. The business was sold to Warner-Lambert in 1978; it’s now owned by George Weston Bakeries. A photo in the office of an early Entenmann’s horse-drawn bakery wagon reads “594 Rogers Avenue, Flatbush;” next to it a beaming Martha Clara, Robert’s mother, hovers over a spread of Entenmann’s donuts, cakes, pies and Danish, way back when. The family’s grape-growing enterprise is named for Martha Clara, a force in her own right. For 50 years, she helped guide operations in the Bay Shore facility, and famously rendered the traditional opaque white bakery box obsolete when she invented the now-iconic packaging with a see-through window. The bakery is more than a stimulus for this winery’s nostalgia, as Robert neatly summarizes: “They’re both part of the pleasure business,” Robert says. “We’re in the business of making people happy,” echoes Jacqueline, who runs the winery’s day-today operations and works with chief winemaker, French-born Gilles Martin, on winemaking tasks like developing new blends. And though the lanky, white-maned Robert insists that he’s “glad to be out of the bakery business,” he still drops in at the Bay Shore plant where he’s a consultant to scrutinize products for defects—like icing that’s not properly applied.He’s aiming to ensure that the baked goods measure up to his exacting quality standards. “If I don’t like what I see, I say so,” he declares.
Although pastries are no longer their bread and butter, the Entenmanns are still determined to deliver the sweet life to the broadest public possible. “They’ve been involved in aroma and flavor for a long time,” says Louisa Hargrave, director of the Stony Brook University Center for Wine, Food and Culture.
From its start in 1996 on 18 acres of vines planted on what was then Robert’s thoroughbred horse farm, the vineyard now boasts 112 acres producing 14 different varietals. Chief winemaker, Martin, who hails from the Champagne region of France and who learned his wine-making skills at Université de Montpellier, is known for his expertise in Méthode Champenoise. Before signing on at Martha Clara, the boyishly handsome Martin worked for wineries in France, Virginia, and California, including the widely acclaimed Anderson Valley sparkling wine producer Roederer Estate.
His expertise is evident. “Martha Clara has very nice sparkling wines,” says Steven Bate, the executive director of the Long Island Wine Council, echoing praise garnered from critics and connoisseurs. Recent award-winners include the Alsatian-style 2004 Gewurztraminer and the Himmel and Ciel dessert wines.
Strolling through the snow-covered rows of vines (“these are my children,” Martin says), the winemaker explains that the bulk of the land, 44 acres, is planted in Merlot, with smaller plots devoted to other varietals like chardonnay, riesling, vioginer, and pinot noir—a total of 14 varietals in all. Why so many? “We did that because in the bakery, variety sells,” explains Robert.
Indeed lessons from donuts and coffee cakes are surprisingly apt, says Martin: “Mr. Entenmann realized from his bakery business that you talk to people with their palate. He understood that everybody likes different cakes, that’s why we planted so many different varieties.”
Striving for the qualities of harmony, elegance and finesse, Martin says his wine-making philosophy is “to express the quality of grapes through the terroir and bring that to the winery [so there is] a high potential for a balance of sugar and acid.”
The Entenmanns—fervent evangelists for the North Fork wine-growing region—have devised a strategy that’s calculated to win connoisseurs and the general public alike. They’re fashioning Martha Clara as a destination with attractions for the entire family, including carriage rides, concerts and cooking classes. Venues for weddings and other celebrations round out the offerings.
“They think big and they think general public,” says Hargrave. For most wineries, “families and children are not the usual approach.”
Bate agrees. “They certainly have had a major impact on the region out here. Not only are they making a range of very good wines, they’re active in innovative events and performances, bringing people out here.”
On busy weekends Martha Clara’s tasting room hosts roughly 1,300 guests, who buy about three-quarters of their bottles; the balance are distributed to outlets in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “The way to stay above the water is to have a good tasting business,” says Robert.
Of course, “the tasting business” in one form or another is what the Entenmanns have always known best. That renders the wines full of unexpected pleasures.
“The last time I opened a bottle,” says Hargrave, “it smelled just like cake.”
For Reina Anderson, who owns Henry Harde Wines in Bay Ridge with her sister, part of the fun—and pitch—of recommending a local wine is that customer can visit the vineyard.
“I’ve given lots of people directions and told them to drive out on a sunny day or even a winter day when they were looking for a trip,” said Reina, whose shop has been operating since before Prohibition, but has been selling Martha Clara wines, as well as other New York labels, for the past few years.
Of Martha Clara’s selections, the most popular has been the rose with the family beagle on the cover. “I know that people who likes dogs have bought it for the label,” Anderson said. “It’s a crisp, fresh, very easy going summer wine that tastes just like fresh strawberries. We put up the strawberry sangria recipe from the winery and it went over pretty well.” Here are some other Brooklyn wine shops that aren’t afraid to push local grapes.
WILLIAMSBURG AND GREENPOINT
301 Bedford Avenue, 718.302.3433
89 Nassau Avenue, 718.383.3131
651 Vanderbilt Avenue, 718.230.3216
The Greene Grape
765 Fulton Street, 718.797.9463
905 Fulton Street, 718.857.7952
Thirst Wine Merchants
187 DeKalb Avenue, 718.596.7643
123 Atlantic Avenue, 718.330.0963
Scotto’s Wine Cellar
318 Court Street, 718.875.5530
Zap Wines & Spirits
105 Court Street, 718.643.3395
Long’s Discount Wines
7917 5th Avenue, 718.748.6505
9314 3rd Avenue, 718.748.3686
Blanc et Rouge
81 Washington Street, 718.858.9463
Big Nose Full Body
382 7th Avenue, 718.369.4030
Prospect Wine Shop
322 7th Avenue, 718.768.1232
Red White & Bubbly
211 213 5th Avenue, 718.636.9463
Shawn’s Wine & Spirits
141 7th Avenue, 718.622.7947
SIP Fine Wines
67 5th Avenue, 718.638.6105
436 7th Avenue, 718.369.7307
CARROLL GARDENS AND RED HOOK
Smith & Vine
268 Smith Street, 718.243.2864
The original Entenmann’s delivery wagon in Flatbush.
Martha Clara winemaker, Gilles Martin, assesses a new vintage.