A monument to hard work, resilience, and a rich, full-bodied flavor, the family-owned S. Martinelli & Company has been producing quality apple juice and sparkling ciders in Watsonville for over 150 years.
Shortly after graduating from Stanford in 1979, S. John Martinelli joined the company, seeking to keep this tradition alive while propelling it to new heights. He was president of the company from 2007 to 2019 and is now the chairman of the board of directors.
Here, Martinelli asks a few questions about this much-vaunted family heirloom, his enduring love of apples, and a TikTok infatuation that got a serious bite.
Q: Many children refuse to start a family business, aspiring to start on their own. How did you end up in the fold?
A: I graduated from Stanford with a degree in economics. After 14 years of school, I was exhausted and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I went home for the summer and was super lazy. During this time, my father was always very busy. So I asked him, “What are you doing all day?” You make apple juice. It can’t be that hard! He said, “OK, wise one. Do you think it’s easy? Come spend a day with me.
Q: And that sucked you in?
A: I went with him to the factory, and oh my God, I saw that there were only a few people doing everything. … There were no computers. Everything was old and broken down. We couldn’t keep up with the business opportunities we had. I realized we needed youthful enthusiasm, and that was something I could contribute. I did not know anything about the trade, but I immersed myself in research.
Q: Your business, unlike some, embraces and touts its history. You even wrote a commemorative book for Martinelli’s 150th birthday in 2018. Why is celebrating the past so important to you?
A: This is almost all. This is who we are. The odds of a business surviving five generations are one in a million. The fact that we survived Prohibition, the Great Depression, the two world wars and a few of our own family feuds is quite impressive. What’s not to like?
Q: Martinelli Sparkling Cider is a popular item on the children’s table during the holidays, when kids drink it while adults uncork champagne. Can you explain to us why we should all stick to sparkling cider?
A: First of all, I must tell you: I love champagne. It is in the heritage of our family. Our mantra is therefore not “in place of”, but “in addition to”. The two go hand in hand and satisfy the same desire. Our sparkling cider is beautiful, shiny, festive and tingles on the tongue.
Q: Be honest. After all these years, are you never fed up with apples?
A: Certainly not! In fact, I have five apple trees in my garden. And I love grafting different varieties of apples on my trees. You can have as many varieties as there are branches. Few people realize it.
Q: OK, so what’s your favorite apple?
A: The Newtown Pippin, without a doubt. It is one of the oldest varieties of apples in America. For me, it’s the perfect apple. It has just the right balance of flavor between sweetness and acidity.
Q: Several celebrities including Michael B. Jordan, Kylie Jenner, Lance Bass and others have publicly declared their love for Martinelli on social media. What do you think of all this attention?
A: We love it, and it’s very flattering. But we’re not trying to take advantage of it, as that would almost prevent it from happening. … Although, I have to admit that I had no idea who Kylie Jenner was. I had to google it.
Q: Martinelli even inspired a weird TikTok trend that got users biting into plastic apple juice bottles because it looks like biting a real apple.
A: It was absolutely crazy – and amazing how much that boosted our product. We are unable to keep this plastic bottle in stock.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
Martinelli’s Company Store tasting bar is temporarily closed due to COVID-19 precautionary measures, but the store is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays at 345 Harvest Drive in Watsonville; www.martinellis.com