Big-Time Business in the Big Easy
Martin Wine Cellar’s two locations offer gourmet foods and cheeses, dine-in bistros, party supplies, spirits and beer. And wine, lots and lots of wine.
Owner Cedric Martin has
been involved with Martin
Wine Cellar most of his life.
The store was founded by
his father and has grown to
become a food-and-beverage
landmark in New Orleans.
By Bob Keane
New Orleans is one of the leading cities of the United States, but any casual observer would be forgiven for thinking of it as a land unto itself. Founded by the French in 1717 at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the city known as the Big Easy has always danced to its own tune.
It was the site of the most decisive battle in the War of 1812, where Andrew Jackson and a force of volunteers, including the pirate Jean Lafitte, trounced an army of well-trained and disciplined British regulars, two weeks after the peace treaty had been signed. Culturally it gave birth to what’s arguably considered America’s only native art form — jazz, and includes a roster of great musicians from King Oliver and Louis Armstrong through Al Hirt and Pete Fountain on down to the Marsalis brothers and Harry Connick, Jr. And that’s not to mention the musical gumbo created by such Crescent City luminaries as Professor Longhair, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers.
Outside view of the
10,000-sq.-ft. New Orleans
Martin Wine Cellar (there’s a
second equally large store in
Metarie, a suburb of the city).
the spirits shelves (below).
And then there’s the food. Whether it’s an old classics such as Galatoire’s or the Old Absinthe House, a contemporary culinary temple like K-Paul’s, Emeril’s or Bayona, or just a down-and-dirty working man’s eatery along the lines of Mother’s, it seems impossible to get a bad meal in New Orleans.
Throughout the city’s history, beverage alcohol has been a major component of social lifeblood. Social drinking is just part of the fabric of a life well lived here. It’s not just during Mardi Gras or the oceans of Hurricanes downed at Pat O’Brien’s. This is a city where one of the classiest restaurants in town features a list of breakfast cocktails and on Bourbon Street most establishments will serve your drink in a plastic cup so you can take it with you when you leave.
This was the environment Dave Martin chose to enter the wine and spirits business in the 1940s. Looking at the Martin Wine Cellar operations in New Orleans and Metairie, LA, today it seems hard to believe the business’s humble origins.
“My father started May 24, 1946, which was a Friday,” explained Cedric Martin, who took over as president after the elder Martin retired. “The first day he was open he took in $29.95 and then the rest of the month he took in a whole $464. So he was off and running.”
That original store was roughly 12-ft. by 15-ft. and filled mostly with cigarettes, Canada Dry soda and L&J bulk wines. According to his son, at first Dave Martin had only one light bulb, which he didn’t screw in unless there was a potential customer and a cigar box as his cash register. (When he did get a real register, he used to reroll the tapes and use the backside to get double the usage.) There was no bathroom, but luckily the barbershop across the street made their facilities available.
As his business got better, Dave Martin expanded the original store until it reached its present size of about 10,000 sq. ft. and in 1989 the Martins opened a second, equally large, location in the suburb of Metairie. “One of the reasons I opened the second store was I had so many good employees that I was afraid I’d lose them if I didn’t have a place to put them,” said Cedric.
Wine, Before Its Time
At the beginning, his business may have been small, but Dave Martin’s vision had no limits and he started carrying great wines from Europe and California before there was really a great demand for them.
A few years after he started his business, Martin, who also had a wholesaler’s license, took a red-eye flight to New York City. “It was snowing that day and he had on a light khaki suit and white bucks,” recalled his son. “He went to see Col. Wildman at Wildman and Sons, who at that time had Romanee Conti, Roederer, Paul Roget, the cream of the crop from Europe. And my dad said, I’d like to handle your wines down in New Orleans.”
Wildman replied that no one was really buying those wines in that market, but if Martin would take 200 cases he could have them. The visitor from New Orleans explained he didn’t have the cash to pay for the goods, but Wildman was so impressed by his performance that he was willing to give him the wine on consignment. “It took my dad over a year to sell it and every month he sent a check. And that’s kind of how he got in the wine business,” explained Cedric.
“Then, as people began, in the late ’50s, through the ’60s and ’70s, traveling to Europe and finding these fine wines there, they’d come back and find out that my father actually had them in stock.” Throughout the 1960s Martin Wine Cellar continued to expand, both in its physical size and in the number of products that it carried. Simultaneous was the elder Martin’s expansion of his love affair with wine. He traveled extensively to the great wine regions and built a reputation for finding things before other people, like BV wines from California when their winemaker was Joe Heitz. It was due to his efforts that New Orleans became only the second city in the U.S. to host a chapter of Les Amis du Vin. According to his son, that led him to the idea of wine tastings for his customers which in turn led to wine dinners, events that Martin was among the first retailers to actively embrace.
Successful Second Generation Retailer
Like many successful second-generation retailers, Cedric Martin grew up around the business. He worked part-time in the store from an early age, eventually doing just about everything from running the printing press for private label wines, to making deliveries and working in the warehouse to making sales on the floor. Constantly exposed to his father’s passion for wine, he caught the bug as well and after graduating from Louisiana State University, studied oenology at Fresno State University. “The wine business is so exciting,” he said enthusiastically. “We’re always trying to find new producers and to find things before a national audience gets them.”
The beer aisle features a wide variety of domestic and imported brews.
In the early days of Martin Wine Cellar, Dave Martin discovered treasures in Burgundy — an area of intense focus for the business to this day — and in California. As evidence of his knack for being where the wine business was heading, he was among the first retailers to offer Concha y Toro wines from Chile and as a wholesaler he brought in the first-ever container of Australian wines. Today, as Cedric Martin continues to look for new wine frontiers to explore, he’s most excited about wines from Spain and from Argentina.
“He sort of became a guru about wine, but he was more a businessman than just wine merchant,” said Martin of his father, who passed away in 2002. “He saw trends or maybe he created trends. He knew how to buy and sell. He had a lot of horsepower. He was ahead of his time.”