When Prohibition became the law of the land in 1919, the near-immediate effect (apart from taking everyone’s favorite libations away) was economic disaster. Across the country, countless companies went out of business: breweries, restaurants and taverns closed their doors. Truckers who hauled beer lost their routes. Even barrel makers laid down their mallets. Economists estimated that the 18th Amendment would cost the federal government $11 billion in lost tax revenue.
In Watsonville, Calif., things initially didn’t look good for the family firm of S. Martinelli & Co. For 50 years, company founder Stephen Martinelli had done a healthy business making hard cider—a product that was, now, clearly dead in the water. What’s more, Martinelli was 75 years old and in poor health. Fortunately, his 17-year-old son, Stephen Jr., became possessed of a bit of foresight. Working with a professor at U.C. Berkeley, where he was a student, Stephen perfected a pasteurization process for unfermented apple juice, allowing Martinelli’s to start selling sparkling cider—basically, virgin champagne. It was light, tasty and suitable for any celebration. It also helped save the company.
Today, 86 years after Congress realized that Prohibition was a colossal mistake, company chairman John Martinelli is under no illusions about what it did for his family’s brand. “We would not have been successful had it not been for Prohibition,” he said. “It forced us to change and produce a product that consumers really wanted—and didn’t know it.”
Well, they know it now. This week, as millions of households prepare to lay Thanksgiving dinner on the table, Martinelli’s is the No. 1 brand of nonalcoholic fizz in America. It presses 1 million apples a day to make the stuff, and some 80% of it is sold during the holiday season.
Martinelli’s—now in its 151st year of business—is also getting trendy. For generations, parents would pick up a bottle of sparkling cider at the supermarket to have something celebratory that the kids could drink. (“One of the things kids like best is feeling grown up,” counsels the trend-talking Tigerchef.com, and “sparkling cider is a great way to achieve that goal.”) As Americans continue to drink less (alcohol volume fell by 0.8% in 2018, according to data from IWSR), a bottle of Martinelli’s in the fridge is increasingly a welcome sight for adults, too. “We were surprised to learn that consumers view our brand as an adult product,” Martinelli said. The company recently rolled out a blush and a rosé for just this reason.
It’s unlikely that Stefano Gaspar Martinelli could have envisioned any of this when he left his native Switzerland in 1857 to follow his brother Luigi to America. Luigi had emigrated five years earlier to chase the California Gold Rush. He found no gold, but he did find apple trees to cultivate and, in 1868, Stefano (who soon Americanized his name to Stephen) began making hard cider from them. By the end of the century, the Martinelli’s brand was winning gold medals for its ciders—medals that still appear on the bottles today.
And while Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider might not get the respect given to, say, California wines, it’s done much to deserve it. At least 12 different varieties of apple go into a bottle, from Mutsu to Jonagold to the 18th century Newtown Pippin. All of them are grown in the alluvial soils of the Pajaro Valley, where they ripen on the tree. All in all, a fine addition to any Thanksgiving table, as John Martinelli will be the first to tell you.
“People love it during the holidays,” the great-grandson of founder Stephen Martinelli said. “Our challenge is how to get people to incorporate it during celebrations the rest of the year.”