Monday, May 18, 2009

Martinez, Martinis, and Muir

If you were to ask someone from Martinez, California what makes the town notable, they would probably say (a) Joe DiMaggio was born and raised in Martinez, and (b) the Martini was invented in Martinez. While the first part is undeniably true, the origin of the Martini is more controversial and a bit harder to believe.

"Tell me that story about the Martini again, Joe."

I actually want the story to be true, but it's just a bit too tall of a tale. The Martinez Martini creation myth goes as follows: a miner struck it rich in the 1849 Gold Rush. While returning to San Francisco flush with new wealth, he stopped in Julio Richelieu's saloon in Martinez (on Ferry St. where the disappointingly unhistoric J T LaBeau's stands today) to celebrate with some champagne. The bartender, not having any champagne, told the miner that he had something much better called the "Martinez Special" made with 3 parts gin, 1 part dry vermouth (or sauternes in some versions of the story), and a dash of orange bitters, stirred with ice and garnished with an olive. The miner liked the drink so much that he tried to order it in a bar in San Francisco, but the bartender hadn't heard of the drink so the miner had to show him how it was made. The bartender liked the drink so much that he started serving it, and over time it caught on and eventually became known as the Martini.

Even Martini-girl doesn't know the truth

Whether this contains even a scrap of truth or not, it's a good story. What surprised me was that the name has nothing to do with Martini & Rossi, noted makers of vermouth, but the Martini clearly predates the time when Martini & Rossi started making and exporting dry white vermouth. Because obscure cocktails are currently en vogue, a drink called "The Martinez" made from gin, vermouth, bitters, maraschino liqueur, and a twist of lemon has been making a recent comeback in bars (I think I'll try it if they leave out the maraschino liqueur).

Beyond Joltin' Joe and the Martini, a local who remembers their school field trips might also mention that Martinez was the long-time home of one of the most famous and influential figures in American history: John Muir.

"Nae, Mr. Roosevelt, ye won't find me using any maraschino liqueur."

There are several ironies here that probably cause old John to turn over in his grave on a daily basis: the founder of the Sierra Club and the father of modern environmentalism lived in a city mostly known today for its ginormous oil refineries; the Muir-Strenzel property is now neatly bisected by CA Highway 4; and a statue in his honor at the corner of Alhambra Ave. and Alhambra Valley Rd. has a plaque which reads:
John Muir, 1838-1914. 'I care to live only to entice people to look at nature's loveliness'. A gift to the community of Martinez from Shell Oil Company to commemorate its 75 years in Martinez. December 6, 1990.
Speaking of John Muir's grave, this too is in Martinez (not far from the bizarre Shell Oil tribute to him), although chances are you wouldn't know it even if you grew up in the area. The John Muir National Historic Site oversees the Muir house and property, the adjacent Mt. Wanda (across Highway 4), and a small property along Alhambra Creek that contains an old pear orchard and the Muir-Strenzel private cemetery.

Blue oak woodland on Mt. Wanda

Cream sacs in bloom on Mt. Wanda

Given that there's no mention of the Muir-Strenzel cemetery on the National Historic Site's website (at least none that I can find), I have the distinct impression that the National Park Service would be happy if visitors kept to Mt. Wanda and the Muir house property and stayed away from the cemetery, probably to keep the neighbors happy. So if you go, please respect the neighbors, park a few blocks away and walk in, and be quiet and responsible so the NPS doesn't decide to close off the area.


To find John Muir’s grave:
From CA Hwy 4: Exit Alhambra Rd., turn left on Alhambra Rd., turn right onto Alhambra Valley Rd., turn left on Sheridan Rd. and park along the first (and only) block of Sheridan Rd. Walk to the end of Sheridan Rd., turn right on Strenzel Rd., and turn left into the short gravel drive leading to an open orchard. Walk across the orchard towards Alhambra Creek. The Muir-Strenzel Cemetery is hidden in a grove of tall trees just on the edge of the creek. In the map below, the red pin is the Muir grave, the blue pin is the Muir statue.


View Muir Grave & Statue in a larger map


Entrance to the Muir orchard - cemetery is hidden in the tall trees straight ahead

The Muir-Strenzel Cemetery backing onto Alhambra Creek

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