Winemaker Martha McClellan could be described as a vinous forensics expert, a marathoner vineyard magician, and wine brand star maker. But those glowing descriptors don’t tell the whole story about how her highly-honed, expert winemaking and vineyard management skills translate into a transcendent bottle of wine.
“I like it simple,” she modestly says. Martha’s “simple” is informed by her graduate studies at Germany’s Geisenheim University. At graduation she was one of only three women and the only American to ever earn an enology and viticulture degree there. Since then she’s gone on to make the highly touted wines of Harlan, Checkerboard, Hamel, Blankiet, Sloan, and Vineyard Seven and Eight.
Simple means direct, thorough, rigorous, and employing a broad winemaking vocabulary that gives Martha the confidence and freedom to work intuitively and highly specifically. The discipline, challenge and focus acquired through years of marathon running also inform her ability to respond to circumstance.
“Some wines have a soul and it’s about listening for it, using intuition to dig deep and find that last little piece of the puzzle,” she says. Martha is adamant about attentiveness to every detail of a vineyard and its annual changes, and adapting to them. “I know it makes people feel more comfortable to have a formula, but you can’t. The most difficult thing about winemaking is the vineyard condition. Then there’s Nature and unanticipated weather. You adjust. If you’re not water, you’re always wood. I might do just one thing differently with one barrel because that’s what that barrel needed. I’m incredibly detail oriented and tenacious, persistent—don’t say no to me!” she says, laughing.
“Shirlin Wong, ToyMaker’s founder, really supports a high level of craftsmanship that you don’t see too often; I have the authority of taking down the canopy, thinning and hand sorting fruit and choosing pick dates. Each vintage is so completely different. So I work the full year to get to this one chance to get it right, trusting my experience to make the right decisions and not second guess.”
ToyMaker’s winemaking benefits from the same high level of craftsmanship as Martha’s own Levy & McClellan wine, in which she and her winemaker husband Bob Levy are partners. “I barrel ferment like I do ours at home,” she says. “The fruit is from the same vineyard, and both wines are fermented completely dry.”
She and the ToyMaker team rigorously edit every detail not just of grape picking but down to packaging too. It was in fact Martha’s idea that Shirlin christen her wine ToyMaker as homage to her toy manufacturing father. And perhaps the fact that Shirlin herself is a big Action Figures fan and collector. The ToyMaker team readily embraced her suggestion of a whimsical and unpretentious name and image that aptly conveyed Shirlin’s idea of wine as pleasurable, and something with which to have fun.
It’s not every prominent Bordeaux collector who also houses an enviable Action Figures collection (with an emphasis on the Iron Man Marvel series). But Shirlin Wong, ToyMaker’s founder and owner, is a delightful contradiction of her parts. She grew up in Hong Kong as part of a prominent family dynasty that included her father’s toy company, and remembers as a child playing on his office floor with toys.
Fresh-faced and far from self-reverential, Shirlin, who after moving to California with her family attended her last three years of high school there, chose UC Davis’ pre-med track instead of USC’s architecture program. She then became a chiropractor, and still practices today, seeing only long-time clients who swear by her healing expertise. In between she runs Prime Cellar—Hong Kong and the greater Chinese region’s first European and California wine specialty importing company. Along with, of course, launching ToyMaker.
At Prime Cellar Shirlin utilizes the same experiential approach informing her work as a chiropractor, as these are the first Hong Kong or Chinese premium wine retail outlets offering tastings. It’s safe to say that no one else is both importing wine into Hong Kong as well as making it in California.
As ToyMaker’s owner her participation extends to blending and her hand is praised by the wine’s maker Martha McClellan. With ToyMaker she was after a wine that could be a serious player in the dense field of Napa Valley Cabernet while with its packaging convey the concept that wine should be all about pleasure. In blending sessions she knew right away where ToyMaker’s sweet spot was located.
Shirlin wanted a wine that was elegant and reflective of its roots and growing year. “It’s really hard to make a wine in Napa where you’ve controlled the sugar,” she says, and hence, the alcohol content. “The grapes will show you which way to go.” She knew she needed someone, like Martha, with the technique to create something more refined than power house. The packaging mandate was playful, not ponderous, signaling surprise and excitement about opening something new and delicious.
Shirlin drinks wine for enjoyment, always curious about new wines, and for her ToyMaker combines the idea of play and leisure with a top quality wine. It’s about doing something different, contemporary, and puncturing the affectation of the high-end wine business with whimsy. Each year’s ToyMaker label will feature a different toys, which are, after all, made to be enjoyed and gifted.
JOEL TEMPLIN & KATIE JAIN
ToyMaker Creative Directors/Founders
Joel Templin and Katie Jain have been friends and colleagues for more than 10 years and in 2007 co-founded Hatch, a San Francisco design firm. They’ve also launched JAQK Cellars, a wine brand dedicated to play. They have won many awards and are featured in the permanent collection of the SF MOMA. Together, they have innovated and created distinctive work for some of the worlds biggest brands. They are responsible for the visual identity and branding of ToyMaker, incorporating their creative experience into the brand.