For over 150 years, the world has sipped sparkling cider from the factories of Watsonville, California. Founded by a Swiss immigrant, Stephano Martinelli in 1868, this sparkling juice brand has survived the American Prohibition and decades of societal changes. But the most astonishing part of this apple-filled story? The company is still run by S. Martinelli (well, the fourth one).
Hailing from Vallemaggia, in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, a 15-year-old Stephano Martinelli decided there was to be more to his life than the mountains. His older brother, Luigi, had left for the United States, with the promise of riches from the Gold Rush taking place in California. Packing up everything he possessed, in 1859 the young Stephano swiftly crossed the Atlantic and met up with his brother. Living on a farm in the Pajaro Valley (which would become modern-day Watsonville), neither brother had any luck in the mining industry, but they would discover another golden business opportunity—apples.
Due to the fertile soil and Californian sun, the Martinelli brothers realized that the region was perfect for growing high-quality apples. Slowly, their fruit produce business began to grow, allowing for Stephano to flex his creative side. After experimenting with different sodas and mixtures, Martinelli developed a hard cider in 1868, sourced from the apples grown on the farm. While Stephano’s and Luigi’s snackable apples had been profitable, this sparkling drink would put S. Martinelli Company on the liquor aisle map. The hard cider became widely popular, and in 1890, would go on to win a gold medal for excellence at the California State Fair, beginning a long tradition of “Gold Medal” displayed on every cider-filled bottle.
Like determining to move one’s life across the Atlantic, a pivotal moment in the company’s life occurred in the early 20th Century. By 1917, the United States was soon entering Prohibition, where all alcohol manufacturing and liquor sales would be banned. While his son, and soon-to-be successor, Stephen Martinelli Jr. was stationed far away during WWI, the elder Stephano suddenly passed away. Martinelli Jr.’s wife, Jane Leask, was tasked with not only running the company in the interim but also finding a way to save it before the company’s top product was no longer legal. Not discouraged by the enormous task at hand, Jane and her son succeeded in crafting an unfermented cider along with marketing it to grocery stores as an award-winning juice. This successful transition changed the company forever, becoming a household name at local grocers and markets across the nation. Starting as a hard cider company selling to local watering holes, Martinelli’s found its home at kid tables and adult tables alike.
Over the ensuing decades, Martinelli’s cider and sparkling cider have helped millions of Americans “drink their apple a day” in a variety of bottle shapes and sizes–including its famous “Golden Apple” bottle. Produced from a combination of Pippin, Honeycrisp, Gala, and Golden Delicious apples (just to name a few), the crafted beverages from Watsonville continue to remain a popular choice for a parched throat. Celebrating more than a century and a half in business, it appears the Martinelli brothers struck gold after all.