Willowbrook Cellars, Marin County (California) Pinot Noir 2006 ($38): Two decades ago, when California Pinot Noirs finally gave up their overly-ambitious efforts to be dark, tannic, oaky wines in the style of Cabernet, I discovered that I actually loved them. In today's Big Wine age, as Pinot Noirs ride the wave of ever more ripeness, richness, color and power, I am having to work at enjoying Pinot Noir again. When I discovered this Pinot from Marin County recently, from a winery that I had not heard of before, I was delighted, because here was a Pinot Noir that I could just relax and enjoy.
Willowbrook Cellars is a seven-year-old winery that specializes in Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley and other cool-climate locales. It is a partnership between winemaker Joe Otos and retired technology executives John Tracy -- who owns a vineyard in Forestville, in the Russian River Valley -- and Ed Sillari. For its first two years, Willowbrook produced small amounts of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Tracy's vineyard; subsequently, Otos has branched out, seeking additional small vineyards that offer distinctive Pinot Noir fruit. The winery's current offerings include Pinots from Sonoma Coast (Kastaniah Vineyard and Dunah Vineyard), Russian River Valley, and this delicious Pinot from Marin County.
I don't recall ever tasting a Marin County wine before, and I rather doubt that I have. The county has only about 200 acres of vines, mainly family-owned by small wineries or growers. But it is a very favorable place for growing Pinot Noir. Because the county is bordered on three sides by water, winters are mild, bud break is early and the growing season is cool. The vineyard that makes this Willowbrook Pinot Noir is in the northernmost part of the county, where cool winds come in from the Point Reyes peninsula and maritime fog lingers over the vineyards.
Willowbrook 2006 Marin County Pinot Noir is dry but doesn't taste bone-dry because its pronounced black-cherry fruitiness registers at once in your mouth when you sip the wine. It is fairly full-bodied, with 14.4% alcohol, but it is not powerful, dense or extracted, as many full-bodied Pinots are. High acidity gives the wine depth and liveliness but does not detract from the wine's overall roundness in your mouth. The wine's texture falls somewhere between silky and velvety, and it is fluid rather than dense. The wine's personality is soft and gentle.
Winemaker Otos describes the aroma/ flavor profile of this wine as suggestive of an Oregon Pinot Noir -- 'mushrooms, spiced rum and hints of pomegranate.' To my palate, the wine's central flavor is black cherry with bright red raspberries operative in the background. These flavors seem spiked with a high note that brings vitality, as a squeeze of lemon can bring an edge of freshness to a bowl of berries. Maybe that's the pomegranate.
I estimate that this particular Pinot Noir will continue drinking nicely for the next five-plus years, perhaps developing more of that mushroom character along the way. For now, I recommend drinking it in the biggest Burgundy glass you have, with a perfectly roasted chicken, a mushroom risotto or grilled Chilean sea bass with fava beans.