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Wine Bars: SoCo Cool at Willi’s

Fri Dec 1, 2006

It takes well-honed hover and swoop maneuvers to snag a stool at Willi’s Wine Bar on a Friday night. Packed two deep and with every table inside and even those out on the heated patio filled, you would never guess this modern-style roadhouse was technically in the middle of nowhere. Way out on the north end of Santa Rosa, Willi’s Wine Bar is a local fave and it’s easy to see why: rustic charm, an inspired wine list and tasty small plates fuse with a laid-back vibe that is 100 percent Sonoma County.

I ventured out to Willi’s at the end of November, just after finishing up harvest at Pax Wine Cellars. My tasting companion and I ordered two flights of wine and then asked our bartender, Ryan, to select three small plates from the restaurant’s internationally themed menu to compliment our choices.

We began with the 2005 Adegas Gran Vinum Albariño “Nessa” from the Rías Baixas appellation in Spain. The wine had a light nose of green apple and pear with white stone, flattering to its flashy minerality and acidic blast. This wine was lovely and refreshing with a lingering finish. It’d be great on a hot day and a nice contrast to spicy food or lighter seafood dishes.

Our second wine was the 2005 Alban Vineyards Viognier, Central Coast. I had recently tried two Alban Syrahs, the 2003 Alban “Reva” from Arroyo Grande and the 2002 Alban Syrah “Lorraine Vineyard,” Edna Valley and both blew me away for their concentration, reductive smokiness and sense of place. John Alban’s vineyards and winery are completely dedicated to Rhône varietals, so I was eager to try a white. The Viognier, like Alban’s Syrahs, was unfined and unfiltered so its appearance was a bit cloudy compared to the others in our flight. Its bouquet was full of apricots and honeysuckle and it was very lush in the mouth, like lemon meringue with accents of vanilla and toasty new oak. It went well with our first dish, a delicate lobster gnocchi with smoky bacon, corn and fava beans and just a sweet touch of basil oil.

The dish paired even better with our third white, the 2005 Madam Preston, Dry Creek Valley from Preston Vineyards. The wine is a certified organic blend of Rhône varietals: Marsanne (62 percent), Rousanne (31 percent) and Viognier (9 percent) and is delightfully balanced. The nose is intoxicating with the aromas of honey and jasmine balanced by a hint of nuttiness. Pear and citrus flavors fill the mouth. The Madam Preston is an excellent food wine, it’s balance of fruit and acidity and slight heft helped it stand up to the richness of the gnocchi.

Next Ryan served us pomegranate glazed chicken meatballs with a chickpea and cucumber salad. The Madam Preston also went extremely well with this dish, the floral notes and honey balancing out the piquant pomegranate glaze and mild pepper spice of the meatballs. The dish also tasted great with the first red in our second flight, a 2004 Piancornello Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany. Made from 100 percent Sangiovese, the lighter body, mellow tannins and bright Rainier cherry flavor keep this wine food friendly and particularly suited for chicken or fish.

Our second red was the 2004 Copain Syrah from Lake County. This Syrah was thick with aromas of blackberry and black cherry and a heady, reductive smokiness that is beginning to seem characteristic of California, cool-climate Syrahs. And while the new oak on this Syrah was a bit like licking the inside of a brand new Latour barrel at first, the cardamom and cinnamon packed spice from it complimented the super-concentrated fruit well.

Our final red, from France’s Languedoc, was the 2002 Domaine Lignéres Las Vals Rouge. A blend of Syrah and Mourvedre, this was easily my favorite wine of the night. Like the Madam Preston, it showed excellent balance and was food-friendly. It paired well with our final small plate: roasted pork riblets with long beans and pineapple-quince chutney. The wine was had the sweaty Mourvedre quality, forest floor and game notes with a high-tone cherry, red currant and cocoa kick. I loved the equally wild and elegant natures of this one and thought it was an excellent way to round out the evening.

Willi’s Wine Bar
Open Sunday/Monday 5-9; Wednesday and Thursday through Saturday 11:30-9:30. Closed Tuesdays
4404 Old Redwood Highway
Santa Rosa, CA

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