Sonoma County region
Produces world-class wines and has an award-winning reputation
A large number of small wineries in California are dedicated to the pursuit of Bordeaux grape varietals, with the venerable Cabernet Sauvignon grape serving as the main enticement that propels their actions. The grape is relatively easy to grow (requiring only a warm climate and adequate water) and the rewards of producing a splendid crop of grapes make the fruit of the Cabernet Sauvignon the most desirous and most expensive (to buy or sell) of all varietals grown in California.
By comparison, wineries dedicated to Burgundian varietals and Pinot Noir in particular are far less common in the Golden State. The Pinot Noir varietal is much more difficult to grow, requires a much more stable climate to reach fruition, and in theory, has driven many winemakers to the brink of irrationality by producing less than desirous fruit. In fact, many experts point out that only in the past two or three decades have Pinot Noir based wines reached the quality level of their French counterparts.
The above being said, this month’s Gold Series selection, Willowbrook Cellars, is and has been since its inception, dedicated to the production of Pinot Noir. Along with its white cousin, the ponderous Chardonnay, the two varietals have been the mainstay of the Sonoma County winery.
Introduced with a small initial release in 1995, Willowbrook Cellars has consistently produced quality wines that have led to numerous accolades and high rankings from wine industry press and competitions.
Willowbrook Cellars is owned by a number of investors, six in total. One owner, John Tracy and his wife Deborah, also owns Owl Ridge Wines that specializes in making Cabernet Sauvignon and is run as a sister winery to Willowbrook Cellars.
Two decades have passed since Willowbrook Cellars’ emergence on the wine scene and the time has been good to the winery. The winery now produces in excess of 10,000 cases annually and has been favored with numerous accolades and plaudits through the years.
Through its development and some of the ups and downs of the wine industry, Willowbrook Cellars has stuck to its original mission - production of first rate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
It is our pleasure to introduce these fine wines to our Gold Series members.
Map of the area
About the Vineyard
Along with easterly neighbor Napa Valley, historic Sonoma County can arguably be called California’s premier producer of high quality grapes. It out produces Napa Valley more than two to one and currently has more than 60,000 acres under vine, most in the premium and ultra-premium range.
Geographically, Sonoma County is a plethora of exciting venues offering a diversity of climates and soils and home to practically every grape varietal grown in California. Much is made (with good reason) of Sonoma County’s maritime presence and proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Willowbrook Cellars’ two great varietals, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, thrive under the sometimes indecent foggy, rainy and windy coastal conditions that occur along the Sonoma Coastline. For some unexplained reason, both of these prominent varietals literally flourish in such inclement conditions.
Willowbrook Cellars sources its fruit from among the finest producers, mostly in Sonoma County. Among the 17 sub regions of Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley AVA is considered one of the most excellent. Willowbrook Cellars operates (since 2001) a six acre vineyard site along Burnside Road in the southwest corner of the Russian River AVA that provides the fruit for the company’s estate Pinot Noir. While considered a cool climate site, this location provides a long growing season with warm days offset by seasonal fog intruding from the Petaluma Wind Gap during the night. Grapes are generally picked at night to insure that they arrive at the winery cold and in prime condition.
More about Joe Otos
Joe Otos is only 41, but the co-owner and winemaker feels that the two decades he has spent in the California wine business have provided him with more than the usual amount of obstacles to overcome.
“It’s entirely my own doing,” he offered. “No one held a gun to my head and made me become interested in growing and making Pinot Noir. I did it because everyone said it was so hard to do and I’ve always enjoyed a true challenge.”
Joe Otos (the Greek spelling of a Norwegian name ‘Attas’) grew up in Los Angeles and had never thought of wine until he enrolled at Sonoma State and earned a degree in business. At some point, the wine bug bit Otos and caused him to follow his heart into the wine business. “I had found a part time job at Ravenswood and that introduced me to the wine business at a fairly high level,” he added.
“I began by making some wine in a friend of mine’s garage,” he recounted. “It was great fun and people seemed to like the wines I made. The part-time job at Ravenswood was a real learning experience and showed me some possibilities. Then I hooked up with Chris Loxton at Wellington Vineyards and the rest is history.”
Loxton was a disciple of the UC Davis enology program and possessed a rich resume with stints at Quivira Vineyards & Winery and Sonoma Cutrer Vineyards along with a jaunt to down under to work at well-known St. Hallet Winery in Australia’s Barossa Valley.
Loxton took on Otos as an apprentice (see Winemaker section) at Wellington Vineyards and became his mentor. The two remain great friends to this day.
“Chris taught me everything I needed to know and I eventually became the assistant winemaker. I was still quite young and he helped me decide on what areas I wanted to pursue in my wine career.”
Joe Otos made a decision (that he doesn’t regret) to pursue the elusive Pinot Noir grape and its myriad of problems. He elucidated, “I knew going in that it wouldn’t be easy, and it would take a great deal of passion and desire to become successful. The thing is, Pinot Noir is what I actually enjoy making. It is a grape whose fruit varies from year to year depending on the weather conditions and is always throwing something at you to make it more difficult. You must stay on your toes every minute of the process or the Pinot Noir will confound you. I was told when I started what I would be facing, but I always loved a challenge and making Pinot Noir has certainly lived up to its reputation.”
Joe Otos also combines his duties as winemaker at Owl Ridge Wines, a high-end producer of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But his real passion is for the Burgundian confines of Willowbrook Cellars.
“I believe that I have learned a great deal about making wine, and Pinot Noir in particular. There was a time not long ago that almost everyone believed that it was impossible to make a really top quality Pinot Noir in California. I believe it’s all in the terroir and the Russian River Valley and its magnificent fruit fulfills our need for world-class grapes,” he concluded.
Joe Otos is a most fortunate man as well as a top notch winemaker. He is able to fulfill his aspirations on an almost daily basis and his wines have garnered great acceptance as well as many accolades over the years. Were it not for winemakers like Joe Otos, California’s Pinot Noir would never have gained the level of acceptance it has enjoyed for the past two decades.
We salute this fine California winemaker for his outstanding efforts and accomplishments.
Joe Otos - Winemaker
Winemaker Joe Otos’s story is not dissimilar from many European winemakers in that he followed the path of apprenticeship in learning his profession.
“I was very fortunate when I was still in school to find a part- time job at Ravenswood Winery,” Otos recalled. “The winery was well respected and I really paid attention to what was going on.”
After graduation, Otos began making wines in a friend’s garage, and eventually landed a job with Wellington Vineyards in nearby Glen Ellen. There he met Australian winemaker Chris Loxton and the two became immediate friends. Loxton also became Otos’s mentor and eventually made him the assistant winemaker.
“I really learned a great deal from Chris,” Joe Otos admitted. “He taught me to tightly control every stage of fermentation. That experience taught me the value of consistent flavor profiles that come from a very controlled process. When I deal with Pinot Noir, the correct controls make a great difference in the eventual wine I am able to produce.”
His duties as winemaker also include the sometimes difficult job of sourcing fruit for Willowbrook Cellars’ portfolio of wines. “It isn’t always that easy and the fact that Pinot Noir is our main red varietal makes it even more difficult. I know what I am looking for but the available fruit isn’t always what I need for a particular project,” he added. “Since we make other varietals (Zinfandel and Syrah), I get to see what different fruit can provide, but I always return to Pinot Noir. That’s the challenge in our business and I truly enjoy the responsibility.”