Drew Stofflet

Drew Stofflet

Garry Brooks followed a path from the lucrative world of IT to pinot noir production in the early 2000s. Others have done the same. The Bay Area sprouts this kind of idea. But Brooks’s story is unique to his own tune.   

With his wife Joanne as both supporter and inspiration, Brooks took on internships at Acacia and Kosta Browne, two names that could basically define California’s pinot noir industry. Under the tutelage of Mike Richmond (founder of Acacia, godfather of California pinot), along with Dan Kosta and Michael Browne (sommeliers who started a cult winery that turned the boutique pinot world upside down), Brooks began a relationship with a grape that demands full attention and a delicate sensibility.

After his internship, Brooks made a decision to go back to school and attended UC-Davis, studying viticulture and oenology. Here he gathered his knowledge, before embarking on a maiden voyage to make his own pinot noir. He would explore his sensibilities of taste, balance (and musical analogy) through winemaking trial, error and experimentation to gain the confidence necessary to compose intricate interpretations on California pinot noir.

I spoke with him this week. He began by stating that his love of pinot comes from the nuance and elegance that, to him, are like the power of the symphony, where instruments like the piccolo or light-stringed violins can soar above.

This analogous musical relationship is no coincidence. His wife’s maiden name is Note; her grandfather was a violin maker. Hence the wine’s name.

Brooks Note pinot noir has come to weave a fanciful tune from the rolling hills of western and northern Marin County. Only a handful of vineyards exist here, among bald hills of dairy farms and famous cheese-making houses, just a few miles south of Petaluma. This is adjacent to the newly created Petaluma Gap AVA, distinctive for the constant cold fog and strong Pacific winds that buffet the region through summer and harvest season. This climate allows grapes an extended hang time to develop characteristic flavors that set them apart from pinot grown in places like the Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast.

To Brooks, it all starts with pinot grown in the “correct” place: the climate sets the stage. He says he is less knowledgeable about “sense of place” when it comes to classic French Burgundy but is comfortable with his California zones. These micro-climates west of Petaluma are where it’s at.

Picking at the right time is one of the most important decisions for the winemaker to balance the acidity and brightness of the fruit with the potential power of the skins. This was taught to me also by Richmond, for pinot – more than any wine – blends the essence of the juice with the phenolics from the skin.

Brooks admits that tasting in the vineyard was not his strength (a skill we both learned much about from Richmond). He learned to balance the monitoring of brix numbers (sugar available for fermentation) with flavors and visual clues found from squishing the grapes to check for color bleed and color change in the seeds. This blustery region’s wind makes thicker skins, with more phenolics available for color/flavor/tannins; but also helps regulate the vines’ photosynthesis during the summer to keep sugar in check. Both part of the magic.

Beyond picking, the winemaker then must decide on methods. For Brooks, it is three days of cold soaking, a little kick start with proper organic yeast nutrient and a little extra added yeast, followed by gentle punch-downs. He will make a barrel of “whole cluster” wine with stem inclusion for a deeper inflection at blending. Then it is up to time. Aging the wines changes the whole makeup. “I believe you have to have a good plan from the start and an elegant hand to guide” Brooks notes.

Like any learned student, his style has evolved. For instance, his 2012 was bigger than his wines are now. Climate has also dictated some differences from year to year. The Azaya Vineyard, a site he uses for 70 percent of his Marin bottling, was frosted out in April 2015, killing the young buds and producing no fruit. He instead got grapes from two warmer sites. The wine was more plush and silky. The “accidental” results were smashing though, as the composer brought the house down with rave critical reviews. Wine Enthusiast magazine gave the 2015 Brooks Note Pinot Noir Marin County 96 points. With small production, he soon sold out.

Both humbled and excited, he talked further about the expression of his current 2016 version – which is back to the Azaya for its base wine – and about the special qualities of this area of Marin. Azaya is certified organic, and he says he is “lucky to get this fruit,” sharing it with the likes of Dutton-Goldfield, Flowers and DeLoach, all legendary pinot stalwarts. A type of wild sage grows here and the oily plant heats up in the summer sun to stain the air (and the slowly ripening grapes) with the subtle herbal essence. This gives the wine a true sense of place, in a nod to the French tradition. “Forming the back end of the wine, and combined with a ‘Carneros-like earthiness,’” according to Brooks, “this is one of the melodies that defines the wine.”

The critics have not gotten to the 2016 yet, but I have. It is scintillating and structured, with upright notes, a bed of forest floor, deep polished black cherry, not-so-ripe plum with a lingering play of tannins and herbal spice. It has a refined acidity and supple body, well short of fat and silky. I found it to be one of the most compelling pinot noirs I have had in a very long time. As compelling as a long chat with Garry Brooks.

At under $40 a bottle, this is a ridiculous value. I would love to see this wine make it to Colorado, but there is not much to go around. Check out his website if you are so inclined: brooksnotewinery.com.

Cheers! Remember: Wine reveals truth.

Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at drew.stofflet@gmail.com