Why Wine Bars? A Spotlight on Willi’s Wine Bar

Living in wine country, one might wonder why visit a wine bar when you can go directly to the source? With hundreds upon hundreds of wineries in Northern California, the temptation to visit different regions, appellations and wineries is great. But if it’s a widespread view of varieties across California appellations you are looking for, then wine bars are really where it’s at. You’d be hard pressed not to find a wide range of California grape varieties represented on an extensive wine list in local wine bars. One of my absolute favorites is Willi’s Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, and just so happens to be frequented by our beloved Mr. Parker when he visits the local area for his tastings and reviews.

Willi’s Wine Bar is in a bit of an odd location, situated on Old Redwood Highway kind of in the middle of nowhere between Santa Rosa and Windsor. Parking is a bit awkward and on a busy Friday night, you’ll find yourself circling the lot and waiting to poach a spot—but don’t let that deter you, because what’s waiting inside is well worth the extra effort.


The atmosphere at Willi’s on a Friday night is lively, with waiters and bartenders hustling and bustling about while wine lovers sip, eat and enjoy each other's company. Dim lighting in this cozy, but not too small setting makes for an intimate evening. What I like most about Willi’s is that you can taste across the local regions of Sonoma County, Napa Valley and Mendocino County all in one sitting. And if you’re feeling a bit more exploratory, there’s even a handful of wines from places like Marin County, Santa Cruz Mountains, Washington and the Finger Lakes in New York. Or, dive into the “Something Completely Different” category on the wine list and taste international wines from France, Germany and Australia—there’s even a wine from Slovenia.

And the list makes exploring very easy, because you can order pours in two ounces and five ounces, as well as a half or full bottle of everything on the list—except the sparkling wines, which come by the glass or bottle. The waiters and bartenders are very helpful, and will happily guide you across the list, help pick wines to your taste and even provide pairing recommendations for their wonderful selection of tapas-style small plates. And their Stölzle stemware is very fine, with numerous styles of stems suited for everything on their list.

On the list right now, I have a few international favorites from the “Something Completely Different” section. The 2015 Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage Blanc—a Marsanne/Roussanne blend—is a young beauty with peach and wet stone aromas, followed by a crisp palate with juicy acidity, buttered stone fruit, orange oil and white flower flavors. Feeding my continual fascination with obscure Italian wines, I enjoyed the 2014 Dacapo Ruchè “Majoli” Castagnole Monferrato that has lovely aromas of purple flowers, herbs and warm raspberries; on the palate, this Northern Italian red possesses a light body, high acid and earthy, red fruit characteristics. Another gem is the 2012 André Brunel Châteauneuf-Du-Pape, which boasts restrained red berry fruit on the nose with herb and meaty scents. With medium tannin, an excellent spice character and medium body, this restrained red berry-fruited beauty has more prominent notes of smoke, earth and dried leaves.

The tapas-style small plates menu consists of so many dishes that if you have never been to Willi’s, it will be hard to narrow down your choices—trust me, you will want to order everything. So, to help you out, I’ve got a handful of recommendations that I urge you to try on your next visit to Willi’s.

curried crab tacos | roasted Brussels sprouts | goat cheese fritters | Liberty Farms pulled duck BBQ

On the lighter side, go for the seriously delicious curried crab tacos that are packed with flavor, pickled onions and a touch of spiciness. For an earthy dish, go straight for the roasted Brussels sprouts with tasty linguica sausage, sweet green apples, creamy Point Reyes blue cheese and sage brown butter. And if it’s decadence you want, look no further than the goat cheese fritters with blistered cherry tomatoes, smoked paprika and heavenly lavender honey; or the hearty autumnal offering of Liberty Farms pulled duck BBQ, served in jus with a heap of perfectly cooked white cheddar polenta that will leave your mouth watering.

So next time you’re in Northern California wine country, don't just head straight for the wineries—instead, give wine bars a chance and treat yourself to a night at Willi's.

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