Mike Barber wasn't looking for a career in wine when he dropped into a San Francisco wine shop one day. He was just joking around. First, he was helped by a guy named Mike, followed by another guy named Mike. "What, do you have to be named Mike to work here?" Barber joked. "Why, do you want a job?" Mike asked him.
"I got into it randomly, off the street," says Barber of his 10-year stint in retail wine. Later that month, he was supposed to have flown across the world to pursue a career in museum studies, but he took the wine job instead. Starting in the warehouse, he moved on to sales and was eventually sent across the world after all to visit producers in Italy and elsewhere—even filling in for the store's whisky buyer on a trip to Scotland (perhaps inspiring a single malt rye project of Barber's that's still in the works).
With the help of friends in the East Bay wine scene, Barber began making wine commercially, and recently opened Petaluma's first off-site tasting room in Hotel Petaluma. Formerly a residential hotel familiar to readers of the police blotter, Hotel Petaluma is in the midst of an ambitious renovation: a one-time clubroom and taproom has become an outdoor courtyard again, walls have fallen to reveal a grand lobby, and Barber excavated several layers of decayed flooring to reveal original Douglas fir planks in his annex tasting room.
"We're trying to keep it local here," says Barber, who specializes in wine from the Petaluma Gap area, and honors local dairy heritage with a cheese plate and monthly "meet the cheese-maker" events. That said, he's "not a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir kind of guy," which narrows his choice of local vineyards considerably. Instead, Barber discovered Zinfandel from a Sonoma Mountain vineyard originally owned by yet another Mike—Michael Topolos. Barber named his 2013 Sonoma Mountain Zinfandel ($25) Mr. Beast after his cat, which I think is great, and I like the 2012 Mr. Beast ($25) even better, with its riper, wilder liqueur aromas.
From a neighboring vineyard, the 2014 Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) hints at Barber's "first love," Italian wines—the fruit murmurs darkly in the glass. With three hours of skin contact, the 2013 Sonoma Coast Pinot Gris ($18) shows Roussanne-like weight without excessive fruit, and the 2015 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($18) isn't just grassy, but subtly glistens like dew on grass.
On the first Thursday of the month, Barber hosts a silent movie screening after dark, with musical accompaniment courtesy of—keeping it local—a keyboard enthusiast by the name of Petaluma Pete.
Barber Cellars, 112 Washington St., Petaluma. Wednesday–Sunday, 11am–6pm. Tasting fee, $10. 707.981.7034.