Bordered by Sonoma to the north but otherwise surrounded by the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the bays of San Francisco and San Pablo, Marin experiences a maritime climate which creates challenging conditions for wine growers. Being exposed to the elements on all but one of its sides, the impact of strong winds and heavy fog here are significant, and subsequently many of the most successful vineyards are planted on sheltered sites near to the border with Sonoma. Cool summers by comparison with its neighbours, and milder winters on account of its unique location, mean that Marin’s grapes often enjoy a longer, slower maturation process leading to well balanced wines.
The soils of Marin County are diverse in both generosity and composition, but most vines are planted on steeper slopes with thin, sandstone or shale soils which drain freely. Complex Chardonnay varietals and light, perfumed wines from the Pinot Noir grape dominate Marin’s production, with smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier, Riesling and Gewürztraminer also cultivated and vinified here.
The history of wine in Marin County dates back to the Californian gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century and follows a similar pattern of peaks on troughs to that of other areas in the state. Initial growth was halted first by the impact and devastation of the 1906 earthquake, and second, by the passing into law of Prohibition some fourteen years later. As a result, viticulture in the county almost disappeared entirely until fairly recently.
However, today Marin’s wine industry is thriving albeit on a small scale. Many of the grapes cultivated here are brought by wineries in Sonoma and Napa, some vineyards are operated by companies with estates in these counties, and there are a number of small, bespoke, family-run operations which offer a fascinating alternative to the big brand names of the more famous Californian regions. Amongst the most intriguing is perhaps, Skywalker Vineyards, the viticultural vision of Star Wars director George Lucas, which has a little more than eleven hectares under vine and produces crisp, aromatic wines with superb varietal character.
A small county with an even smaller wine industry, Marin has nevertheless begun to garner a reputation for high quality. With some success in competition and increased media recognition, many of the winemakers here believe that it is only a matter of time before the county is regarded as one of the great terroirs for growing the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.