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Garagiste festival reports record-breaking success 

“Illegal Blends! Garagiste Winemakers Break Old World Wine Rules.” (l-r) Doug Minnick, Jeffrey Streakas, Steve Lemley, Erick Allen & moderator Stu McLennan.

“Illegal Blends! Garagiste Winemakers Break Old World Wine Rules.” (l-r) Doug Minnick, Jeffrey Streakas, Steve Lemley, Erick Allen & moderator Stu McLennan.

Garagiste Wine Festival, held this past Nov. 11 and 12 at the Paso Fairgrounds, was the most successful ever, breaking attendance records with about 800 people and sporting the largest number of exhibitors ever pouring their artisan wines for an enthusiastic crowd of wine lovers.

Festival events kicked off Friday evening at the historic Carlton Hotel in Atascadero. The theme was “Friday Night Heaven: Rare, Reserve and Retro.” The sold-out event featured rare and reserve wines provided by many of this year’s Garagiste exhibitors, paired with gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. The 150 participants were treated to wines representing Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles, Napa, Sonoma and the Sierra Foothills.

Saturday seminars

Saturday morning started out with two seminars. First up was Adam Lazarre, the topic “A Peek Behind the Curtain of Big Wineries.” This was a thought-provoking and enjoyable behind-the-scenes look comparing winemaking of small lot “garagiste” wines to larger case production retail wines. Comparison tastings of both types of wines resulted in interesting and fun comments.

The second seminar of the day, “Illegal Blends! Garagiste Winemakers Break Old World Wine Rules” was conducted by three winemakers: Erik Allen of Ascension Cellars, Jeffrey Streakas of ONX Wines and Steve Lemley from Pulchella Winery. The seminar focused on out of the box thinking practiced by the Garagiste winemaker; of course, several tastings of different blends added to the education and fun.

Maggie & Bob Tillman of Alta Colina Vineyards.

Maggie & Bob Tillman of Alta Colina Vineyards.

The main event

The always highly anticipated grand tasting was truly grand in every aspect. Close to 70 wineries were pouring, including nearly two dozen new participants.

This is the event where wine lovers gather together, having an opportunity to meet winemakers and taste wines from small-lot artisan producers, many of whom don’t have tasting rooms. With the variety of winemakers representing a wide area of California’s Central Coast wine country, this is a singular opportunity showcasing different and unique grapes that are reflective of the soil, weather conditions and microclimates throughout the state. Of course, all the “go-to” and better known grapes are represented (either as single varietals or blends), such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite syrah, grenache, syrah, mourvedre, pinot noir, zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, etc. However, one of the most enticing aspects of wine tasting at Garagiste is discovering grapes that may not be as well known, such as: lagrein, fiano, aglianico, ugni blanc, carignane and several others. Discovering new, wonderful varietals and blends adds to the enjoyment of The Garagiste Festival.

Meeting wine lovers face to face and pouring their passionately created wine is what keeps these winemakers coming back year after year, enthusiastically supporting this event.

Nick Elliot and Elissa Salgado of Nicora Wines.

Nick Elliot and Elissa Salgado of Nicora Wines.

Carl Bowker, from Caliza winery, one of the original participants and supporters of the Garagiste Festival commented: “It is producers like Caliza, Alta Colina, and many others that show how the Central Coast and our collective craft wineries continue to produce amazing and consistent wines year after year.” Bowker emulates the true spirit of not only the Garagiste Festival, but the essence of inclusion prevalent in the Paso wine making community. Over the years Bowker has worked with several of the winemakers who pour at Garagiste (and have used Caliza grown fruit to establish their brands); this includes winemakers such as Orion Stang (Dilecta), Guillaume Fabre (Clos Solene), Brian Benson (Brian Benson Wines), Jacob Toft (Jacob Toft wines), Matt Villard (MCV), and others.

Ryan Pease of Paix Sur Terre has been an avid supporter of Garagiste. Being one of the younger up and coming boutique winemakers, Garagiste has been a great stepping stone to display his wines to the public. Pease says “working around great Garagiste winemakers like Joe Barton, Carl Bowker, Amy Butler, Bob Tillman and Jacob Toft has greatly shaped my career to this point. The Garagiste Festival is a great representation of small, artisan wine producers and we love the fact that donations are made to Cal Poly. It is a win win for all of us.”

Pam Martin of Seven Angels describes their Garagiste experiences succinctly and with humor: “We feel like we fit in perfectly with the Garagiste band of renegade winemakers. We came in through the back door, or maybe even the garage. We break rules, consider ourselves a bit unconventional and are 100-percent driven by passion, topped with a halo.”

An ample cheese and charcuterie spread provided by Vivant Fine Cheese.

An ample cheese and charcuterie spread provided by Vivant Fine Cheese.

Bob Tillman of Alta Colina was pouring their Keystone Syrah, a wine they make very infrequently, aged in 100-percent new American oak. Bob credits Scott Hawley (winemaker/proprietor of Torrin Vineyards and winemaker for Law Estate Wines) for his mentorship while starting out. Tilman loves seeing the youth, energy and enthusiasm of the young Garagistes commenting: “Garagiste is our favorite event. Attendees are the kind of people we love to pour for – keenly interested in wine, knowledgeable about wine, not ‘wine snobs’ and especially appreciative of the efforts the small producers put forth.”

Perhaps Nick Elliott of Nicora exemplifies “what” the Garagiste movement is all about. Still in his early 30’s Elliot was mentored early on by Bob Tillman of Alta Colina, and since establishing his own reputation, has mentored Stanley Barrios and Elena Martinez of TOP, who were pouring their first release at this year’s event. Elliot is a regular Garagiste supporter, stating: “I always look forward to meeting the passionate wine tasters who are seeking out small production winemakers. These are the people who understand the logistics of doing everything by hand and with extremely limited resources.”

On a personal note, over the years I have been fortunate enough to meet and become friends with many of these winemakers while they were getting their start as cellar rats or as assistants to winemakers who had already established themselves. One common trait is quite evident: The spirit of Garagiste is one of co-operation, a goal of always doing better, an appreciation of the wine enthusiast and a commitment to pay it forward. The laughter, enthusiasm, and friendliness that is found at The Garagiste Wine Festival is infectious, with many glasses lifted during the event in recognition of all the first time and long-time Garagiste winemakers, with a vision to the future and to the success of new Garagistes. Cheers to all of you!

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