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Sip and Savor: 7th annual Garagiste Wine Festival draws a record crowd 

Bob Tillman, Neil Roberts, Stewart McLennan, Curt Schalchlin and Doug Minnick
Photos by Mira Honeycutt

California artisanal winemakers showcased in Paso Robles

-Celebrating its 7th year, the fun, friendly and unpretentious Garagiste Wine Festival kicked off its new edition with activities packed into three days over the weekend of Nov. 10 – 12. The festival is a mecca for adventurous consumers seeking under-the-radar wines. This is where they can taste — here come the stats! — over 200 wines produced from 30 grape varieties offered by 60 California micro-wineries, some producing as little as 150 cases annually.

So small the numbers and yet so huge the festivities.

I’ve been attending this festival for several years and its outreach and spirit never ceases to surprise me. This year at the Friday night Reserve tasting held at Templeton’s American Legion Hall, I discovered several newcomers, among them a wine made in Los Angeles County by Mark Byron Blatty (grandson of noted author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty).

Blatty, by day a reality television production manager, sources grapes such as syrah, cabernet franc and tannat from LA County’s Leona and Antelope Valleys, Sierra Polona and Malibu Coast and under his Byron Blatty label makes his wine in Santa Clarita. The first bottling of 100 cases was done in 2014. At the Reserve tasting Blatty offered barrel samples he called “not finished wines” of syrah and grenache that he literally blended in my glass. The finished wine obviously will be a blend of the two, a combination the winemaker will decide on at a later stage.

Mark and Jenny Blatty

You can’t get more “garagiste” than that. This certainly speaks to the Garagiste spirit and movement first recognized by Paso winemakers Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick, who founded the festival.

“We are highlighting the little people,” is McLennan’s mantra. “We are not only raising interest in this segment [of winemaking] but raising funds for Cal Poly,” said McLennan, owner of Golden Triangle wines and the poular winery and tasting room of Lefondusac in Tin City.

Meaning that Garagiste Events Inc., a non-profit organization formed to foster future education of wine industry professionals and bring attention to hard-to-find wines that usually do not have tasting rooms, raises funds at its events through ticket sales and sponsorships to benefit the Garagiste Festival Scholarship at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Clearly, the Garagiste movement has taken off since its inception in 2011.
Are you surprised, I ask Minnick. “It’s completely unique,” he replied. This is one festival not targeted to distributors but to consumers who like under-the-radar wines. “Every winemaker here is a passionate person.”

Adam and Angie Lazarre

While most wine festivals are either varietal or geographically focused, this one centers on small wineries. To qualify as a Garagiste winemaker, Minnick noted, production has to be at a 1500 annual-case production level.

During our conversation Friday night, Minnick pointed to barrel samplings of his 2016 Hoi Poloi syrah, two bottles of which he stashed behind the stage in the cavernous hall. The two Santa Barbara County syrahs were distinctly different — a black pepper and blueberry-flecked Santa Rita Hills and a garnet-hued velvety wine from Ballard Canyon.

Friday reserve tasting brought together over 30 wineries pouring their reserve wine and barrel samples for some 200 attendees. Janis Denner of Pelletiere gave a sneak peek of the 2015 vintages of Nebbiolo Riserva and Sangiovese Reserva where there’s a wonderful Old World quality to her Italian wines crafted by Amy Butler.

Patrick and Chelsea Lynch

Next, I savored Piedra Creek’s 2014 Riserva, made from the little known lagrein, a red grape variety from Italy’s northeastern region of Trentino-Alto Adige. “We have one of the oldest vineyard in Edna Valley planted by my grandfather,” said T.J. de Jony of the 34 acre vineyard. The deep colored wine with earthy notes could be compared to petite sirah.

There were some impressive older vintages — a 2005/2006 library vertical of cabernet sauvignon from Cayucos Cellars and a 2007 Reserve red blend of syrah and malbec from Volatus Wines. Lisa Miller, proprietor of Cambria-based Cutruzzola Vineyards, offered a velvety 2014 Giacomino Estate pinot noir of which only 108 cases were produced. ”We only do riesling and pinot,” said Miller of their 500-case annual production made by noted winemaker Steven Ross.

While there was a good representation of Rhône and Bordeaux blends, there were a few distinctive pinot noir wines such as Camlow Cellars’ 2014 vintage from Russian River and the Last Light Wine Company’s silky 2011 from Derbyshire Vineyard in San Simeon.

Enrique Torres of Diablo Paso Wines continues to honor his love of Spanish varieties. He poured the 2015 graciano, a bold red wine, perfect for winter. “I want to make graciano famous,” he said of this deep-colored variety from Rioja.

Holly and T.J.de Jony of Piedra Creek Winery

Saturday’s schedule kicked off with a morning seminar at the Paso Robles Event Center featurng Whites of the Rhone with panel members Bob Tillman (Alta Colina), Neil Roberts (Clavo Cellars) and Curt Schalchlin (San Liege), as this trio of winemakers demystified the grapes, exploring them individually and collectively, while addressing the wines’ age-ability among other characteristics.

The white lineup included a brilliant off-dry “no dosage” sparkling grenache blanc and an aromatic 2015 viognier, both from Clavo Cellars. Tillman introduced his pear and honey-laced 2015 “Model Citizen” roussanne. Then from Sans Liege we savored a white lily scented 2016 “Sancha” marsanne produced from Santa Barbara County’s famed Bien Nacido Vineyard and the 2015 “Cotes du Coast,” a big white viognier-driven blend.

The next seminar, Breaking Down Bordeaux, brought together four winemakers and focused on the four of the five traditional varieties individually and as a blend. Mark Wasserman of Vinemark Cellars discussed his 2014 herbaceous cabernet franc; Ryan Render of Rendarrio Vineyards shared a 2015 barrel sample of his sage-infused merlot as well as the 2014 League of Shadows, an earthy merlot-driven blend; David Vondrasek of Artisan Uprising offered the bright and fresh 2014 malbec; and an elegant cabernet sauvignon nuanced with cocoa notes from Damian Grindley’s Brecon Estate.

Lineup of white Rhone style wines at the Saturday seminar

Grindley compared the French Bordeaux varieties to Paso: French wines tend toward lower alcohol while Paso’s are more fruit-forward. “But as time goes on the two styles are getting closer.” The American palate is changing, he noted. “This kind of festival offers a range of wines and varieties for people to taste.”

Following the seminars, Saturday afternoon’s sold-out grand tasting drew a crowd of over 800 people. There was a good selection of pinot noir from Sonoma to Santa Barbara County, large numbers of Rhone and Bordeaux style blends, zinfandels (of course), a handful of rieslings, gewurztraminers and tannats a carignan from Ranchero Cellars, a cabernet franc from Silver Wines and an obscure monastrell from Paix Sur Terre.

Sierra Foothills-based Patrick Lynch produces a mere 200 cases of Rhone-style wines under the Lynch Wines label. A fireman by profession and a winemaker by hobby, Lynch got into active duty soon after harvest as one of the responders in the recent fires in Napa and Sonoma. Lynch said he was originally inspired to make his own wine as a garagiste festival attendee.

“This festival gave us confidence to do our own label,” Lynch explained.

The festival continues its success because of people like Lynch who pursue their passion. Among the weekend attendees perhaps there will be others who will soon experiment with a range of varieties and blends. As many wines as I could possibly taste at this year’s festival there wasn’t a single disappointment.

The festival continued through Sunday as the passport day where 25 local garagistes opened their garages/warehouses to ticket holders for an extended experience.

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About the author: Columnist Mira Honeycutt

Honeycutt has more than 20 years of experience as a wine consultant and wine journalist. Currently, she is the California contributor to Sommelier India Wine Magazine. Her wine and food coverage has been published in the Harper’s Bazar India, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong Tatler, The Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, Los Angeles Magazine, Los Angeles Times and www.zesterdaily.com. She was a contributing wine blogger on the highly popular Los Angeles radio station KCRW’s Good Food blog. Honeycutt is also the author of “California’s Central Coast, The Ultimate Winery Guide: From Santa Barbara to Paso Robles,” as well as the curator of the soon to be published book, The Winemakers of Paso Robles.

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