You know the legendary stories about how Apple Computers and Hewitt Packard were created in a garage, by visionaries who broke all the rules and changed an industry. Wine garagistes do the same thing. What in the world is a garagiste? Garagiste [gar-uh-zhe-stuh] is a name coined for winemakers in Bordeaux, France making small amount of high quality wines in their home garages and bucking conventional wine tradition. That innovative spirit is alive and well in the United States, particularly on California’s Central Coast. That’s where you’ll find Paso Robles, home to the first ever garagiste festival in the country.
Winemakers Doug Minnick and Stewart McLennan founded Paso Garagiste, a group that promotes, well, garagistes, their wines and winemaking efforts. To be considered a garagiste, total case production must be at or less than 1200 cases a year. That’s 144,000 bottles – not a lot of wine. By comparison many of the big name wineries produce millions of cases. It’s easy for these small winemakers to get lost in the shuffle just trying to get their labels out there.
Being labeled a garagiste is a badge of honor. “The original garagistes in France were breaking actual winemaking laws. Their counterparts here in the States don’t have to worry about that,” says Doug. “I was laughing recently when a friend poured a blend of Syrah, Zin and Cab and I forget what else. I told him that in France they would throw him in jail for a blend like that!”
Most of these labels don’t have a tasting room. Limited quantities mean you don’t see these wines on many restaurant lists or on retail shelves, especially outside of their winemaking regions. “Most of these wineries are un- or under-distributed.” Doug and Stewart wanted to change all that with Paso Garagiste, and created an event where wineries could pour for the general public, and where wine lovers could discover these wines.
On a recent Saturday in November, 44 wineries gathered in a horse stable on a sprawling farm in Paso Robles. “We had 600 logo glasses for the expected 450 attendees,” say Doug and Stewart. “At 3:00 pm all of the glasses were gone.” When they put out the “sold out” sign outside the tasting, that was “evidence that this is a movement whose time has come.” Total attendance was more like 750 people.
J Dusi winemaker Janell Dusi was one of the vintners pouring her wines for the festival goers. She is a fourth-generation grape grower in Paso Robles, having learned by working with her grandfather in the family’s Zinfandel vineyard. Janell also launched her own label, J. Dusi Wines. “I definitely started out, literally, in the garage of my grandfather’s house,” says Janell. She chose to participate in the garagiste festival, because for her 1200 case label “it is unusual and hard to showcase my small amount of wines because I have no tasting room. Garagiste was a great event to share my wines with people.” She poured Zinfandel and Carignane, a varietal gaining more attention in California. “The Carignane was definitely the highlight of the day. A Carignane revolution is forming!”
“The smaller production winemakers are the ones on the cutting edge, experimenting with new styles, blends and varietals in a way that larger wineries cannot,” say Doug and Stewart. If there’s one thing, besides producing small batch artisan wines, that garagistes have in common is “their willingness to share with fellow winemakers. Whether it is tools or techniques, there is a wonderful sense of cooperation between these folks, especially in Paso.” Case in point is winemaker Victor Abascal, a one-man band operation behind his Vines on the Maycrest label. Doug and Stewart chose him as the first recipient of the “Spirit of the Garagiste” Award. “Victor spent most of the festival escorting attendees to taste the wines of his fellow winemakers.”
Doug and Stewart hope festival attendees left with a few wine discoveries that they might not have had the opportunity to taste outside of this venue. That remains the greatest challenge for the garagistes – and Doug and Stewart say more can be done to help garagistes get their wines in front of a thirsty public. They are already making plans for a second garagiste festival next year. For Janell Dusi, participating meant gaining a new outlet for selling her wine. “I picked up a new retail shop in Dana Point, southern California, who loves to find small producers and gets behind your brand. I feel the event lit up some energy about small producers and Paso in general.”
These wines are absolutely worth the effort to find. Garagistes are indeed passionate about winemaking, and that shows in the wines. Crafting small lots of wine affords them the chance to create something truly unique. “They are independent artists, similar in a way to independent musicians, who want to follow their own path without the restrictions that often come with trying to please the largest possible audience,” say Doug and Stewart. Supporting them is crucial to their survival.
Going forward, look for garagiste wines being sold through the Paso Garagiste website. The founders are also considering taking the festival to wine growing regions outside of Paso Robles and California. “These are the most exciting wines and winemakers in the world today,” say Doug and Stewart. “They may be hard to find, but we are committed to seeking them out. We love them and we know others like us will love them too, if they get a chance to taste.”