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California Wine: Tiny Production, Big Impact

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A bunch of musicians get together in the part of the house where they usually park the car, and they're just a garage band. Some folks opt to make wine in the same spot and they're garagistes, since it's wine, and the French make wine fabulous. Garagistes make fabulous wine right here in California, too, and if you want to learn more about these micro-producers, you should check out The Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure, March 28-30 at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Hall.

Last year the Festival had one Northern Exposure event in Paso Robles and one Southern in Solvang; this year the Santa Ynez festival is a three-day shindig, kicking off with a Friday pizza party at the delish Cecco Ristorante with a double-handful of wineries pouring, and then celebrating Rhone varietals on Saturday and pinot noir on Sunday. Given California produced over 200 million cases in 2012, garagiste-level makers, by their very nature artisans, tend to put out about 1200 cases a year - that's .0006% of the state's total per teensy producer. We're talking small. And generally talking very good, wineries like Kaena, La Fenetre, Liquid Farm, Nagy, Press Gang Cellars, and Tercero that I've written about before and no doubt will extol the virtues of again and again.

But this is more than anything an opportunity to find the place where the cutting edge cuts most intensely; winemakers you haven't yet heard about, let alone tasted. It's a crazy thrill of discovery.

Do watch out, though, as the winemakers all started out serious wine drinkers, as Marlow Barger of Plan B Wine Cellars in Ventura (more on that location in a bit), says, "We started doing more tastings and experimenting with various wine and began to learn the differences. One thing about wine for us was that the more we learned the more intriguing it became."

Others had backgrounds in kitchens, or perhaps farming or ranching, like culinary school grad Michael Zinke from Zinke Wines. "I have always been drawn towards the source of things," he explains, "whether it be the steak on my plate, the gasoline in my car, or the booze in my glass. Understanding how things are made really speaks to me. I spent much of high school and college as a hand on my family's cattle ranch. Those long, hot days instilled in me a love for land that will never escape me. Making wine is a direct connection to the land. The vineyards we work with share that same love for land that is very evident in our wines."

Zinke, which started with 1100 cases in 2012, makes single vineyard Rhone varietals like syrah and roussanne that Michael Zinke describes as "Something different, something sexy...We aren't afraid to try new things in the vineyard and the cellar. We are constantly trying to achieve new flavors, and new styles, without jeopardizing the natural varietal and terroir characteristics. We try to make our consumer say 'wow' whether it be out of amazement, or bewilderment." He then sums up the garagiste experience by claiming, "Conformity is boring, and we are always trying to spark intrigue."

Plan B, while sourcing grapes from Paso, Edna Valley, and Santa Barbara County, makes its wines in Ventura, where it has a tasting room and some very non-conformist aging barrels. Barger explains, "We have a roll up door that faces the west, overlooking a field with the Ventura Marina and the Channel Islands in the distance. We will often have the door open to enjoy the view and to benefit from the cool breeze that seems to always blow in Ventura. Our web guy stopped in one evening around sunset time and he was inspired by the way the light played on the barrels. He fired off a few shots with this camera and coined the phrase 'sunlit barrel room.' Talking about sun in your barrel room is a little counter intuitive, but it is an amazing time of the evening."

Ultimately, if you worry wines are cookie-cutter, you need to attend an event like this one and meet the makers, hear their stories, taste all of that personality in their unique wines. "We feel strongly that the consumer benefits from small wineries like ours because we are doing this because we are passionate about wine," is the way Barger sums up the garagiste experience. "We have no illusion about the lifestyle or building a national brand, but we are very serious about producing the best wine we can, from the best sources we can find, and strive to turn every visit into a memorable experience. Everyone needs a Plan B; this is ours, come tell us about yours."

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