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California Wine: Why Size Doesn't Matter

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There are hundreds of reasons to go to wine festivals - often that's the number of wines you can have poured into your tasting glass - but one of the best is to get to meet and hear the winemakers talk their craft. We don't get to do this enough in the world, to hear artisans talk their way through what they do. Luckily, many winemakers are loquacious, like Larry Schaffer of Tercero Wines, who at the recent Garagiste Festival held in Solvang March 28-30, let loose lines like, "The wonderful thing about wine is the answer is always, 'It depends,'" and, "With grapes as good as the ones from Larner Vineyard, I don't call myself a winemaker, I call myself a grape-herder."

Schaffer was just one of six fine panelists in the seminars that kicked off each day of the fest for those who paid the extra bucks to attend, guiding the audience through tastings of selected wines. It was a fine way to learn via one's nose and taste buds and get that knowledge confirmed via one's ears. For instance, winemaker Michael Larner talked us through his 2009 and 2010 Estate Syrahs - same vineyard, same clones, same methods. Well, except the 2010 was cofermented with some viognier (as the French often do) and the aging took place in some American oak as well as French. Turns out those differences, and a year, can be huge; the 2010 had much more of a baking spice character the '09 didn't.

Then Sunday for the pinot noir seminar, winemaker Joshua Klapper of La Fenêtre brought 2010s from two different locations about a mere 30 miles apart, one from Le Climat Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley and one from Rita's Crown Vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. Tasting the two side-by-side perfectly illustrated the typical characters of both regions - the Santa Maria more floral and light on its feet, the Sta. Rita Hills a bit more super-charged and earthy (and tannic). But as Klapper wisely pointed out about the pale yet perfect Santa Maria, "It's proof with pinot you don't need crazy amounts of color for flavor."

That was an over-arching lesson from the tastings, too, as the options for rosés in particular were varied, delicious, and often a pretty good deal, too. Many were priced under $20, which for wine made with this much care and at this small volume - no one in the festival could produce more than 1500 cases of all their wines - is a bargain. (As garagiste Adam LaZarre put it at one seminar, "Anything under 1000 cases, you're not doing it for money, you're doing it for fun.") What's most fascinating is it seems people will make a pink out of any red grape, now - there were pink pinots, grenaches, syrahs, mourvedres, even a tempranillo. If you're looking for the sweet spot that's not too sweet, with some racy acidity but plenty of fruit, it's hard to beat Tercero's mourvedre rosé to be released April 17 or the Press Gang rosé "Savanna Rhea," a wine that has to be good as winemaker Kyle Knapp named it after his wife.

Again, garagiste wines are about love, not money, and there were plenty of wines to love at the three-day fest. After all I haven't even got to discuss Vinemark Cellars' pinot noir from Paso's seemingly too hot east side (there's a huge surprise), or Scott Cellars table of distinct and yummy sangioveses (crying out for platters of Italian food), or the witty blends of Refugio Ranch, including a 2011 Inseno that's 57% rousanne, 43% viognier and able to bring both grapes into highlight at the same time. Turns out when wine really is art, it's very rarely short of amazing.

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