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Small Production in the Wild Wine West

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As a garagiste winemaker, one can fly under radar and flout laws. That's one of the freedoms of being small. The 3rd Annual Garagiste Festival held in Solvang at the end of March made that clear over and over. For instance, Dan Kessler of Kessler-Haak Vineyards, on the panel "The Diversity of Sta. Rita Hills AVA: It's Not All Pinot and Chardonnay," poured one of his pinots anyway. He can be forgiven as the estate 2010 was a beautiful wine, fruity, earthy, and everything one wants a Sta. Rita Hills pinot to be. Might as well claim that and help us see baselines.

Kessler also shared a 2011 dry Riesling, a crazy good bargain at $20 retail, from one of the region's founding sites, the Lafond Vineyard planted in 1972. That's old for Santa Barbara and lends itself to grapes that make graceful wines. This Reisling was bone dry, and since it had a bit of bottle age, its aromatics increased too, offering that whiff of petrol that's oddly enticing (and not like you've just pulled into the gas station).

Peter Work, owner of Ampelos Cellars and co-panelist, offered a gem that summed up the joys of working with wine in California, saying, "There are things we do here that we'd go straight to jail for in France." It really is the Wild West, and someone can blend grapes as they see fit or try a different method if they so desire, especially when making such small amounts of wine. (Work poured a 2014 viognier, full of stone fruit but not over the top, for which the notes say "cases produced, very limited" -- that's small to the point that it's not even counted.)

Then winemakers can follow their flavor profile passions, too. Third panelist Chad Melville poured two of his Samsara Wine Company syrahs -- a 2011 from Melville Vineyard and a 2012 from Zotovich. Melville likes a layer of green peppercorn in his syrahs and these bottles delivered just that, especially the Zotovich. (Perhaps these would go great with Mexican food?) It turns out he likes working with whole clusters -- that means including the stems, too, which he actually tastes in the vineyard. Those stems do what other winemakers do with oak barrels, he says.

Out in the tasting room on Saturday, it seemed that one could find a wine for any mood or food. Among its strong slate of Bordeaux varietals, Baehner Fournier Vineyards makes petit verdot as a stand alone, arguing that the grape is not just for blending. Lush and a bit wild, it has pleasing spice and cocoa notes.

As for messing with the rules, it was hard to top Crawford Family Wines 2014 rosé that's 70% pinot noir and 30% Grenache. As winemaker and owner Mark Crawford Horvath suggested, the pinot needed a bit of oomph and the Grenache just seemed to work. It adds up to a unique varietal mix that lends the best of both grapes to a refreshing pink wine.

Then there's Solminer, which partially focuses on Austrian grapes, as the wife of the couple who own the winery, Anna deLaski, comes from Austria. That means her husband David, who is also a DJ and owned L.A.-based label Plug Research, decided to make a Gruner Veltliner with winemaker Steve Clifton. (Clifton, who owns Palmina Wines and co-owns Brewer-Clifton, also works with Baehner Fournier, so it's no surprise his consulting touch is always so deft.) This particular Gruner is the driest I've ever tasted with all the usual Gruner green apple. Exquisite.

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