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Garagiste Festival 2015: Small Wine Productions, but Big on Flavor

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Two-Buck Chuck (technically, Charles Shaw) produces and sells over 13,000 cases a day. The 156,000 bottles in those cases are enough so that every man, woman, and child in a city like the size of Lancaster, could drink one bottle everyday for a year. One might not want to imagine what this would do for the future of the city if this should ever happen.

And then there are the garagistes, who often start making wine in the garage. While the term is fancy and French, those making wines at such minuscule amounts are far from fancy, and doing it for the love of it. For this definition, a garagiste has to make under 1,500 cases annually, also known as one production day for Charles Shaw before noon.

Luckily garagistes have a wonderful event where they can collectively toot their horn, and the 3rd Annual Garagiste Festival is coming to Solvang March 27-29. Here's a chance to taste wines from more than 60 wineries generally too small to have tasting rooms. The way Bret Urness from Levo Wines puts it, "I want to create art and an experience with these wines. I want people to feel like they came from somewhere personal, because that's what these wines are to me. I know it sounds a bit romantic and cliché, but when you produce as little wine as I do, it gives me the opportunity to know each barrel and lot. These wines are definitely a piece of me."

As an introduction, here are three producers who will be taking part in this year's events.

Bellissimo Cellars

We're talking small here -- perhaps 300 cases for the 2014 vintage of vineyard specific pinot noir, chardonnay, and Sangiovese from Santa Rita Hills and Santa Barbara County. "I'm a production accountant for a major reality show," says owner and winemaker Lora Marie Taylor. "That affords me the opportunity to fulfill this passion without compromising my values and I am not forced to make wine in a hurry. I am truly blessed because I receive a great deal of encouragement and support to continue with this passion."

Much of that encouragement comes from her family. "Everyone pitches in and helps out in some way during harvest and bottling," Taylor says. "It is wonderful to have the support and involvement of my family. My sons help out with hauling the fruit from the vineyards to the winery where we make the wines as well as sales and marketing. My 94-year-old mom also helped with bottling when we were working out of our garage. I have two friends who are also winemakers and they give me extra hands-on support needed during the entire process. It is definitely a family affair."

It was her upbringing that led her to winemaking in the first place. "Being from Munich and experiencing great white German wines that my mom always served us was my beginning," she recalls. "After I left home, I started tasting wines in Sonoma and the Russian River while attending college in that area. In 2008 I started going wine tasting in Santa Barbara County and a little north of there. I was fascinated and started doing research on what it would take to become a winemaker. I found that it was not that difficult so I started making wines in my garage in 2009, where I did so until 2013 when I decided to go public."

At Garagiste, she'll pour her Pinot Noir from the La Encantada Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills, a chardonnay from Arroyo Seco, and a 2012 Sangiovese from her garage days.

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Levo Wine

Bret Urness of Levo Wine is proud he won the Garagiste Big Blend Shootout in November. "The wine that won was a 2013 barrel sample consisting of petite sirah, syrah, grenache, and a little white wine. It was a really raw wine, massive, 100% new oak, and still a baby. The wine was reviewed by fellow winemakers who fortunately have a good idea about the potential a wine could have down the road (assuming I don't mess things up). So I got lucky with the crowd. I think if it was a public tasting at Walmart I would've gone home empty handed."

Urness makes bold Paso Robles wines with evocative names like Bad Medicine, Ransom, and White Lightning. From his first 2011 vintage at 100 cases, he's now up to almost a 1,000 for his 2014 vintage. The wines are made in a "small warehouse a friend's mom had on her property out in San Miguel. I took a couple of weeks and transformed the old winery from a storage unit into a small cellar. It's got AC, four walls, doors, and a 1950s Caterpillar fork lift. I'm not sure what the Napa folks would think about the space, but I think it's got a lot of character. Hopefully it rubs off on the wines a bit."

As for how he comes up with those great wine names, he explains, "I find inspiration through my daily life, long car rides to vineyards, while working out. Nature, music, film, and art are all huge influences. Then eventually the overriding factor is the individual wine, or a lot's personality that makes the final decision. The wine bottle is such a great platform to release ideas on, and so many people squander it and blend in."

He'll be pouring his 2012 Bad Medicine Syrah, a Ransom 2012 Grenache/Syrah blend, and a 2013 White Lightning that's 64% roussanne and 36% viognier about which he says, "This wine is the equivalent to drinking olive oil or honey. It's an experience for sure."

Workman/Ayer

Michel Ayer isn't just a winemaker, but a lawyer, too. When he considers the connection between the two, he says, "I think that as an attorney you are always dealing with incomplete information and trying to search for the best possible future outcome and I look at winemaking much the same way."

He's opted to do so with his family winery (Workman is his wife's name) by "getting my hands on great Rhone varietals from top Central Coast vineyards for a fraction of the price of Napa and Sonoma fruit. When I initially looked at getting into the business, I thought I might do something with Italian varietals, but after tasting some of the Rhone varietals and blends from the Central Coast, I was smitten."

His wines, not surprisingly, take their names from the legal world. His red blend, "de facto," now up to a whopping 100 cases, comes from his belief "that blending can achieve something greater than the sum of its parts. It also keeps things interesting when preparing each vintage for bottle to taste through the various lots and determine what makes the 'best' blend."

In addition to vintages of "de facto," he will pour his viognier "ipso facto," in two vintages, 2013 and 2014, both from Ballard Canyon fruit. He points out, "We don't have a tasting room, so the festival is the perfect time for us to release our new wines in addition to our existing mailing list patrons, brokers, and distributors."

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