Vandella Vineyard’s Aaron Robinson with son Gage at the Saturday Grand Tasting. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

Kaleidos Winery’s Steve and Heather Martell at the Friday Reserve Tasting. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

Marisa Matela Beverly of Bevela Wines from Santa Maria Valley. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

Riley Hubbard and her brother Quinn. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

Nora and Enrique Torres of Diablo Paso specializing in Spanish wines from Paso Robles. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

From left to right – Doug Minnick, Louisa Sawyer Lindquist, Enrique Torres, Stewart McLennan, Jeremy Leffert at the Saturday morning seminar. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

Amy Butler of Ranchero Cellars. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

Avanales Ranch wines from Paso Robles. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

Selection of Dusty Nabor wines. Photo credit Mira Advani Honeycutt.

By Mira Advani Honeycutt

The 8th Annual Garagiste Festival kicked off the weekend of November 9 and 10 in Paso Robles and Templeton. The festival has gathered such momentum over the years that this is already the 21st festival in its eight-year history. Founded in Paso Robles by winemakers Doug Minnick and Stewart McLennan, the festival has become the undisputed center of the small-lot wine movement having expanded the concept into Santa Ynez Valley, Los Angeles and this year Sonoma.

While most wine festivals are either varietal or geographically focused, this one focuses entirely on small wineries and is targeted not to distributors but rather consumers who like under-the-radar wines.

So does the number 21 mean the festival is finally growing up and crossing into adulthood? “No, we’ll never grow up!” was Minnick’s response. But he added: “It does mean that we’ve hit on something that both dedicated wine drinkers and the growing micro-winery community find valuable.”

I’ve been attending this “no black ties, no annoying crowds, where winemakers/owners themselves pour their wines” festival for several years, and its outreach and maverick spirit never ceases to surprise me. This year at the Friday night Rare & Reserve tasting held at Templeton’s American Legion Hall, with some 30 participants, I discovered several newcomers, among them Jason DiFrancesco of Leverage Wines, where I savored Trajectory, a complex blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.

DiFrancesco’s day job in the software industry takes him between Phoenix and Orange County. He stops by Paso once a month to oversee production of his wines made from fruit sourced in Paso and crafted by winemaker Aaron Jackson in Tin City. The wines are available for tasting at Templeton’s 15 Degrees C wine shop & bar. You can’t get more “garagiste” than that.

DiFrancesco also has a mission. He lost his wife to brain cancer and has now dedicated himself to supporting brain cancer research through his limited 650-case annual production of handcrafted Rhône style wines. He is “leveraging” his brand’s existence to show how wine can enhance charitable efforts and bring people together.

Then there was Adrian Bolshoi, who is from Moldova in Eastern Europe, with a Russian last name, and who speaks Rumanian and English. He arrived in California in 2011, worked at wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley and made his first Bolshoi Family Wine in 2016 in the Lompoc Ghetto. Bolshoi continues to work as assistant winemaker for Montemar Winery, while overseeing his small 250-case annual production. I tasted a promising barrel sample of his 2017 Cab/Syrah blend.

“We are super garagiste,” remarked Paul Quinn of his 150-case production of TW Fermentation Co., whose outstanding 2014 Malbec I tasted. Quinn continues his day job as head distiller at Opolo Vineyards (his father Rick Quinn founded the winery) while crafting his own label with partner James Schreiner. The team’s fruit, naturally, is sourced from the Opolo estate.

Former musicians and brothers David and Billy Vondrasek actually started winemaking in a garage in 2001, which served as their recording studio as well. “It was temperature controlled,” David assured me as I tasted his 2017 Sangiovese. By 2012, they went commercial, currently producing around 600 cases of their label Artisan Uprising each vintage, all made in Paso Robles with a tasting room in Lompoc.

Saturday activities staged at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds began with the morning seminar. Moderated by McLennan, the seminar entitled “The Rise of Spanish Varieties: Classic Grapes find a home in California” featured panelists Luisa Sawyer Lindquist, owner/winemaker of Verdad Wine in Santa Maria Valley; Enrique Torres, owner/winemaker of Diablo Paso; and Jeremy Leffert, winemaker of Croma Vera winery, the last two located in Paso Robles. The winemakers discussed vinification and harvest preferences as they showcased their Alabariño, Tempranillo and Graciano wines.

The Godfather of the now trending Albariño movement is none other than Paso winemaker Alan Kinne who claims to have imported the cuttings via DHL from Rias Baixas, Spain. The variety is gaining a foothold along the cool Central Coast region. “It’s become popular with the millennial crowd,” Lindquist remarked. “They are attracted to Albariño and Tempranillo.”

The seminar was followed by the Grand Tasting where some 60 plus wineries, mostly from Central Coast with a few from Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino, poured iconoclastic blends. While the list was heavy on Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, and GSM blends, there were some not-so-common varietal wines such as Tannat, Carignane, Teroldego, Verdelho, Touriga, Muscat Blanc, and Lagrein. The winery productions ranged from as little as 90 to as much as 1500 cases per vintage. The majority were in the 600 to 700-case annual production range.

There were a dozen or so first-time participants this year: among them, musician Aaron Robinson of Vandella Vineyards, who also built a recording studio at his Napa Valley winery that produces 200 cases per vintage. “I lay some tracks in between punch downs,” he mused as he poured the 2014 Scarrow Red, a blend of Touriga, Mourvedre, and Syrah. “It’s TSM instead of GSM,” he commented on the earthy, mushroomy, “Pinot-esque” wine fermented with native yeast.

Another unique wine I encountered, also with native yeast, was Bevela Wines’ 2012 Matela, a Teroldego that showed a snappy acidity with wisps of spice. Aged for five years, the wine comes in a pirate Rum runner bottle. Winemaker Marisa Beverly whose day job is as assistant winemaker at the esteemed compound of Au Bon Climat and Qupe wineries in Santa Maria Valley vinifies a total production of 350 cases annually, including Chardonnay and Syrah. “I have access to great fruit,” she remarked of her source — Jim Clendenen’s prized Le Bon Climat vineyards.

There were numerous impressive Sangiovese blends such as Pelletiere Estate’s — fused with Zinfandel — and Napa Valley’s Mastro Scheidt’s — blended with Cabernet. Also from Napa, Magnavita Cellars poured bold blends, the 2016 Grape Wagon, a Merlot and Zinfandel blend, and 2016 Brothers Red, a fusion of Lagrein and Refosco. At Hubba Wines, I encountered Riley Hubbard’s smoky blend of Graciano, Carignan, and Syrah.

An impressive lineup of Pinot Noirs came from such producers as Sonoma’s Montagne Russe winery and Adron Wines; Santa Cruz’s Armitage Wines; Cambria’s Cuttruzzola Vineyards; and from Paso Jennifer Hoage’s Decroux Wines made from Santa Rita Hills fruit.

Amid a sea of reds, it was refreshing to taste Dave McGee’s delightful Monochrome wines, dedicated to whites only. I tasted a deliciously floral amphora-aged Chardonnay and a fragrant neutral-oak aged Chenin Blanc, a wine poised to get some respectability by altering consumers’ perception of a grape once considered “jug wine fodder.” It’s events like the Garagiste Festival where attendees have the rare opportunity to experience the charm of this wine.

There were plenty of Rosés made from varieties such as Malbec, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and Syrah. My favorite was the strawberry-scented, pale salmon-hued Rosé of Valdiguie from Paso’s Avanales Ranch.

Observing the enthusiastic crowds and the passionate winemakers, I asked McLennan how the runaway success of the Garagiste movement might shape San Luis Obispo County’s wine history.

The co-founder envisioned the grassroots elements of the Paso Robles model expanding to other regions. “Why couldn’t we have garagiste [event] in the Finger Lakes district in New York?” he wondered. McLennan went further, suggesting a global outreach, of taking Paso winemakers internationally or inviting garagiste winemakers from France, Spain, etc. to California. “There are lots of avenues in terms of the festival side that haven’t been explored yet.”

Following up that concept, Artisan Uprising’s Billy Vondrasek noted the small-lot wine producers are “part of something special in a big picture, and we do hope to shape the winemaking community.” However, he expressed concern that he is now seeing several small producers going the way of the larger commercial wineries.

So how would you make your business profitable? I asked.

“Start a new brand,” replied Vondrasek. Which is exactly what the brothers are planning in 2019, launching Wine Cowboys, a wine that will have a mass appeal and a price point at $10-$12 per bottle. This brand won’t have the artisanal touch but will reflect the dedicated imprint of the two brothers.

“We take our wine seriously,” Vondrasek insisted. This kind of commitment and passion reflects the region’s wine growing history, shaped in part by the garagistes and other rebels following their dreams.

(This is part 2 of a two-part series. Read part 1 at Garagiste Movement.)