Co-founder Stewart McLennan (right) with winemaker Neil Roberts at the 2017 Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles. Photo Credit: Mira Advani Honeycut.
Co-founder Doug Minnick at the 2017 Garagiste Festival’s Reserve Night at Templeton’s American Legion Hall. Photo Credit: Mira Advani Honeycut.
by Mira Advani Honeycutt
The Garagiste movement, founded as recently as 2011, may be writing a major chapter in the wine history of San Luis Obispo County. Yes, Eberle and J. Lohr followed by Adelaida Cellars and Tablas Creek and now such “newcomers” as the Daou brothers and the Derbys continue to dominate the Paso Robles story. Yet the subtext to that story is one of rebellion and opposition and innovation by wine mavericks. So in Tin City, the Paso Underground and other lively hot spots of artisanal winemakers, a new wave has begun.
Some of these renegade winemakers crafting their own small brands at one time worked for the larger wineries that have shaped the county’s wine culture. Others have staked their claim in a small-lot turf in a patch here or there to create unique wine-tasting experiences. What unites them now is one of the country’s unique wine festivals.
The brain child of winemakers Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick, the Garagiste Festival grew organically as all grassroots organizations do. The non-profit Garagiste Events, Inc., produced the first Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles in 2011 with 25 winery participants. Over the years — and due to popular demand — the festivals have expanded to Santa Ynez, Sonoma and Los Angeles and participation has increased to 60-plus wineries and attendance to about 600 people.
“We provide a platform and a customer for artisanal winemakers who are working hard at their day job but following the passion of winemaking and are unable to find the audience for their product,” said McLennan when he came over to our home to give me the lowdown on this group.
“You can make all the wine you want, but if you can’t sell the wine you won’t be making wine for long,” commented McLennan. The festival has therefore become a mecca for consumers seeking under-the-radar, small-lot production of wines. “We are highlighting the little people and showcasing them to a broader audience“ is McLennan’s mantra.
This is one festival where die-hard fans can taste up to 200 different wines from more than 30 grapes varieties offered by over 60 California micro-wineries, some producing as little as 150 cases annually.
In the true spirit of garagiste winemakers, Minnick and McLennan devote their passion to small production. McLennan crafts a minuscule 200-300 annual-case production in Paso Robles. His focus with Golden Triangle wines is on 100-percent whole cluster fermentations of varietal Syrah and Cabernet and Rhône variety blends.
Minnick, who is based in Studio City, sources fruit from Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County and Sonoma for a 900 annual-case production for his Hoi Polloi label, which can be savored at his tasting room in Old Town Newhall just north of Los Angeles.
“How will today’s garagiste shape the history of San Luis Obispo County wine region,” I ask Minnick.
“We want to make sure the industry has an opportunity to thrive,” Minnick said in a phone conversation. To that extent, 80 to 90 percent of winemakers occupying tasting rooms in Paso’s Tin City industrial enclave were at previous Garagiste Festivals. “We played a role in it,” he commented on the creation and growth of Tin City.
Reflecting on the garagiste winemakers, Minnick calls it a Paso Robles and Central Coast phenomenon. “It’s most robust here,” he said. “The festivals bring attention to the entire region, nationally and internationally.”
A former actor turned winemaker, McLennan traveled back and forth from Los Angeles to Paso Robles in the early 1990s and transitioned into winemaking in 2008. Through his marketing and research he came upon the word “garagiste,” a term originated in Bordeaux.
“No one actually makes wine in a garage, but it was a derogatory term for winemakers who did not own chateâux,” McLennan mused. The name intrigued McLennan. “I’ve known a lot of people like that, myself included,” he remarked.
In the Paso area such winemakers either worked for larger wineries or, just starting, they couldn’t afford a tasting room, he noted.
McLennan brainstormed with his pal Minnick (who was in the music industry at the time) over an idea to create websites for these under-served winemakers. Minnick, who had experience shooting music festivals, suggested a wine festival instead.
“That’s how it evolved,” McLennan recalled. “We asked around and people said okay.” The criteria was that winemaker’s production should be no more than 1500 annual cases. Back in 2008, even that number was huge, McLennan noted.
“Does that include hobbyists and home winemakers?”, I ask.
“That’s not the group that sign up for the Garagiste Festival,” McLennan remarked. “The ones who get to us are savvy about marketing and want to get to an audience.”
McLennan and his team limit the winery participation to between 65-70 participants. “Because I don’t like promising what I can’t deliver.”
And what does he promise?
“Quality tasters at your table, so that you can interact and have real conversations with winemakers, you hear personal stories and there’s a visceral connection,” said McLennan. “If we are at the limit, we will turn [winemakers] away if we have to. We are very egalitarian. We send emails and it’s first come first signed up.”
Since inception, the non-profit Garagiste Events (producer of the Garagiste Festivals) has raised a total of $125,000, supporting Cal Poly’s Wine & Viticulture Program that provides annual scholarships to deserving Cal Poly students striving to be future garagistes.
To use a grape growing analogy, McLennan added, “We see this program’s students as the rootstock upon which our wine region’s bright future will be grafted.”
The Garagiste Festival takes place from November 9 to 10 in Paso Robles.
For a complete schedule, visit www.garagistefestival.com.
(This is part 1 of a two-part series. Read part 2 The 8th Annual Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles.)