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08.08.2011  
 

Paso to Showcase Tiny Wineries

Garagistes move to horse barn for first annual festival

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
 
Paso Garagiste Festival
 
The Paso Garagiste Festival will showcase wines from vintners that typically produce less than 1,200 cases per year. Credit: Shawn Burgert/Wandering Wino
Paso Robles, Calif.—Organizers hope to draw 40 of the Central Coast’s smallest wineries and 400 curious consumers to the first Paso Garagiste Festival on Nov. 11-12. Celebrating “undiscovered artisan producers who are making some of the most thrilling wine on the planet,” according to co-founder Doug Minnick, the event will be held at Windfall Farms, a 724-acre equestrian facility once owned by “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek.

Minnick and his partners, Stewart McClennan and Dan Erland Andersen, are more show business than wine business. Only McClennan lives in the Paso area; the other two promoters operate a Southern California video production company. Minnick said, “We’re aiming to become a year-round marketing hub for the garagistes, building a community of people who are interested” in wineries with very limited production (typically less than 1,200 cases per year).

Minnick said that Paso Robles represents the core of the garagiste movement; indeed, WinesVinesDATA lists some 127 wineries with annual production of 1,000 or fewer cases in Paso’s home county, San Luis Obispo (SLO). Some of these vintners may see even those limited quantities reduced this year: SLO was declared a disaster area after a rare spring frost event decimated vines at lower levels. Some grapegrowers lost 70%-80% of their crop; Grenache was particularly hard-hit.

Community support
The concept of the Garagiste Festival won immediate favor within the wine community. Prior to any ticket sales (to date, the price has yet to be established), 30 of 40 available tables are already reserved, thanks in part to a deliberately accessible $225 table fee. Although the festival dates were originally established to be well after crush, the bizarre and belated 2011 growing season may push harvest back and create a conflict for mom and pop operations.

“At this rate, harvest probably won’t be done by then,” said Maggie Tillman, who runs 925-case Alta Colina with her father, Bob Tillman. Nevertheless, she vowed to pour at the festival and let Bob mind the crush for a day or two.

Tillman said that, with a tasting room and wine club, Alta Colina sells about 80% of its product direct-to-consumer. “We just started putting some wine into distribution in the last three or four months,” she told Wines & Vines.

Alta Colina pours at Rhone Rangers events and for the local winery association, but, Tillman noted, small wineries must be very cautious about pouring all their wine at events. Still, she said, “You need to get your wine in front of people.” Wineries at Paso Garagiste will be able to take orders—but not physically sell bottles—at the event.

Although most of the garagistes know each other personally, many don’t have tasting rooms. Tillman said, “One of the cool things (about the festival) is that it’s a time we can taste each others’ wine, see the line-up, taste a flight.”

Atypically, Stanger Vineyard has two tasting rooms (one is shared with Olillo Vineyard). Its 1,200 case production is ultra-premium, averaging $59 per bottle retail. About half of the production is sold at high-end local and Southern California restaurants and wine shops. Owner Roger Janakus likes the venue for the fest: “This sort of thing has been tried, but never at a beautiful location like this.”

Glenna Thompson, whose 5-year-old Symbiosis Wines produces less than 500 cases annually, is a microbiologist whose Ph.D. project on aquaculture “got hijacked,” diverting her into the wine business with laboratory jobs at Fetzer, J. Lohr and others. 

She learned about the festival on Facebook, and was attracted by its limitation to artisan winemakers. “I’m a small winery. I don’t have a tasting room. I sell all my wine to restaurants, bar, friends of friends. I have to sell at wholesale, and you have to open a lot of wine to do that,” she said. The low cost was also a draw. “Most festivals are quite expensive,” she noted.

Thompson hopes to sell some wine through orders at the event. “Being so small, getting known is not so important. I want to stay small,” she said. Her operation, she noted, is all “me, me and me.”

“This is a way to gather the smaller producers, bring us all together and promote those who are working the land themselves,” said Jennifer Abascal, who owns 1,200-case Vines on the Marycrest with her husband Victor. The couple is, she said, “working on a proper tasting room,” while pouring wines at their production facility, which features a salvaged, 1960s-vintage Hyster forklift and also sells mid-century “antiques.”

“I’m hoping to draw more attention to wineries that are off the beaten track, and more respect for more grassroots approaches to the wine business,” she added. “All of the small wineries support each other, and have a lot of respect for each other. This will bring us closer together.”

The festival organizers are “three guys who love and make wine. They know a lot of small producers, and hang with us,” said Carl Bowker, owner of Caliza Winery, which this year will probably grow from 500 cases to 800. “We’re not necessarily making wine in garages,” he pointed out. Caliza has a tasting room and may, Bowker ventured, eventually outgrow the garagiste category.

Festival organizer Minnick thinks the event may also surpass its Paso roots. He would like to see it go on the road to other California wine regions where tiny wineries could use more exposure. His team is producing a series of videos about garagistes: Two are posted at californiagaragestes.com and pasogaragiste.com. The festival is seeking corporate sponsors as well.

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