There are many reasons why this festival is unique: no large crowds, you’ll have a hard time finding these wines on your own, you can meet the winemakers pouring their liquid — and a rockin’ After Party.
But for me what stands out is the diversity of wines I encounter and the maverick winemakers willing to experiment with them in small lots. Think 50 cases! This is what some 700 die-hard garagiste followers experienced at the 11th Garagiste wine festival on November 12, 2022, at the Paso Robles Event Center.
Since its inaugural festival in 2011 held at Windfall Farms, Paso’s home-grown wine event, founded by Stewart McLennan (Sharperi Moon Wine) and Doug Minnick (Hoi Polloi Winery), has been on a trajectory spotlighting the micro-winery movement, now dominating the Central Coast wine scene.
Consider this: according to Wines Vines Analytics reports, the number of small, limited-production wineries along the Central Coast has more than doubled (61 percent) to 753 since 2010 with the number of limited-production wineries (under 1000 annual-case production) having grown a whopping 73 percent.
As in previous festivals, there were repeat participants at the grand tasting and a few first-timers such as James Boutzoukas, owner of Boutz Cellars. “I grew up watching my dad stomp grapes in the garage,” his son Manoli told me. But that was years ago in Tampa Bay, Florida, before they discovered Paso.
“Twelve years ago, I came here on a whim and saw the beauty of Adelaida,” recalled James. Now the family is the proud owner of two ranches in Paso’s Adelaida District with a total of 52 acres planted to Rhône and Bordeaux varieties. “We are in the infant stages of our growth,” he noted as he offered his 2019 Labrys, a smoky, bacony Cab/Syrah blend laced with black currants.
As an aficionado of Greek wines, I queried James about planting these varieties in Paso. Yes, he confirmed, he began importing in 2017 and such popular Greek varieties as Xinomavro, Moscofilero, Assyrtiko and Agiorgitiko, have been cleared by UC Davis. These have been planted on a two-acre experimental vineyard at nearby Boutz Ranch (formerly Rabbit Ridge vineyard). “We’ll see how they [Greek varieties] respond to the local climate,” said James.
Another fest first-timer was Andrew Neja who introduced the release of his Cairjn Wine Cellars, producing 500 cases annually. His portfolio includes Albariño, Syrah, Grenache and a Cab/Syrah blend. Like other garagistes, Neja sources fruit from such prestigious vineyards as Bovino and Caliza (where he does his production).
A classic French experience awaited me at Seven Oxen Estate with a selection of elegant Rhône wines. “It’s French meets Paso—it’s not overpowering,” commented winemaker Bastien Leduc who also oversees farming at Seven Oxen’s Willow Creek District vineyards. “I grow grapes the way I want to make wines, that’s the freedom I have,” Commented Leduc, whose signature style is nothing short of elegance even with big reds like Zinfandel and Mourvedre.
I was surprised to find close to 40 different varieties of grapes. Sure, there was the usual range of Rhône and Bordeaux varieties, but then there was a Torrontes from Arianna Wines, Primitivo from Caliza, Orange Muscat from Caldeaux, Touriga Nacional from Dubost Winery and Deno Wines’ signature Arneis.
There was more diversity from various California appellations at Innate Wine’s tasting table: Chenin Blanc from Santa Ynez Valley, Tocai Friulano from San Benito County, Sangrantino from Calaveras County and Pinot Blanc from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley.
I savored two delightful expressions of Cabernet Franc wines from Paso’s Estrella District: the 2019 Dracaena, aromatic and giddy with lush plum fruit from Plummer Vineyard, and the well-integrated 2019 from Alma Sol.
Alma Sol’s husband-and-wife team of John Shaw and Lisa Cuevas Shaw produce 300-400 cases annually from their 40-acre Cuevas Ranch vineyard in the Estrella District plus they source fruit from other Central Coast vineyards.
Among the spectrum of Rhône white wines, I came upon a Vermentino at Cayucos Cellars. “I got tired of Chardonnay,” said owner winemaker Stuart Selkirk. “I loved Vermentino from my travels to Italy.” The Italian variety known for its citrus profile showed a surprisingly creamy texture in Selkirk’s 2019 offering. It’s the use of native yeast, Selkirk explained, which gives the wine a round, lush mouthfeel.
Before the afternoon grand tasting, a morning seminar titled, “The Many Sides of Syrah,” explored this classic grape, a favorite with Central Coast winemakers. McLennan moderated a panel of fellow winemakers which included Minnick, Steve Martell of Kaleidos Winery and Bret Urness of Levo Wine, all discussing the range of Syrah which few other grapes can match.
Often called a “winemaker’s grape,” Syrah can thrive in diverse climatic and soil types, expressing dark and viscous characteristics from warmer regions to bright and lively flavors from the cooler areas.
And Syrah in all its glory was savored at various tables: In 2019 The Source, Copia Vineyards’ co-owner/winemaker Varinder Sahi coaxes the best out of prized fruit sourced from Central Coast’s prestigious vineyards, a wine evocative of pepper, bacon notes and a whisper of wild brush herbs.
Other superb Syrahs included Nenow Family Wines’ 2019 99 Steps which glowed with the richly textured expression of Willow Creek District; Bushong’s deep-hued 2020 Grace Syrah from Coastview Vineyard located at 2,400 elevation in Monterey County’s newest appellation of Gabilan Mountains; Songs Wines’ bold and sassy 2019 “I Got You” Syrah from Kimsey Vineyard and Seven Angels Cellars’ blue berry-kissed 2019 Syrah, a minuscule production of 71 cases.
On the lighter side at Rhônedonnée Wines was a delightful Beaujolais-style 2021 carbonic Grenache Nouveau, a drink-now wine ringing with tart pomegranate and raspberry notes. And at Sea Shell Cellars, winemaker Jeff Strekas’ nuanced touch was evident in the vibrant 2019 Collection, a classic GSM blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvede.
A runaway success, the garagiste concept sparked in McLennan’s mind when he read a piece in Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate journal where the wine guru spotlighted a few of Bordeaux’s lowly winemakers producing wine in their garages, thus the name garagiste. From its 2011 launch in Paso, the festival has expanded successfully to Solvang, Sonoma and Los Angeles.
Proceeds from the festivals support the Garagiste Festival Scholarship fund of the California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo Wine and Viticulture Department.