It’s been dubbed, “tasting nirvana” and “one not to miss” while being named America’s Best Wine Festival by USA Today. The Paso Robles-based Garagiste Festival continues to hold this status and more.

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The popular homegrown event celebrated its 9th Annual Festival at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds over the weekend of November 9 and 10. Although it’s only ten years old, the Garagiste Festival has produced a total of 25 festivals staging them so far in Los Angeles, Solvang and Sonoma. 

The Festival, a non-profit organization, supports Cal Poly’s Wine & Viticulture Program in providing annual scholarships to deserving Cal Poly students striving to be future garagistes.

Two refugees from the entertainment business originated the concept. Former actor Stewart McLennan and former music festival producer Doug Minnick got the bright idea of creating a wine festival to give voice — and, more importantly, a table — to budding winemakers crafting wine in their garages and barns.

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Trevor Iba and Chris Eberle

McLennan was inspired when he read a piece in Robert M. Parker’s “Wine Advocate” journal where the wine guru spotlighted a few of Bordeaux’s incipient winemakers producing wine in garages, thus the French name garagiste, meant as a put-down but certainly embraced by these local winemakers. ForMcLennan a garagiste himself, crafts a 200-case production of Sharpei Moon, syrah and cabernet sauvignon wines in Paso Robles, while Minnick’s Hoi Polloi label produces 900 cases in Old Town, Newhall.

Now a runaway success, the recent Garagiste Festival brought together more than 70 wineries pouring some 200 wines representing the regions of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Sierra Foothills and the Central Coast. Since its inception over 400 different wineries have poured 3,500 wines to over 11,000 wine lovers at Garagiste Festivals.

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Carol Hoyt, Skyler McNulty and Nancy Hoffman

As usual, the festival kicked off Friday night with a Rare & Reserve Paella Party held at Templeton’s American Legion Hall, attended by 200 guests. Of the 30-winery participants, there were a few that offered vertical tastings. Seven Angels Cellars founders Greg and Pamela Martin poured a vintage vertical of 2013/14/15 Chosen One, a rich and delicious GSM blend. Bushong Vintage Company’s Jason Bushong offered the 2016/17 vintages of bold and inky tannat while Arndt Cellars’ winemaker Don Arndt poured impressive varietal merlot from the 2013/14/15 vintages.

There were several Reserve wines: Rhône blends from Copia Vineyards, Kaleidos Winery and Vino Vargas; pinot noir from Sonoma’s Montagne Russe; and sangiovese from Napa’s Maestro Scheidt. Janis Pelletiere of her namesake winery poured the well structured 2016 nebbiolo Riserva and a delicious plum-laced 2017 lagrein.

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Mallory and Cameron Stoffel and Gio Grandinetti

There were a handful of sneak peeks at upcoming releases — a sparkling wine from Alta Colina, the 2016/17 vintages of lush cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley’s Greyscale Wines, Deno Wines’ GSM blends and Bordeaux varietals from Gary Kramer Guitar Cellars.

Among the whites, Monchrome Wines’ Dave McGee brought new releases of his sleek and seductive white blends and a chardonnay. Torch Cellars and Dusty Nabor Wines were others featuring chardonnay.

Saturday activities began with a seminar titled How to Taste Wine Like a Pro. The inter-active tasting experience was attended by some 150 people and conducted by wine educator Melanie Webber.

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Roger Nicolas, Claire Westaway, Kristen Thom and Aaron Guerrero

The caveat for winemakers wanting to join the garagistes group is that their annual wine production should not exceed 1500 cases. So there were plenty of minuscule wine producers at Saturday’s grand tasting attended by some 700 people.

The festival is the undisputed center of small-lot wine movement where you can find someone like Skye McLennan, a fest-newcomer who crafts mere 41 cases of Rebel Skye, a brilliant Rosé of grenache, or Ethan Etnyre of Etnyre Wines producing around 150 cases of pinot noir and syrah from his Quin’s Vineyard in Arroyo Grande.

Small lot and creative concepts are the mantras of these winemakers, most of whom work at other wineries and craft their artisanal batch wines on the side. Take Trevor Iba, an accounting specialist, and his partner winemaker Chris Eberle. The duo recently launched their Détente Wines while keeping their day jobs at Eberle Winery (Chris is not related to founder Gary Eberle).  An homage to the peace that came between East and West Berlin, the team’s concept is to ease the tension between Paso’s east side and west.

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Détente Wine

“These wines will help you achieve détente” is their motto. While the Eastern Bloc wine is a Bordeaux blend, Rhône blends are sourced from the west side.

Other newcomers I discovered —I might call them alums of the Bodega de Edgar wine school — were Aaron Guerrero of RhôneDonnee Wines, focused on Rhône varietals, and Krissy Nejedly of Nexo, making Rhône and Bordeaux style wines. Both continue  their day jobs at Bodega de Edgar Winery.

Cameron Stoffel who launched his Ultima Tulie wines with 400-case production of Rhône blends poured a bold syrah and grenache blend and an inky petite sirah. Next to him, I savored the 2018 Luck Penny, an aromatic, unfined and unfiltered malvasia bianca crafted by Gio Grandinetti of Lost Blues, whose 300-case production includes Rhône style wines and a chardonnay.

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Pamela and Greg Martin, Mark Welch and Ruthie Zinder

Then there was the Bakersfield-based San Rucci Winery, owned by the father and son team of Bill and Anthony Mertz. The dry white offered here was a blend of muscat and chardonnay produced from 70 vines in the family’s backyard in Tulare County. “It’s a lawnmower wine on a hot day,” said Anthony. I’ve heard of poolside wine, but lawnmower? Maybe that makes sense in Bakersfield.

Besides the ever-popular cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, grenache, pinot noir and zinfandel, plus a lineup of Roses, Rhône style and other eclectic blends, there were other varietals now gaining momentum with wine lovers — white wines such as albariño, arneis, malvasia bianca and chenin blanc and reds including nebbiolo, montepulciano, touriga and tannat.

There was an impressive chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon from Lasorda Family Wines (owned by Tommy Lasorda, former coach and manager of the L.A. Dodgers), wines crafted by Paso veteran winemaker Terry Culton. At Hoyt Family Cellars, owner/winemaker Carol Hoyt and her team offered viognier, Rosé of pinot noir and grenache. “Our wines pair best with friends,” mused Hoyt.

As the festival gears up to celebrate its tenth year in 2020, I asked McLennan, what’s next?

“It’s in the planning stages now,” he answered. “We’re kicking around stuff.” Solvang, Sonoma and Los Angeles will plan something special and it will build up to Paso next November while still keeping the Paso festival attendance to a manageable 700 people.

Potential plans include a franchise possibility of the Garagiste Festival. “We’d like to reach out and help others and give them the model,” McLennan suggested. “For example to people in New York’s Finger Lakes or Oregon’s Willamette Valley.”

Furthermore, why not reach out globally and invite winemakers from other countries? McLennan suggested. “Any overseas person in the same genre, making a small production of wine, but this [idea] requires a lot of reaching out and planning.”

Looking at the festival’s successful track record, going global might be within reach.