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Gathering of Garagistes

Proudly Small-Time Winemakers Show Off Hard-to-Find Stuff at Paso Robles Festival


For a gourmet industry like wine, associating oneself with a garage might seem counterintuitive. Not so for garagistes, those proudly small-time producers who believe that some of winemaking’s soul can get lost in bigger wineries.

“We believe that the undiscovered artisan wine producers, or garagistes, are making some of the most thrilling wine on the planet right now, much of it right here in Paso Robles,” explained Stewart McLennan, whose Paso Garagiste organization (pasogaragiste.com) is hosting The Garagiste Festival, a first ever tasting event on November 12 at Windfall Farms. “But they have a hard time finding a large audience of passionate wine consumers and this audience has a hard time finding these winemakers. So we founded Paso Garagiste to bridge the gap.”

McLennan knows that those who make the trek to the farm, which is about 25 minutes southeast of downtown Paso Robles, will get their eyes opened to some of the more creative vintning going on anywhere. “We believe that there is some truly exciting and innovative winemaking going on under the wine radar with these smaller lot winemakers — and what is more exciting than being one of the first to discover, and experience the winemaking of, one of the future rock stars of the wine world?” he asked. “These winemakers make wine in smaller lots and have the freedom to experiment and break the rules. And because there is a greater opportunity to get to know the winemaker and truly support the brand, the experience can be much richer and go well beyond drinking wine for wine’s sake.”

To get an idea of what a guest at the first ever Paso Garagiste Festival might expect, I sent some questions and tasted wine from four participants who pride themselves on making smaller batches of wine and keeping their businesses intimate. Here’s what they had to share, both in words and in wine.

Red Zeppelin

Proprietor: Stillman Brown

Wine: Red Zeppelin Bear Valley Vineyard Monterey County Syrah 2005

Ever tasted a dried cherry coke laced with black pepper? This luscious wine makes that flavor profile sing.

Such creativity on the palette shouldn’t be surprising coming from Stillman Brown, an independent-minded sort who’s been in the business for 27 years. When asked what garagiste means to him, he quickly joked, “Poser, amateur,” then quickly corrected, “Oh wait, wrong answer! Small scale, non-industrial winemaking, lot sizes typically under three tons.”

As to why he’s opted to go small rather than stick with the big bucks of working for a coroporate winemaker, the ability to control every facet of the process is a big draw, even if fancy equipment is missing from time to time. “Juggling big lots at an industrial winery can be frustrating, as there usually isn’t enough equipment to do everything at the correct time,” said Brown. “But this is not home winemaking. The winemaker should have a thorough understanding of wine chemistry and the ‘garage’ better damn well have complete climate control!”

See redzeppelinwinery.com.

Alta Colina Winery

Proprietors: Bob and Maggie Tillman

Wine: Alta Colina GSM Paso Robles 2008

Smooth as satin, this wine’s herbal, tobacco-tinged nose is reminiscent of the Old World, but its New World berry fruitiness keeps the tongue happy.

“We literally got our start in my parent’s garage!” explained marketing guru Maggie Tillman, who’s dad Bob began by making beer and wine amongst their vehicles in the 1970s. The father-daughter duo comprise the full-time staff for the winery, which purchased a Paso Robles property in 2003, planted it in 31 acres of eight different Rhone varieties the next year, and celebrated in 2007 with their first commercial vintage. They actually sell off about 70 percent of their juice to other winemakers, but keep just enough to make about 1,000 cases, the third vintage of which came out last month.

“Being small lets us focus all of our energy on producing the highest quality wines we can,” said Maggie. “You just can’t take the time and energy to handcraft a superior product when you’re buried in hundreds or thousands of tons of grapes!”

But it’s more than that for the Tillmans. “The idea of a ‘garagiste‘ is more than just small production — it really encompasses the figure-it-out attitude that is required when it comes to small-scale winemaking without an endless checkbook,” she said. “It’s really about making the best wine possible with what we have to work with.”

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. “We only have a handful of tanks so making sure we have what we need when we need it can be a puzzle of Rubik’s cube proportions!” she explained, noting “looong” days as another hazard. “Working on a small scale is a lot of work so it’s a good thing we love what we’re doing! Working like a dog to make the best wines possible because you love it — that makes a true garagiste!”

See altacolinawine.com.

Per Cazo Cellars

Proprietors:Lynne and Dave Teckman (with help from Steve Glossner, two dogs, two cats, and two goats, the latter being acquired for a case of wine)

Wine: Per Cazo Cellars Confluent 2009

This traditional Bordeaux blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent merlot, and 10 percent can franc gave off a leather nose and the expected meaty flavor, with just enough spice to make it memorable.

You’re lucky if you get a sip, because Lynne and Dave Teckman made less than 250 cases of Confluent this year, and I still can’t wait to jump into the 2009 Epi Telos super-blend that they sent, a Rhone-led beast with zinfandel and petite sirah to back it up. Altogether, with about eight wines each year, Per Cazo — now in its fourth vintage — produces just more than 1,000 cases annually. The grapes are all from the Paso area, and the Teckmans try to find as much dry-farmed fruit as possible.

“The best part of being a small, handcrafted winery is we get to make great wine based on the vintage,” explained Lynne Teckman. “We do not have a formula that we have to follow — the fruit tells us what direction to go.” For instance, they wanted to make all blends, but then this year they went with a straight zinfandel, largely because it was 100 percent dry-farmed. It’s almost all gone already.

Garagiste just means being an artist at what your are passionate about,” said Teckman. “Whether you make wine in a garage, a custom crush facility, or some big fancy place, you better be making wine because you love it. If not it’s just a business that makes adult beverages.”

The Teckmans’ passion seems to be paying off, as she explained, “We must be doing something right since we tend to sell out every year.”

See percazocellars.com.

Les Deux Chats

Proprietors: Chris and Patty Connolly

Wine: Les Deux Chats Ripken Vineyard Lodi Roussanne 2009

This nicely light roussanne starts with a candy-like nose, followed by an expressive yet tight guava-like flavor.

It’s the handiwork of winemaker-owners Chris and Patty Connolly, who made wine for friends for 12 years before going commercial in 2009. “By keeping our production low, we are able to focus on the details and produce exceptional wines,” said Chris, who’s producing zinfandels from Paso Robles’s Benito Dusi Vineayrd (160 cases from 2010 vintage) and rousannes (190 cases) and viogniers (117 cases) from Lodi’s Richard Ripken Vineyard. “It’s hard work, but we love what we are offering, enjoy sharing it with people, and are very passionate about winemaking.”

Their 2010 viognier was also distinctive, with a honey nose and soft mouthfeel, finesseful for a wine from a graoe that can be often powerful or even abrasive in the wrong hands. Connolly chalks it up to the small-scale model.

Garagiste represents exactly who we are,” he said. “A very small micro winery producing extremely high quality wines, without a tasting room or distribution. The wines from a garagiste are primarily available by word of mouth.”

Or, if you’re smart, you can try all of these wines and many, many more at the first ever Garagiste Festival this Saturday.

See lesdeuxchats.com

4•1•1

The Garagiste Festival goes down this Saturday, November 12, at Windfall Farms, about 25 minutes southeast of Paso Robles. There are seminars, food tastings, and lots of wine to be sampled, with some proceeds going to support Cal Poly’s wine and viticulture program. See pasogaragiste.com for more info and tickets today.

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