Garagiste Winemakers Unite in Solvang
Small Producers Gather to Pour Rare Wines
Thursday, March 26, 2015
The most groundbreaking winemaking work is often done by the smallest of producers, as their artisanal-sized operations tend to withstand more risk and attract more adventurous customers. The hard part is finding where to taste these wines, which is why the 3rd Annual Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure this weekend in Solvang is a must-do for those in search of the next big (but small) thing.
To get a sense of the more than 60 wineries that will be pouring at events through the weekend, we present these three case studies of California garagistes. All three will be pouring at Sunday’s grand tasting, which also includes a seminar about alcohol levels in wine.
Kevin T. Vu
VINSPIRATION: Emily and Jody Brix Towe of j.brix source their riesling from Kick-On Ranch in Los Alamos (above).
Escape from the City: j.brix wines
A bottle of Bien Nacido Vineyards wine attracted San Diego County residents Emily and Jody Brix Towe into the wine business about five years ago. Today, they make about 700 cases of wine, offering a fairly vast array of varietals and styles, from pink pinot gris and sparkling riesling to syrah, grenache, pinot noir, and more.
What are your day jobs? Jody is a horticulturist, and Emily is a writer and enrollment director at a private school.
Is it challenging to live in San Diego but make Central Coast wines? The main challenge is the time on the road, especially at harvest. We spend as much time in the vineyards as possible throughout the growing season. The 5-405-101 route is so familiar that I think we could drive it in our sleep. Close to harvest time, we’ll often drive there and back in a day to check on vineyards. We do everything ourselves, including being there for the sunrise picks and trucking the fruit back to the winery, so our long days of winemaking work during harvest are just beginning after many hours on the freeway. We love it, though; it seems crazy (it might be crazy), but it works somehow.
Where do you make it? How often do you come to the vineyards? We make the wine in a shared warehouse facility in Escondido. During the growing season, we travel to the vineyards at least twice a month. Closer to harvest, it’s every weekend, and then every few days; it all depends on what the fruit is doing! We pick mainly based on flavors, so it’s really important to be there sampling the grapes often as they ripen.
How is the San Diego fruit you work with? What’s the potential for that region? We love the carignan from the one San Diego vineyard we work with, McCormick Ranch. The fact that it’s still here is somewhat miraculous; it’s around 35 years old and has been through two major fires. The vines that survived have all reverted to head-pruned, they’re scraggly and so noble, and in true carignan fashion, the fruit gets better every year now that the vines are older. We think the wine it makes is a perfect example of San Diego in a glass; warm, friendly, earthy, and grounded. It tastes like sunshine. That’s one end of the San Diego spectrum. The other is exactly that, potential: In the last few years, a lot of vineyards have been planted with careful attention paid to the site, the soil, the microclimate (there are so many microclimates in San Diego), and the varieties that work best with all of those variables. It will take some time to see what happens, but my feeling is that in five years, 10 years, you will start to see San Diego emerge as less of a curiosity and more of a true wine region.
What advice would you give to people who live and work in the city but still really want to make wine at a commercial level? This is a hard one to answer because we didn’t start out wanting to make wine at a commercial level. We just wanted to make wine — the best wine we could, and it happened, and then to feasibly keep it going, we had to take it commercial. That’s when we found out how much work was really involved in operating a winery versus just making wine. I would say be sure you do it for the love because once it becomes a business and not simply something you’re doing in your garage, your non-winemaking tasks increase exponentially. So much paperwork, on so many levels. Sales. Expenses. It can become all-consuming, so make sure it’s something you’re willing to be consumed by. (Of course, the bright side is that you do get to do a good amount of consuming, yourself …)
Crafting from Afar: Workman Ayer
Though based in Phoenix, Arizona, as an attorney, Michel Ayer comes from a long line of farmers. And his wife, whose maiden name is Workman, hails from a family that’s been in the wine business for decades. Together they make about 200 cases of wine annually, split between a white viognier wine and a red blend of syrah, grenache, and mourvèdre.
The Garagiste Fest features plenty of people, if not a majority, embarking on second careers. That goes for newbies, such as Los Angeles–based interior designer Caren Rideau, and well-known industry insiders, such as Andres Ibarra, the longtime winemaker at Rideau Winery who left in 2011 to pursue vineyard management roles. Together, they recently launched tierra y vino, focusing on wines from La Presa Vineyard, among others, under the Ibarra and caren brands.