Great wine can certainly be brewed in big batches, but when dedicated vintners spend countless hours focused on small lots, magic is made. Thanks to the recently sparked series of Garagiste Festivals — first hitting Paso Robles as an annual event in 2011 while becoming an umbrella for smaller shindigs California-wide — these quality-not-quantity wines that can’t usually be found in tasting rooms are more accessible than ever. This Saturday, February 16, Santa Barbara wine country’s under-the-radar superstars take center stage in Solvang for the first ever “Southern Exposure” garagiste tasting.

“Our whole thing is to be the evangelists for these winemakers who could use all the help they can get in reaching their audience,” explained Doug Minnick, who cofounded the festival series with Stewart McLennan. “We’re like the wine matchmakers.”

Here are seven labels to look for.

Autonom Wines: Before making pinot noir and chardonnay under the Alta Maria and Native9 labels with friend James Ontiveros in the Santa Maria Valley, Paul Wilkins worked for original Rhône ranger John Alban. He continues to make inky and powerful Rhône wines, including the 2009 Autonom blend of 70 percent syrah and 30 percent grenache — showing silk and dark fruit — and the “Law of Return,” a 95 percent grenache, 5 percent syrah sourced from the historic Nielson and Minetti vineyards.

Center of Effort: Guided by the distinct visions of San Luis Obispo County developer Rob Rossi and Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson, these tightly focused pinots and chardonnays come from a prime and historic Edna Valley estate. With the Talley family working the vines, Mike Sinor (Domaine Alfred, Byron, Ancient Peaks) as winemaking consultant, and Nathan Carlson (Eos Estate, Tolosa) as general manager, it’s no wonder the chards race with vibrant acidity and the pinots brood with cherry and black tea.

Deovlet Wines: Bouncing between Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and the Central Coast (Stephen Ross, Red Car, Sanguis) since 2004 — today working as head winemaker at Refugio Ranch in Santa Ynez — Ryan Deovlet started exploring Sta. Rita Hills pinot in 2008 with grapes from Richard Sanford’s La Encantada Vineyard. His portfolio of pinot and chard from Sta. Rita and the Santa Maria Valley is a lesson in expressing sense of place and varietal character: chards full of chalk, guava, and bright apple; pinots perfectly acidic and endlessly quaffable. Stay tuned for a 2011 Happy Canyon Bordeaux blend from Grassini Family Vineyard.

Frequency Wine Company: A couple years ago, when Almond Wasserman worked for syrah guru Joey Tensley, she realized the winemaking life might be a good fit for her brother Zac when he graduated from UC Berkeley in 2009. Today, Zac is Tensley’s assistant, and produces these rockin’ Rhônes on the side, including a complex 2011 GSM (grenache, syrah, mourvèdre blend) that’s got licorice, violet, smoke, and minerality going for it, a lip-smacking Camp 4 grenache, and a spice-racked 2010 Tierra Alta syrah.

Luminesce Wines: Former Tantara assistant winemaker Kevin Law makes pinot, syrah, grenache, semillon, and Bordeaux blends from throughout the state. And they should all be tried, if they’re anything like his intriguing 2010 pinot from the Santa Maria Valley’s Presqu’ile Vineyard, which hits the nose with earthy funk of wet dirt, moss, and mushrooms before morphing into an herbally rich, long lingering, but never overbearing flavor.

Pence Ranch: Just out of the winemaking gates is cowboy-hatted Blair Pence, owner of this newer estate vineyard on the eastern edge of the Sta. Rita Hills, where he hopes his pinot and chardonnay will come to be game-changers. His 2010 Pence Ranch bottling was lighter in color, had a welcomingly soft mouthfeel, and tended toward warmer fruits, with more spice than berry. The potential is promising.

Ryan Cochrane Wines: A former advertising executive who followed his winemaking dream when the economy tanked, Ryan Cochrane began apprenticing under Roger Nicolas at RN Estate Vineyard in Paso in July 2009. By 2010, he was making 25 cases of his own pinot from the Sta. Rita Hills in the DEY (do everything yourself) style, graduating to 75 cases in 2011, adding a Santa Maria Valley vineyard for 2012. His 2011 daintily dances across the tongue with zing, playing with the tarter, cranberry side of pinot and serving as a refreshing wine that’s hard to stop drinking.


The Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure is Saturday, February 16 (VIP starts at 11 a.m., general public 2-5 p.m.), at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Hall. See or call (888) 795-4972.


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