Even the most astute wine-country observers can’t keep track of every new brand to hit the market in Santa Barbara County each year. That’s where the Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure comes in to shed light on the latest labels and small-batch winemakers.
Now in its seventh year, the full weekend festival is hosting 40 different garagiste winemakers — meaning their annual production is less than 1,500 total cases — who’ll be pouring more than 150 wines at various events February 8-10. Here are the stories behind just four of these passionate producers.
See californiagaragistes.com for schedule and tickets.
BOLSHOI FAMILY WINES: Adrian and Lydia Bolshoi started their brand during the 2016 harvest due to the encouragement of Adrian’s boss, Steve Arrowood, the owner of Montemar Wines. They started with one ton of Estelle Vineyard cabernet sauvignon and a half ton of McGinley Vineyard syrah.
Adrian is originally from Moldova, where he’d help his grandparents tend to their small vineyard and produce cab-based red blends. He earned a degree in enology from the Technical University of Moldova and then came to be an intern at Terravant but stayed for nearly four years. He also worked for a year in Sonoma at American Winesecrets before returning to S.B. to take the assistant winemaker job at Montemar.
Their focus is on grapes that remind Adrian of Eastern Europe, including cab, syrah, malvasia bianca (similar to the Moldovan favorite muscat), and late harvest viognier, a nod to Moldova once being the primary source of the Soviet Union’s sweet wines.
“Our last name, when translated in Russian, means ‘Big’, so we’re making bigger wines,” said Lydia, an eighth-generation Santa Barbaran whose relatives have also been involved in winemaking here. In fact, they used her great-grandfather’s hand-carved corker to put the cork in their first bottle of wine.
D. VOLK WINES: Dana Volk, who is not related to the legendary wine pioneer Kenneth Volk, started her brand in 2014 with 60 cases of pinot noir from Duvarita Vineyard. “I wrote ‘Dana’s Pinot’ on the bottle with silver Sharpie,” she said. “Family and friends managed to consume most of it before I could get a proper label on it.”
Her wine career actually began in 1996 at Edna Valley Vineyard, which led to two decades of work for Kendall-Jackson in various production roles throughout California, Argentina, and Chile. “Traveling teaches you to look at life with a different perspective,” she said. “This has allowed me to be open to new ideas, and I’m much better at problem-solving because of it. Traveling also forces you out of your comfort zone, something that is easy to get stuck in as a winemaker.”
She’s making a wide variety of wines now. “So many new vineyards have been planted in Santa Barbara County since I left the area in 1989,” she said. “Because of the geography, topography, and climate here, we are able to grow all the classic grape varieties. I’ve been like a kid in a candy store the past few years, as I don’t own a vineyard, so I am able to purchase whatever grapes I want each harvest. I do truly love syrah, though, and I make both a warm- and cold-climate syrah. Pinot is another favorite to make. Oh, and grenache, sauvignon blanc. …”
METRICK WINES: Alex Russan’s introduction to wine was while working at The Wine House in Los Angeles in 2005, but then he imported specialty coffee for a dozen years from Colombia and Brazil. In 2012, he also started importing Spanish sherry and wine, and he turned his home-winemaking hobby into a commercial enterprise with the 2015 vintage. Today, he also writes about wine for WineMaker magazine and SevenFifty Daily and recently started the California Wine School to run education sessions for tasting-room associates.
Focused on aromatic complexity, he’s gravitating toward Loire and Spanish varieties as well as chardonnay, producing lightly bodied, lower-alcohol, food-friendly wines. Much of his style comes from what he’s learned in his importing career.
“I get a pretty intimate view of how vastly different viticultural circumstances affect grapes,” he explained. “For example, working with grapes at higher latitudes, where there is less sunlight intensity, has led to my choice of having a fuller canopy to shade grapes here. I feel having less sunlight intensity further north, or more shade on the grapes here in the south, encourages more herbal and earthy characteristics in reds, and stony and citric characteristics in whites — though leaf shading has implications for tannins, so we’ll see how I develop my preferences on this.”
TEMPERANCE CELLARS: One of the few born-and-raised Santa Barbara County winemakers, Justin Charbonneau was born in S.B., raised in Lompoc, and educated at UCSB. When he returned to Lompoc in 2008, he saw how much wine had taken hold and decided to jump in. He started working at Dascomb Cellars in 2009 and is now the assistant winemaker there. In 2012, he started making his own wine, which was first released four years later. He’s making mostly pinot noir but also syrah from Meadowlark Vineyard in the Los Olivos District.
Charbonneau called the project Temperance to “honor my hometown’s humble history and highlight its unique relationship with wine and alcohol.” In 1874, Lompoc was founded as a temperance community — meaning alcohol was banned — yet is now ironically known as one of the best places to grow wine grapes on the planet. Said Charbonneau, “Temperance Cellars is about honoring our past and embracing our future and creating world-class wine.”