Leave it to the Garagiste Festival, California’s most adventurous wine tasting experience, to focus a spotlight on the one area in the state few if any oenophiles ever think about when raising a wine glass — Los Angeles County.
Yes, you read that right. At the Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure’s sixth anniversary in L.A. County — and the first in the city of Glendale — organizers selected for its theme L.A.’s nearly forgotten wine heritage and the very recent revival of its wine industry.
California’s wine history began, first with the Spanish missions, particularly Mission San Gabriel, and then in the isolated pueblo of Los Angeles with the arrival in 1831 of French-born Jean Louis Vignes, whose goal was to plant cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc vines he brought with him from Bordeaux. By 1850, his vineyard and El Aliso winery, located in downtown LA (near today’s Union Station), was producing 150,000 bottles annually, making it the first commercial winery in California.
The Southern California area was soon home to some 100 wineries spread around San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys, Anaheim, Rancho Cucamonga, Temecula and Malibu. The original L.A. city seal bears the image of two leaves around a grape cluster (1854-1905). For a population of only 4,000 in L.A. County, 2 million bottles were produced in 1859, which one astonished festival-goer remarked was a most favorable ratio of wine to consumers.
But Pierce’s Disease decimated vineyards in the L.A. basin in the 1880s and the following century witnessed the scourge of Prohibition and vast urbanization in Southern California, which all but wiped out L.A. County’s vineyards.
The county’s wine heritage is experiencing a comeback, however, spearheaded by a fiercely dedicated bunch of urban winemakers. And who better to showcase their efforts than the Garagiste Festival? Founded in 2011 by vintners Stewart McLennan, Doug Minnick and Lisa Dinsmore, a festival that took route in Paso Robles today prides itself on shining a light on the passionate spirit of maverick winemakers everywhere in the state.
The two-day festival kicked off with a rare and reserve tasting followed by a Saturday morning seminar and afternoon grand tasting featuring some 50 wineries. Most of the winery participants represented Central Coast, Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills with a hearty handful from L.A. County. It was the seminar, though, that concentrated on LA-LA-Land wines.
A panel of five artisan winemakers representing three wineries — Mark and Jenny Blatty of Byron Blatty Wines, Patrick Kelly of Cavaletti Vineyards and Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig Viste of Angeleno Wine Co. — spoke of their adventures sourcing fruit from the county’s high desert to coastal regions and pushing boundaries to create a Wine LA brand where no infrastructure exists.
In the county there are already several sub AVAs (American Viticultural Area) such as Sierra Pelona Valley, Leona Valley, Malibu-Newton Canyon and Antelope Valley of the California High Desert. And winemakers sourcing fruit from these regions can label the wines with the sub AVA name along with L.A. County.
“Technically, any county can add the county name as AVA on the bottle,” said Dickson, who co-founded Angeleno Wine Co. in downtown L.A. with his partner Viste. The fruit is sourced from Alonso Family Vineyard specializing in Spanish varietals in the town of Agua Dulce in Sierra Pelona Valley appellation.
Offering two wines each representing their labels, the panelists were all self taught, started their operations in a garage and are all bullish on L.A. wine. Not an easy task for an area not known for wine production, going up against intense competition from California’s well known wine regions.
Yes, it’s a challenge finding customers ready to accept L.A. County wines, Kelley agreed. He is gradually getting used to hearing comments such as “These wines are actually good,” when customers taste his Cavaletti wines.
With an annual production of 600 cases, Kelley crafts his Rhône style wines, sangiovese and tempranillo, from fruit sourced within 109-mile radius of his home base in Santa Rosa Valley, reaching out to Santa Barbara, Ventura and L.A. counties.
We tasted Caveletti’s 2017 grenache from the high desert Swayze Vineyards perched at 3,000 feet elevation at the northwest edge of L.A. County in the shadow of Sierra Pelona Mountains. Unlike a typical grenache, this was light bodied with herbal notes. The grenache also found its way into the 2018 tempranillo-driven The 109 Mile Rosé, its fruit sourced from the Antelope Valley in the California High Desert AVA.
From Angeleno Wine Co. we savored two 2017 vintages, the deep-hued 2017 syrah, a well structured wine with earthy notes, and the Zanja Madre, a silky blend of tempranillo and grenache named after the first aqueduct built in L.A.
When Dickson and Viste embarked on setting up their wine business, not only was it financially challenging, but there was no infrastructure.
“No one had opened a winery in downtown L.A. in 100 years,” Viste said. “There was no template.” The team’s loans documents got rejected and permits took a long time. “The fruit would be ready but permits were not,” Viste explained.
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In spite of hurdles, the duo was determined to keep going as they built up a support system. “We opened the winery because people cared.”
Television professionals, the Blattys applied their producers’ savvy to the process of starting a winery by building up a good team. Their focus is on limited production of red wines, fermented in small open top bins and aged in new and neutral French oak barrels from 18 to 30 months.
Byron Blatty wines are rich and powerful such as the 2017 Undertake, a zinfandel-driven blend with syrah, merlot and petite syrah sourced from northeast L.A. County and Paso Robles. Sourced from a single vineyard in Antelope Valley, their 2016 Pragmatic is a lush blend of malbec, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
Saturday’s grand tasting drew a crowd of 600 garages aficionados ready to sample some 200 wines offered by 50-plus wineries, including additional L.A. County wines from Antelope Valley appellation. Golden Star Vineyards co-founder Helen Williams, sporting a 1960s style tie-dye T-shirt, handed out the Antelope Valley wine map that boasted 10 wineries.
“We started planting vineyards in 2006 in our backyard,” Williams said. The organic vineyard has now grown to five acres planted to syrah, zinfandel, sangiovese, merlot and grenache, producing 500 cases annually. It was a surprised, though, to see Golden Star’s Chardonnay and Viognier in a Riesling-style bottle.
“Screw tradition,” laughed Williams about her bottling choice. “It looks beautiful.”
Saturday’s tasting featured plenty of rosé wines, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet and Pinot Noir in addition to the popular Rhône style blends. There were also under-the-radar varieties such as touriga from Dewitt Vineyards, Teroldego from Bevela Wines, Verdelho from Angeleno Wine Co., Souzao from Wander-Must Wines and a crisp Picpoul Blanc from Two Shepherds.
Wines presented at the Friday rare and reserve tasting were younger vintages from 2012 to 2018, however, the complexity and intensity of some of the wines was impressive. Among them, Sonoma Pinot Noirs from Montagne Russe and Enriquez Estate; Greyscale Wines’ well structured Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford; an elegant expression of the 2014 Chardonnay from Ocean’s Churning and a delightful Cabernet Sauvignon from Aldina, both Sonoma-based wineries.
So, is LA County wine ready for its close-up?
“It will never turn into a Paso Robles or Santa Barbara,” Dickson said. “There’s so much urbanization in L.A. and land is expensive.”
However, Southern California wine shops such as Mission Wines, Silverlake Wines and Emerson Royce are championing local wines. Plus festivals such as the Garagiste seek out winemakers experimenting with obscure varietals and charting new territories and appellations.
The festival’s “no snobs allowed” ethos now boasts legions of followers who claim bragging rights in discovering under-the-radar, artisanal wineries, some producing as few as 100 cases each year.
The Garagise Festival is unlike most others that are either varietally or geographically focused, and targeted to distributors. This one centers on small wineries and is designed for consumers who love to discover unknown wines. To qualify as a Garagiste winemaker production has to be at or under the 1,500 annual-case production level.
“Some of these wineries will grow and some will remain small,” said festival co-founder McLennan.
Two Shepherds in Sonoma, for instance, is among the wineries in the midst of expansion to 3,000 annual-case production. The winery could be grandfathered in and keep its membership. But owner/winemaker William Allen said he prefers to move on and join the big league.
While most garagiste winemakers source fruit from all over California, there are few who also buy finished wine. Take Joe White, founder of Napa Valley’s Playground Cellars, who uses Judd’s Hill winery for his 200 annual case production. “Friends offer me finished wine that they use for topping off barrels,” White explained. His artistry comes in blending the wine, which he bottles as his proprietary red. White also makes wine from St. Helena and Paso Robles sourced fruit
Some of these renegade winemakers crafting their own small brands at one time worked for the larger wineries that have shaped the county’s wine culture. Others have staked their claim in a small-lot turf, in a patch here or there to create unique wine-tasting experiences. What unites them now is one of the country’s unique wine festivals.