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Allison Levine, Please The Palate: The Garagiste Wine Festival returns
Please The Palate

Allison Levine, Please The Palate: The Garagiste Wine Festival returns

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Guests taste the garagiste wines at the 2018 festival in Sonoma. 

Everyone knows the riddle: “How do you make a small fortune in the wine industry? Start with a large one.”

The dream to own a winery and make wine can seem like a fantasy. Land costs in Napa and Sonoma are prohibitive when a vineyard in Napa will cost anywhere from $120,000 to more than $370,000 per acre and a vineyard in Sonoma can cost $70,000 to more than $150,000 per acre.

Even if you do not own a vineyard, buying quality fruit in Napa and Sonoma can be costly. In 2016, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon averaged $6,829 per ton and Sonoma Pinot Noir averaged $3,678 per ton. But, despite these costs, there are small winemakers out there who are striving to make the best wines possible, even without a venture capitalist behind them.

These small winemakers are known as “garagistes.” Garagistes was a term established in the Bordeaux region of France for small-lot winemakers, many of whom worked in their garages and who refused to follow the “rules” of the region. This movement has grown and today represents small production winemakers who are making fewer than 1,500 cases per year. Most of these producers do not have tasting rooms, nor do they have big marketing budgets to promote their wines.

With public tasting rooms and marketing budgets, it is easy to find wineries to visit on a trip to Napa, Sonoma, or any other region in California. Typically, a day of wine tasting means requisite visits to the big-name wineries. But, if you want to find something off the beaten track, how can you find these small micro-production winemakers? That is where the Garagiste Wine Festival comes in.

The Garagiste Wine Festival was created in 2011 as a way to showcase the American “garagiste” wine movement. The festival was founded by two fellow garagistes, Stewart McLennan and Douglas Minnick, who have been making wine on the Central Coast. The first festival took place in Paso Robles and has since expanded to Santa Ynez, Los Angeles and Sonoma. In 2018, the Garagiste Wine Festival was named the “Best Wine Festival in the US” in USA Today’s 10 Best Readers Choice Awards.

For the second year in a row, the Garagiste Wine Festival returns to Sonoma with 40 micro-production winemakers from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lodi, Sierra Foothills and more. I have attended the Los Angeles and Santa Ynez festivals the last few years and am always excited by the wineries I find. I have run into winemakers I know who work for larger wineries but have their own small-production labels. And, I have met many young, passionate winemakers who are starting out. Each winemaker has a great story to tell.

Representing Napa, there will be Larry Rowe from Greyscale Wines who makes fewer than 400 cases per year. Larry and his wife, Jean, started Greyscale Wines in 2008 and source fruit from Rutherford and Oak Knoll.

Hunter Glenn Estate was founded by Caroline and Jeffrey Shifflett, a fourth-generation brother-and-sister team. The Shifflett family owns a 120-acre property in the foothills of the Mayacamas range. They sell the grapes as well as produce wine under Shifflett Estate. But Caroline and Jeffrey started Hunter Glenn Estate with their mother Ellen, to focus on single-vineyard, single-varietal wines.

Husband-and-wife team Maura Christoffers and Charley Johnson started March Wines in 2016. Maura and Charley both have day jobs as assistant winemakers in Napa, so March Wines allows them to focus on more unusual varieties, such as Riesling and saignee of Pinot Noir.

You may have never heard about these wineries, or any of the others participating in the Garagiste Festival, Northern Exposure, in Sonoma, but now is your chance. This is the event where you can find boutique offerings and new discoveries, all in a casual, inviting atmosphere.

Mark your calendars: The Garagiste Festival, Northern Exposure is from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 13 at the Sonoma Veterans’ Memorial Hall, 126 First St. W, Sonoma.

Allison Levine is owner of Please The Palate, a marketing and event-planning agency. A freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications while eating and drinking her way around the world. Allison is also the host of the wine podcast Wine Soundtrack USA. Contact her at

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