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Meet the mavericks: Garagiste Wine Festival marks its 10th anniversary

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Oct. 30, 2021 series
  • Updated

Marking its 10th anniversary and re-emerging with a bang after a year in quarantine, the Garagiste Wine Festival returns to its home base next month to showcase “no holds barred” winemakers with boundless passion.

The unique wine festival, a runaway success in the second decade of the 21st century, resumes its celebration of maverick small-lot winemakers in its birthplace of Paso Robles, Nov. 12-14, featuring 50 small-production wineries from all over California although mostly from the Central Coast.

Festivities kick off on Friday with a Rare & Reserve Tasting at the Pavilion on the Lake in Atascadero. The Saturday morning seminar on "The Past and Future of Paso Robles," conducted by Jason Haas, managing director of Tablas Creek Vineyards, is followed by a grand tasting of some 200 wines. The evening ends with “Rockin’ After Party.” On Sunday Paso Passport offers open house visits to several participating winemakers’ tasting rooms.

The festival, which gives the spotlight to small, often undiscovered winemakers, was founded by Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick, mavericks from the entertainment business and the minds behind this small-lot movement. Neither of them a winemaker at the time, they did evolve to craft their own wines — McLennan is making Sharpei Moon in Paso while Minnick produces Hoi Polloi in Newhall, California.

For McLennan, the light bulb went on when he came across a piece in Robert M. Parker’s "Wine Advocate" journal where the wine guru highlighted a few of Bordeaux’s incipient winemakers producing wine in garages; thus the French name garagiste, meant as a put-down, but embraced by these winemakers became a buzzword.

The Garagiste Festival concept is to showcase winemakers crafting small lots in their garages, barns, custom crush facilities, or even their own wineries. The caveat for winemakers wanting to join the Garagiste group is their annual wine production should not exceed 1,500 cases. There are some such as Napa newcomer Ondulé making as few as 225 cases annually of Bordeaux-style wines.

“We are small and focused,” McLennan told me on the phone. ”It’s a huge benefit for the consumers as they get to meet the winemakers and have discussions with them. We pride ourselves in that.”

Not only do winemakers meet keen consumers but they have attracted investors. Ask Kevin Bersofsky, owner/winemaker of Montagne Russe in Healdsburg.

“There were two people who loved our wines and wanted to invest,” he said in a phone conversation. That was at the 2019 Paso Garagiste Festival. The partnership was sealed in 2021.

Montagne Russe is one of the four participants from Sonoma/Napa. attending the Paso festival, along with Greyscale Wines, Ondulé, and Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars.

In addition to Paso, the festival has expanded to three other locations — Solvang, Los Angeles, and Sonoma drawing participants from Northern and Southern California, the Central Coast as well as Lodi and Sierra Foothills.

Bersofsky is drawn to the festival — in 2019 he attended all four festivals — for its intimacy, unlike other large wine festivals where the small producer often goes unnoticed. “Everybody is unknown and upcoming,” he commented.

“We do more good business in Paso than any other festivals,” said the Marin-based winemaker who did start in his garage in 2006. It wasn’t until 2013, that his small production was forced to move on when a neighbor called the state Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives authorities. Now produced at a San Francisco custom crush facility, the production has grown to an annual 1,000 case-production of predominantly Pinot Noir with some Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Initially, Bersofsky sourced fruit from Petaluma Gap, but due to recent fires,  he has expanded his reach to Mendocino, Santa Barbara, and Monterey counties.

Greyscale Wines owners Larry and Jean Rowe are also among those who participated in all four festivals in 2019. “It has a different vibe and we’ve done very well,” Larry Rowe said in a phone conversation. “The key thing is that we meet customers and they become repeat customers.” 

An emeritus professor in computer science at UC Berkeley, Rowe got into wine by way of his wife Jean. “She was introduced to the backyard wine hobby by her dad,” said Rowe. Their interest took them on wine travels around the world and then a trip to Bordeaux sealed their fate.

The couple began with one barrel of private label wine in 2005. By 2011 they went commercial with their 2008 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Made in the Bordeaux style, the 2008 Cuvée Blanc nabbed Best in Class at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Focused on Bordeaux-style wines, Rowe sources top Napa fruit (he won’t reveal the name of one particular renowned vineyard) for his annual production of around 500 cases made at Napa’s Kito custom crush facility.

David Scheidt, the owner/winemaker of Mastro Scheidt, has been a festival participant for six years. “I got introduced by my label printer,” he said in a phone conversation.

The former Silicon Valley corporate portfolio manager left a lucrative job to start winemaking. “I’m probably practical or a lunatic,” mused Scheidt. But it did help start him in the wine business. In addition to his Mastro Scheidt wines, he does custom winemaking for 10 clients including some noted Bay area sommeliers.

As is the model of a typical garagiste, Scheidt, started with his private production. “A friend had access to Dry Creek Cabernet and I decided to make two barrels.” That was 2007 and by 2011 he was fully committed. “I ramped up production, got serious, and got ten tons of grapes.” And he quit his day job.

The Cloverdale-based winemaker produces some dozen wines, sourcing fruit from Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake County and Fresno, totaling an annual production of 1,000 cases, which includes One Ton Lot, which is only 50 cases.

“We pick one ton in my father’s truck; that’s all that fits in,” Schmidt said. The eclectic wine portfolio ranges from Dolcetto, Sangiovese and Zinfandel to Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Scheidt compares his professional management skills to winemaking. “It’s Mother Nature. You roll with it, can’t control it, only manage it.”

As a non-profit organization, the Garagiste Festival supports Cal Poly’s Wine & Viticulture Program, providing annual scholarships to deserving Cal Poly students striving to be future garagistes.

For a full lineup of participating wineries and ticket information visit garagistefestival.com.

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