The winemakers who gathered to pour at the Garagiste Festival in Solvang on Feb. 13-14 are mostly unknown in the marketplace, have limited equipment of their own and produce in such small quantities that financially, as one artisan told me, “it’s not for the faint of heart, to put it mildly.”
This is the world of garagistes, small-lot producers driven mainly by the passion for what they do. These makers of 1,500 cases a year or less are able to turn out high-quality wines that few ever hear about.
The vast majority of the 49 winemakers at the fourth annual Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure in Solvang do not have a tasting room or a vineyard. Most learned winemaking through guidance from mentors and hands-on training while employed at wineries. A smaller number began by earning enology and viticulture degrees.
Doug Minnick, who co-founded the first Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles in 2011, said he and Stewart McLennan are matchmakers who introduce these artisans to an audience looking to discover them. Annual festivals are now held in Paso Robles, the Santa Ynez Valley and Los Angeles.
Most of the winemakers I talked to before the festival and at Sunday’s pouring said marketing is their biggest challenge. Others said making it all pencil out is the most difficult.
“Making the wine is the easy part,” Bruce Freeman, winemaker at Clos des Amis in Santa Paula told me. He has found an interesting niche specializing in wines from small vineyards scattered around Ventura County.
Kate Pace, owner of Pace Family Wines in the Santa Ynez Valley with her husband Randy, said, “I know for one thing that we have excellent wine. I feel really good about our product. So I have no problem selling it if we can just get people to come and taste it.”
They have a tasting room in Solvang and this year made a leap from 125 cases to 500 from their vineyard and small lots from others in the valley, including Ballard Canyon and the Sta. Rita Hills.
Randy Pace is a veteran in wine industry management and son Ryan is the winemaker.
“It’s really difficult to get a wine to market at a decent price as a small producer because I don’t get volume discounts on anything,” said Mark Crawford Horvath, winemaker at Crawford Family winery, maker of Sta. Rita Hills chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah and Ballard Canyon syrah. They have a tasting room in Buellton and most wines are priced in the $40 to $50 range.
“It’s hard to find the right price point,” said Ethan Lindquist, son of Qupe’s Bob Lindquist. Ethan Lindquist began learning winemaking from his father at age 10 and now has a separate business, No Limit Wines, with partners Cliff Korn and Lee Tomkow. “Everybody wants a deal and they don’t understand that it costs us a lot of money to make these wines,” he said.
Garagistes rely on the cooperative spirit in the wine community. Many do not have a crusher-destemmer or a grape press. They work out a deal with a winery to use their equipment or are alternating proprietors at a custom crush facility.
Cash flow is drawn out over years, so garagistes must rein in their enthusiasm. “Passion can drive you into bankruptcy and you’ve really got to keep it small and let the wine company grow itself and not be aggressive in making way too much wine,” Kimberly Smith, owner and winemaker at La Montagne in Lompoc, told me during a visit there.
Larry Schaffer, owner of Tercero Wines with a tasting room in Los Olivos, said the legal aspects of starting a winery are challenging. He said one of the positives of being a garagiste is that barriers to entering the business are minimal for someone wanting to learn.
About 70 percent of those who poured at the festival don’t have a tasting room and they were the most enthusiastic about the event. “Direct-to-consumer is really what floats the boat,” said Cris Carter, winemaker at Weatherborne, a newer producer in Lompoc with two vintages of pinot noir.
Garagistes don’t enter a lot of competitions because of the cost, but a good number highlight on their website wines that have won medals. Smith of La Montagne bowed out of the Garagiste Festival to pour her two gold-winning Sta. Rita Hills pinot noirs and a double-gold winning malvasia with other winners of the San Francisco Chronicle competition.
Peter Scott Fraser, owner and winemaker at Scott Cellars in Lompoc focusing on sangiovese, said garagistes are in it for the winemaking journey.
“The thing about it is, we small guys don’t go into this to make money,” he said. “…The kind of a cool thing about garagiste is that these people are truly in it for the love of it.”
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]