Hand-crafted. Artisan. The words are thrown around a lot these days. But these winemakers have truly earned the designations.
Baker & Brain, Clos Solène, Aaron Wines and Nicora can all be considered part of the growing Garagiste movement in Paso Robles — passionate, small-lot winemakers who do things on their own terms.
They farm their grapes themselves on leased acreage, or spend hours visiting vineyards and talking with the growers to source their fruit. They find space where they can to make their wine and focus on just one or two fermentations at a time. They do 90 percent of the work themselves. And they are proving that the approach can produce world-class wines. All four labels — along with a few others in the region, some of which we’ll feature in the fall issue of Vintages — have attracted the attention of critics and consumers alike. They have garnered accolades and 90-plus scores from top wine journals and other national publications. Their vintages can sell out within months of release, just through word-of-mouth and via wine club devotees.
And they’ve done it not by following Napa or market trends, but by taking risks and being true to themselves.
“We’ve branded ourselves (as a region) as cutting edge and progressive and pushing boundaries and a little more rustic around the edges, but that’s really who we are,” Aaron Jackson says. “We are surfers, we’re cowboys, we’re artists, and we’re doing progressive things.”
Meet the new crop of Paso Robles and Edna Valley winemakers.
Sustainability, great taste and no compromise
Josh Baker & Matt Brain | Baker & Brain
Josh Baker and Matt Brain cooked up plans to make wine together over a campfire in Yosemite’s back-country.
Biologists by training, the two knew from the start that their focus would be sustainability and environmental consciousness.
“It just fits in with our way of thinking,” Brain says. “We think about biological things before we think about marketing, sales and profitability.”
The pair envisioned blending their scientific orientation into hand-crafted, small-lot wines. Art and science. Culinary and intellectual. Baker & Brain. They say they couldn’t have scripted a better name (though they joke about the boozy alternative, Brain-Baker).
Five years down the road, eco-consciousness carries throughout the entire business.
The two source grapes from the best sustainably farmed vineyards up and down the Central Coast, many of which are SIP certified, as are Baker & Brain. They make their wines at a fully solar-powered winery. They use lighter, recycled-material bottles and recycled paper. Even their storage facility is powered mostly by renewable energy.
The other focus, of course, is flavor — producing minimally processed wines that, Baker says, express the varietals and the land they come from. And that flavor has built a small but dedicated and growing following. The two are producing 1,400 cases now, up from 180 in their first vintage, and still sell out, even without a tasting room.
“People like the style in which we’re making the wines,” Brain says. “And they also like the message behind our wines: small; handcrafted; trying to be as green as possible on several different fronts; exclusive, but not ultra-high-priced.”
The two are not new to winemaking in Edna Valley. Indeed, they both have day jobs they expect to keep for some time, until they can build Baker & Brain into something that can sustain them and their families.
Baker grew up in the Central Valley, earned a degree in biology and landed a job as a microbiologist in the lab of E.&J. Gallo Winery. It wasn’t long before he realized he was more interested in making the wine than analyzing it. He worked in the Gallo cellar for a while, then came with his wife to Edna Valley in 2003 to become cellar master at Edna Valley Vineyards, where he worked his way up to head winemaker in 2008. About a year ago, he became winemaker at Phase 2 Cellars, the custom-crush facility at Tolosa, where he could also focus more on Baker & Brain.
Brain grew up outside Toronto, earned his master’s degree and was working in the heady world of microbiology, tech and process engineering when the wine bug bit. So he and wife Melanie (who now runs the label’s sales and marketing) came out to Edna Valley in 2006 and worked the harvest at Tolosa alongside the college interns. Brain was promoted to oversee Tolosa’s cellar operations and quickly moved into winemaking. He worked with Baker at Edna Valley Vineyards for about four years. He’s now a lecturer at Cal Poly’s Wine and Viticulture Program and manages the campus winery.
The two look forward to someday being able to focus on Baker & Brain full-time. But they are in no rush. They aren’t interested in sacrificing their values and vision to get to profitability faster.
“We knew that making wines like this, we weren’t going to be able to make any money for a long time,” Brain says. “But it’s our project, and we knew we wanted to bring a lot of integrity into it.”
The flavor of France in Paso Robles
Guillaume Fabre | Clos Solène
Guillaume Fabre didn’t just grow up in a winemaking family in the south of France. He drew pretend vineyards in the ground with a stick and farmed them on his toy tractor as a young boy. He helped his father make a roussanne when he was 6 and cried when he didn’t get to go along to work the fields. As a teenager, he waved off friends heading to the nightclubs to work his vines under spotlight.
Fabre came to Paso in 2004 to spend a few months learning about wine in the New World. He never went back.
“In France, you’re in your area, and you make your wine from the area,” he says. “Here, with the soil and climate, you can produce almost anything you want. You have no barriers.”
Today, Fabre is prepping to leave his 10-year gig working alongside Stephan Asseo at L’Aventure, where he first came for his internship, to focus full time on his own small but highly acclaimed label, Clos Solène.
Fabre makes mostly higher-end Rhône blends from leased vineyard space on the limestone hillsides of the Templeton Gap. He also produces a cab franc blend and is planning a coastal syrah and pinot noir.
But while Fabre was lured by the viticultural freedom of Paso, he still uses many of the old family ways he grew up with. He farms his own vines the way he wants, with rootstock and other supplies shipped over from France. And he ferments his fruit in closed barrels, a labor-intensive process that involves rotating each barrel by hand up to twice a day.
That handcrafted approach is a lot of work, he says. “But in the end, that is what makes the wine interesting, gives it complexity.”
He started in 2007 with 50 cases and is producing about 600 now, sold mostly through his wine club, though nonmembers can purchase a bottle at his tasting room at Paso Underground. He is opening a shared winery with Aaron Jackson this summer and hopes eventually to get up to about 2,000 cases. He’d also like to experiment with mixed techniques, using some stainless steel to ferment larger batches for blends and the like.
But Fabre takes care to balance his passion for winemaking with his other loves: his wife, Solène, and their two young children.
Solène and her love for the walled gardens and vineyards of Bordeaux inspired the label’s name. Their story — love at first sight, long-distance separation and eventual union — is featured prominently on the website. Fabre makes a wine named for his daughter, a dessert wine called Sweet Clementine, and Cuvee Jean, named for his son, is in the works.
Just like his family did for him, he’s hoping to inspire the next generation of Fabres as winemakers.
“I’ve already put my son on YouTube driving a tractor,” he says with a big grin.
Youth is served, and it’s deserved
Aaron Jackson | Aaron & Aequorea
Aaron Jackson may be one of the youngest winemakers in the country, but he bristles at the label. Young, he says, implies a lack of experience.
“I’ve been making wine for 13 years, I have two degrees, I’ve worked with some of the best winemakers around,” he says. “I’ve been making wine longer than half the winemakers in Paso.”
Jackson grew up a surf rat in Cayucos to parents who worked at Hearst Castle and sold real estate. By the time he was a high school sophomore, he knew he wanted a lifelong career that would let him stay on the Central Coast. He zeroed in on wine.
“Winemaking is a really cool blend of agriculture, science, business and art, all together,” he says.
He got a summer job helping Wild Horse Winery plant a new vineyard between Cayucos and Templeton and was hooked. Go big or go home, he likes to say.
Now 30, Jackson released his first commercial vintage when he was in college at Cal Poly, where he was the first student to sign on to the newly created wine and viticulture major.
As a kid new to the market, Jackson knew he needed to carve out a niche, and he found it in petite sirah. He saw potential for the varietal — long used mostly just in blends or limited wine club offerings — to thrive in the steep limestone hillsides of west Paso.
And it has, garnering new attention among critics and consumers alike, fueled in part by the success of Aaron, Jackson’s label, and other high-quality producers.
“Paso Robles is a wonderful petite sirah climate, hands down,” he says. “But we were never giving it the love it needed.”
For his second label, Jackson turned his sights to his backyard — the coastal vineyards around Cayucos and Cambria. Aequorea, Latin for “of the sea,” focuses on single-vineyard whites and pinot noirs west of the Santa Lucia mountains.
“I’m trying to make some really exciting wines from an area that is undiscovered and unknown to a lot of people,” he says.
He’d like to see the area — which today has about 10 vineyards — get its own appellation someday. But for now, his goal is to make wine from as many of those properties as possible to raise the region’s profile and build interest in the wines it can produce.
Between the two projects, Jackson is producing 1,000 cases a year, something he’d like to grow to about 3,000 or 4,000 over the next few years. He recently broke ground on a winery in Templeton he’ll share with Clos Solène.
Jackson has another mission, beyond making great wines on the Central Coast — championing authenticity as Paso continues to build its future and legacy.
“The next generation of Paso is not going to be built on people who move here and start planting cabernet and merlot, or people who make a whole gamut of wines and open a tasting room in downtown Paso Robles,” he says. “It’s more about creating brands that are authentic and real and have something behind them.”
Working until the job’s done right
Nicolas Elliott | Nicora
When Nicolas Elliott decided to make his first batch of wine, he traded his labor for enough grapes to make three barrels. He traded more labor for space to make it.
He first poured that wine, nervously, at the 2011 Garagiste Festival, on his 30th birthday. Within 30 minutes, he had a line out the door.
It’s basically been that way since. Elliott has grown his label, Nicora, from those initial 75 cases to about 800 today, and he still sells out within months of release.
Yet a career in wine was basically an accident for Elliott. He grew up in Coalinga, and it was presumed he would become a general contractor like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. He thought he might want to do something else, though he wasn’t sure what.
He stumbled into a short stint working crush in 2005 but then went back to working for his dad doing odds and ends.
“I wasn’t looking to get into it,” Elliott says. “I had no idea what good wine was or how to make wine.”
He returned for harvest the following year, though, picking up crush work at various wineries and some cellar and bottling experience. He worked for months without a day off, often arriving at 6 a.m. and not leaving until 1 a.m., but he didn’t realize he had been falling in love with the hard work and passion that goes into winemaking until the end of his second year.
“I had started tasting a bunch more wines and got to see a bunch of different styles of winemaking,” he says. “And I was able to see that you could get a bunch of different characteristics from just a single grape of syrah. That was really cool.”
Elliott attributes his success so far to what he’s learned working at wineries including Alta Colina, Villicana Winery, Booker Vineyard, Torrin and Law Estate Wines, but also to the hard work and determination learned from three generations of contractors.
“I grew up in a family where you get up at 5 in the morning, you go to work and you don’t leave until it’s done, and that is very important in winemaking,” says Elliott, who even used his great-grandfather Ora’s name in his label. “If you go home and the work’s not done, it’s going to show in the bottle.”
It’s the same spirit that drives Elliott to make his grenache and Rhône blends the hands-on, handcrafted way, two barrels at a time.
Elliott opened a new winery in September and expects that will allow him to boost production somewhat. While he envisions one day owning a small vineyard, maybe 20 acres, he’d like to keep to 1,000 cases or so for the foreseeable future.
“When I started out, I said I want to make three barrels of great wine, not six barrels of good wine,” he says. “If I can make 5,000 cases of wine and still maintain the same quality, I’d love to do it. But those are 10- or 20-year plans.”