Garagiste Festival spotlights independent winemakers

Stewart McLennan, left, and Doug Minnick founded the annual Garagiste Festival.
Stewart McLennan, left, and Doug Minnick founded the annual Garagiste Festival.

Six years ago, a few dozen independent winemakers gathered in Paso Robles for a joint tasting of their wines—some pouring their very first vintage.

The event was a hit and has since spawned satellite festivals in Santa Ynez, Los Angeles and Oakland as well as a new moniker for the little guys of the wine world.

“Garagiste”—originally a derogatory word for renegade French winemakers working outside the established chateaus—has come to connote artisan winemakers hand-crafting quality small-lot wines.

“The term was originally an insult but now is really a badge of honor,” said Doug Minnick, who founded and runs the annual Garagiste Festival with friend Stewart McLennan.

The pair recently shared more about the festival’s origins and burgeoning appeal.

Why did you start the festival?

Minnick: There were a lot of artisan, small winemakers working in Paso and on the Central Coast. Stewart knew a lot of them, I knew a few. This is the kind of stuff we like to drink. I like to say we were looking for an excuse to drink and call it work.

We asked ourselves: What can we do to shine a spotlight on these really small producers that we knew were making excellent wine? A festival allows us to gather these small winemakers in one room and bring them an audience.

We did it, and didn’t realize how popular it would be right off the bat.

McLennan: There’s another component, too. Doug and I were at a presentation by Jerry Lohr. At the end of the presentation, he looked around the room and said to everybody, “Look, we’ve got this wine and vit program at Cal Poly that’s doing really well but needs help, so what I’d like to do is appeal to all of you in this room to find a way to help out Cal Poly.” So we said, this is great, because if we can get this off the ground, it means we can get a fundraising mechanism. It can work as a two-pronged thing. Over the years now we’ve established a scholarship fund at Cal Poly that takes proceeds from the Garagiste Festival and goes back to the students at Cal Poly. 

How did you come up with the name?

McLennan: I was doing some research in the back room of a dead-end job with a crazy winemaker who shall remain nameless. I was reading an article by Robert Parker about a time when he went to France and was visiting this chateau and said, I’m going to visit this other winemaker, and they said to him, oh you shouldn’t do that. They're garagistes. They don’t have a chateau. And of course he went and the wines were fabulous. I knew quite a few of those people here, and I thought, how about we start using that term here to brand this yet-unknown segment of the marketplace.

Some of them initially were very against it. One guy said, I don’t know whether I really want to be associated with this term garagiste. I’m not making wine in my garage, blah, blah, blah. Of course, now he’s very happy to call himself garagiste. We’re very careful to message it as artisan, hand-crafted, small production—these are not people who are making wine in their garages. Some may have started there, but as anyone who makes wine knows, it’s a large investment and you don’t get a wine in bottle commercially without really getting into it for real.

These are very earnest people who have a lot of passion for what they do.

Why has the concept resonated so well with audiences?

Minnick: The quality of the wine and the hard-to-find, under the radar nature of the winemakers. It’s always the winemakers themselves who pour, not brokers or tasting room people or sales people. They know that the crowd is knowledgeable, and they really enjoy telling their story and why they are making the wines that they are.

Plus with the wine being so good, and otherwise so hard to find without tasting rooms, people realized you could find things at the Garagiste Festival, even locals who live on the Central Coast and Paso who may think they know every winery that’s out there. Every year we have a large number of wineries pouring their first vintage, and some of the earlier ones who did that like Nicora, or Dilecta or Clos Solene are now very well recognized and sell out their allocations right away. When they first poured at the Garagiste Festival, they didn’t know how it was going to go, they were brand new. So it feels good to have made a difference in their businesses, but it’s also a great thing for the people who come to the festival.

You’re going to find some new discoveries you didn’t know about, guaranteed.

What’s the vibe at the festivals?

Minnick: The attitude is very fun, no snobs allowed. We hope that’s a top-down vibe. We always want to keep it fun and informal as well as uncrowded. It’s not one of these giant festivals in a field where you can’t get up to the wine and you’re thrusting your glass over the shoulder of the person in front of you. We intentionally keep the ratio comfortable, tasters to winemakers, so that they have a chance to talk to each other.

McLennan: Each time we try to add an educational component for those people who want to expand their knowledge of a varietal or whatever. We’ve done all manner of seminars on various things but they’re all very accessible, they’re not somm conferences or anything like that. They’re a way for people to broaden their knowledge in a very relaxed atmosphere. We’re not judging people or judging wines or anything like that. We don’t have awards, we don’t have gold medals. There’s a place for that, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t put people in our festivals by selection.

What makes a good garagiste?

McLennan: Somebody who’s willing to fly by their own rules and not necessarily driven by a huge business model. Some of them are very successful, but not at the outset. They’re making wine because they’re passionate about it. And when you get to meet these people across the table, you get it. You get infected with that.

As a garagiste winemaker, I’m making wines the way I want to make them. The wines I like to drink, I try to make. So I’m not making to a formula.

Minnick: The way that passion manifests itself in a lot of ways is through the kinds of wines these winemakers are making. If I was to send you list of the varietals that were poured at the last one— albariño, malvasia bianca, pinot blanc, riesling, sémillon, sparkling, symphony, trousseau gris, ugni blanc—you aren’t going to get these varietals anywhere else, at least not a range like this. It’s so exciting. There’s always something to learn, whether you know nothing about wine or think you know everything, you’re going to learn more when you come to the festival.

What attracted you to this approach?

Minnick: As a fan, as a wine drinker, I enjoy the small winemakers because I like to taste the difference in styles and even the differences from vintage to vintage, from the same winemaker. A large winemaker, you know a Silver Oak or something like that, their objective is to make the wine taste the same every year. They want consumers to know what they’re going to get.

A Garagiste winemaker doesn’t care about that. They’re going to make the best wine they can make with what the land and the weather have afforded them that year. That creates an amazingly wonderful range of style from year to year. These guys, whether it’s the varietals they produce or the way they produce them from year to year is completely different from what you find at larger wineries. The larger wineries, they’re going to make the cab, the pinot, the chard, and they’re going to try to make it the same every year. As a wine drinker, that’s not that interesting to me. This is of way more interest.

McLennan: You’ll never see a large winery making a lot of stem inclusion or whole cluster wine, for example, because it’s impossible to manage in large volume—you just can’t do it. If that’s really your interest, what you’re turned on by, you’re never going to make it at a large winery.

What’s new this year?

Minnick: Every year we do educational seminars on the morning of the grand tasting, so that’s new every year. This year we’re going to focus on some of those very rare varietals. So seminar attendees will get to taste a lot of these wines, and the winemakers talk about why they’re making them and what’s unique and special about them.

We’re in a big enough space now that we can invite wineries outside of Paso, so there’s going to be a good number of wineries coming down from Sonoma and Napa and Monterey and up from Santa Barbara. So for the locals, you’re going to find not only new Paso wineries you may not know, you’re going to have a chance to taste some of these small, small wineries from around the state. 

Have you ever made wine in your garage?

Minnick: Yes. And now we’re both making wine commercially. So it turned out well enough that we wanted to keep doing it. 

Garagiste Festival

Nov. 11 through 13

Various Paso Robles locations

Tickets: www.garagistefestival.com