For the last few years, a low-key revolution has been taking hold in California winemaking. After decades of increasingly high-alcohol cabs and syrahs, syrupy-sweet merlots and zinfandels, and overly oaked, buttery chardonnays, a new generation of winemakers is striving for a return to balance and finesse. They are growing new varietals, experimenting with new blends and exploring new techniques in both harvesting and fermentation.
Thanks to their efforts, it's a very good time to be a wine drinker in the Golden State.
But you won't find any of these mavericks' products at the grocery store — at least not yet. Like the craft beer movement before it, this new wine scene is being driven by small-lot producers, or “garagistes,” a French term once used to disparage independent winemakers but one now embraced both there and in the States by a certain class of vintner who refuses to play by the traditional rules.
“The term has come to mean small, artisan winemakers who are doing what they want to do, and not necessarily following the way it’s always been done,” explains Doug Minnick, co-founder of the Garagiste Festival, which showcases these rising stars of the wine world. On Saturday, July 11, the festival returns to L.A. — following a successful inaugural event last year at Union Station — with 60 small wine producers from all over the state presenting their wares at the Wiltern Theatre.
Minnick and his partner, Stewart McLennan, restrict their festival to winemakers who produce fewer than 1,500 cases per year, which in the wine world is incredibly small. Some own their own vines and production facilities; others source their grapes from larger vineyards and borrow or lease equipment. Often, says Minnick, “These guys are assistant winemakers at bigger wineries and this is their personal project.” A few — including Minnick himself — started by making wine in their garage. He is quick, however, to emphasize that “this is not an amateur thing. Everybody who’s pouring is a commercial winemaker.”
Cris Carter is representative of the garagiste crowd, a professional winemaker for years who launched his own label, Weatherborne, in 2012. After working for major wineries in Santa Barbara, Napa, Oregon and New Zealand, he decided, after he'd left the business and taken a job as a brewer at L.A.'s Golden Road, that “it was the perfect time to start really small, start making a few cases for myself.”
Commuting between L.A. and Brewer-Clifton Winery in Lompoc — where he rents out “a little corner” of the facilities for his grapes — Carter has produced three vintages of Santa Rita Hills pinot noir. He started with just 225 cases a year and has since expanded to 400. “I like keeping focused on pinot noir. It’s always been my favorite to make,” he says. “It really does challenge you in some ways.” He also plans to buy some grenache from his favorite vineyard this year.
Like a lot of garagistes, Carter likes to experiment with hands-on techniques that would be next to impossible for large-production wineries to implement. For his pinot, he uses “a good portion” of whole-cluster fermentation, a technique in which some of the grapes are fermented with the stems still on, imparting notes of spice, pepper and graphite to the finished product. “You get that earthiness and spiciness without having to use [new oak] barrels and adding extra tannin to it,” Carter explains.
This spirit of experimentation is part of what drew Minnick to the garagiste movement. “It is absolutely wide open in so many ways,” he says. Blending is another area where adventurous winemakers are breaking new ground, producing varietal combinations that would seem heretical to old-world growers. “A cab/zin/petite syrah or something. We joke that if you tried to do that blend in France, they’d throw you in jail.”
When Minnick and McLennan held the first Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles five years ago, they weren't sure what kind of response they would get. “We knew this was a growing movement, but no one had really corralled it and given it a name and shined a spotlight on it,” Minnick says. Now he and McLennan host regular festivals in Paso, L.A. and Santa Barbara County.
Because it's produced in such small quantities, most of the wine poured at the Garagiste Festival is almost impossible to find elsewhere. But Minnick says what really sets the festival apart is that the winemakers themselves are usually in attendance as well. “You actually have a chance to talk to the winemakers at our events,” he says. “It’s the best place to learn.”
Unfortunately, California state law prohibits sales of wine at tasting events, but about two-thirds of the winemakers at the festival are participating in a program whereby attendees can build their own case and then pick it up at Spin the Bottle in Toluca Lake. Most of the winemakers also will participate in a VIP-only hour at the beginning of the festival, during which they'll pour “rare and reserve stuff” for a select crowd.
For Minnick, who left a 30-year career in the music industry to pursue his passion for wine, there's something poetic about moving the Garagiste Festival to the Wiltern, where many of his bands used to play. “Finding these kinds of winemakers, these really small guys, it’s like finding a band in a club before they have a hit record,” he says. “There’s a certain level of excitement and ownership that comes when you’re early to something — and then when you watch it succeed, you feel like you’re a part of it.”
The Garagiste Festival takes place Saturday, July 11, from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Wiltern Theatre. $69 general admission, $99 VIP, $10 for designated drivers. Tickets available at californiagaragistes.com.