Malvasia Bianca makes up less than 0.2% of white grapes in California. But at Saturday's 9th Annual Garagiste Wine Festival--Southern Exposure, held at the Veterans Hall in Solvang, you could taste two wines made from this semi-obscure grape about ten feet apart. Being tiny does that for you as a winery--you can mess around, follow your passion, craft single expressions of grapes most often known for blending. Nobody is going to care too much, and it can't hurt your bottom line too much, as you barely have a line at all. Too often the big folks can't risk doing something that doesn't end in dollars. (Note, sometimes people experiment when the get big; in the beer world take Firestone Walker and its Barrelworks program, where all that 805 the masses wash down allows for things like Royal Street, an ale that apes a Sazerac, and it is almost Mardi Gras. Still....)
As for that Malvasia Bianca, the two versions were certainly distinct, even if both on the dry side for this white grape better known elsewhere in the world. For tercero, Larry Schaffer made a MB that's floral and perfect for the warmest days of spring. For Lepiane, Alison Thomson made a MB that sips like a fine vermouth. Such delightful and keen distinctions were a huge part of the thrill of the afternoon tasting.
So was a sense of discovery. Take the tongue-in-cheek Funky Town, a side project from the bigger and better known Ampelos. Winemaker Peter Work didn't want to grow complacent, so came up with this second, experimental label to play a bit. And what tasty play it is, including a Piquette made from the "leftovers" of Syrah and Grenache production, bright, fizzy, and a mere 7% ABV, so a perfect lunch wine. Then there's a spicy Carignane and an orange Albariño from a bit more skin contact that offers surprisingly chewy tannin for a "white" grape.
An event like Garagiste also lets you taste unusual terroir--for example, Pinot Noir from Marin County. Talk about your ocean effect--Kendric Vineyards is equidistant between Tomales Bay and the SF Bay. The result is a lighter, almost more Oregonian Pinot, with plenty of cherry but also earth and some oomph from stem inclusion.