Friday, February 16, 2024

Garagiste Turns 10


Forget tiny libraries, we are here to praise tiny wineries. For February 10th was the (somehow already) 10th Annual Garagiste Wine Festival, Southern Exposure, held as usual at the Solvang Veterans' Memorial Hall. The conceit--as with bands, winemakers often kick off their careers in their garages before venturing out into rental warehouse space somewhere (often in the wilds of Lompoc or Paso Robles, say). The biggest (and that term really means little here) producer at this year's event crafts 1800 cases per vintage. For comparison, Trinchero Family Estates, which admittedly is 50 global brands under one so-called "family," produced 20 million cases of wine in 2020. Places pouring at Garagiste wouldn't even add up to the angel's share at Trinchero.

So, that means Garagiste is a place to drink deep of inspiration, experimentation, passion, play, and sure, some perspiration (not as a wine additive, promise). You can taste every varietal from Albariño to Zinfandel, with all sorts of grapes and blends in-between. You'll have the father-son team at Boutz Cellars pouring you barrel samples of their Assyrtiko, proud of the wine and their Greek heritage. Think of the wine as a Santorini retsina-resonant answer to Albariño. And that's just a bonus blast next to pours like a 2022 100% Syrah not even labeled yet, but nailing westside Paso's penchant for brooding, roasted meat notes. (Overall, Paso wineries seemed to outnumber those from Santa Barbara County this year, tbh.)

Having had the good fortune to attend many a Garagiste Festival, what also strikes me is there are new finds every year. One such find this time was Fuil, pronounced as you might think, no fooling (it comes from the Gaelic, meaning blood, kindred, nature). Winemaker Matt Espiro Jaeger is also an actor, and in a recent interview described his life: "I was literally leaving right after bows for Oedipus at the Getty Villa around 10 pm, driving 2.5 hours north to drop off my empty pick bins, napping for 2-3 hours, picking up my grapes, driving back to Camarillo, crushing and processing the grapes, driving back to LA, taking a nap, then heading back the theatre." Didn't get to see him the Sophocles so can't judge his acting, but the wines are certainly worth that hectic schedule. Worth a second sip was his 2021 Ballard Canyon Syrah, from the esteemed Kimsey Vineyard, a lighter style of that varietal that reminded of the ethereal versions of Grenache you get from A Tribute to Grace.

Or take Entity of Delight and winemaker Crosby Swinchatt (a delightful name that sounds like a Lemony Snickett invention, no?). For a young man he's had some peripatetic career, from New Zealand to Oregon to Sea Smoke to Lo-Fi right here in Santa Barbara County. He favors natural wine, so you can enjoy a fascinating 2022 Mourvèdre from the Kaerskov Vineyard in the Los Olivos District AVA (supposedly the only Danish owned and operated vineyard within the Danish city of Solvang, so now you can win that bar bet). At 12% ABV it's far from a brooding Rhone-monster, but it still pleases with leather, wild strawberry, and even some blood orange notes.

"Old" timers also pleased, too. Montemar nails varietal specificity as well as anyone, and then lets their wine bottle age to develop into its fullness. It's hard to beat their wild and fulfilling 2016 Bentrock Pinot Noir, especially at $52 a bottle. Tomi only makes 250 cases per vintage but that's split over 12 different wines on their website, 8 poured at Garagiste. Everything from a 2020 Barbera that practically ordered a plate of pasta and gravy for you to a 2020 Ambient Light Reserve Albarino aged in acacia oak--the floral on floral really works.

And then there's tercero and Larry Schaffer, Santa Barbara's mad scientist of wines. The amount of wines Schaffer makes puts even Tomi to shame--he can't stop experimenting. But that sort of makes him the poster boy for Garagiste--the point is to make wine because it's fun and you hope to try new things and please new drinkers, or reinvigorate the palates of more experienced drinkers. So while he's still nailing down his second vintage of Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc, or sharing a 2016 Roussanne (very dry, but he suggest pairing it with a dessert like a Basque cheesecake), he's also got a non-vintage red bland that's all freshness and cranberry and juicy goodness, a blend of Carignane, Cinsault and Counoise just waiting for warmer weather and your favorite afternoon spot in the sun. That blend's awfully apt name? Curiosity #1.

Which could be the theme for Garagiste, after all.

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