Small Wineries, Big Crowds: Garagiste Festival Focuses on Santa Ynez Valley Labels

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 3/31/14)

With a projected 800 visitors, this past weekend’s Garagiste Festival in Solvang proved its staying power.

“Garagiste” is a French word long used to refer to rogue, small-lot winemakers who, often working out of their garage, made wine by often bending traditional rules.

Winemaker Clarissa Nagy welcomes tasters
This young wine tasting festival, which took over the Veteran’s Memorial Hall Saturday and Sunday (3/29-3/30), is up-and-coming in more ways than one.  It started just in 2011, with a focus on small-production winemakers in San Luis Obispo County.  Today, it’s a twice-a-year event, with this weekend’s pouring – dubbed “Southern Exposure” – giving a stage to boutique wine producers based mainly in the Santa Ynez Valley.

But the festival’s marquee pourers – 62 wineries in all over the two-day fete – are relative newcomers, too, aiming to parlay the attending public into a repeat clientele.

“We’re like matchmakers,” Doug Minnick, one of the festival’s co-founders, said during the Sunday grand tasting event.  “At least 75% of those pouring are small operations – they make less than 1500 cases a year and have no tasting rooms.  And we deliver a highly targeted audience that likes new things and seeks out wines that are under the radar.”

That’s a boon for winemakers like Chris Carter, who poured his very first wine, the 2012 Weatherborne Pinot Noir, on Sunday.  “This festival is a perfect spot for people like me, who are just starting to sell their stuff,” he says.  The 34-year-old worked for Santa Barbara Winery before spending much of the last decade honing his skills in Oregon and New Zealand.  He only makes a pinot noir – 220 cases total – which he sources from vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills.

One case of wine contains twelve 750-ml. bottles.

David Bradley, age 64, also makes just one wine: a mere 64 cases of Bradley Family Wines sauvignon blanc, sourced from the Adobe Canyon Vineyard, off Ballard Canyon, which he planted for a client, himself.  The Garagiste Festival marked his inaugural pour for the public and shows, Mr. Bradley says, “that people are seeking out wines that they can’t find in supermarkets because – with productions so small – they are only sold direct.”

Among the other small producers drawing steady crowds Sunday were Fontes & Phillips, producer of the wildly popular Rhone-inspired Panky rosé; C. Nagy Wines, whose owner, Clarissa Nagy, also makes wine full-time for Riverbench Vineyards and Baehner-Fournier, with a lineup of Bordeaux wines grown on an estate vineyard in Santa Ynez.

The Garagiste Festival’s 2nd Annual Southern Exposure kick-started with a pizza-and-wine pairing event at Solvang’s Cecco Restaurant on Friday (3/28), featured Georgia's Smokehouse's delectable food truck grub and presented winemaker-led seminars Saturday and Sunday.  Proceeds benefit the Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture Program.  

The next Garagiste Festival will take place in Paso Robles in November.  For more information, go to CaliforniaGaragistes.


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