Small Matters: Festival Returns to Highlight Boutique Wine Producers

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 1/28/16

Karen Steinwachs (Bob Dickey photo)
For winemakers like Karen Steinwachs, being small is a big deal.  “I’m definitely a garagiste,” she tells me.  “Actually, more like a micro-garagiste,” since her Seagrape label puts out a mere 300 cases of wine a year.

The word, garagiste, was once used derogatorily.  Established French producers would use it to insult the little guy – the small-lot producer who did his own thing, pushed the envelope and bent the rules of the trade – and who often worked out of his garage.

Today, for a growing movement of winemakers around the world, the term is worn like a badge of honor.  Yes, their size is almost always a product of necessity.  These personal passions are largely self-funded – people entering an industry notorious for both its prohibitive costs and its very crowded field.  Starting small is cheaper.

But in that creative winemaking arena – in that world of wines that are hand-crafted, hand-held and hand-sold – ideas tend to flow more freely, creativity tends to fester and experimentation tends to reign supreme.  As such, being a garagiste becomes a lot less about size and more about the idea that even the oldest of traditions – making wine – can see new and exciting interpretations.

That premise gave birth to the Garagiste Festival four years ago, creating a platform where small-lot California winemakers and curious consumers can meet and mingle.  Today, the tasting takes place three times a year, in Paso Robles, Los Angeles and Solvang.   The 2016 “Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure” event comes to Solvang’s Veterans Memorial Hall next month, on Valentine’s Weekend, February 13 and 14.

Solvang's Veterans Memorial Hall hosts Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure

The majority of the labels that pour at Garagiste don’t have tasting rooms, many don’t have distributors.  So a focused tasting event with the right crowd can do a lot to boost visibility and sell wine.  But the consumer may be the bigger winner here.  These wines are tough to find, either at wine shop shelves or even other events.  The organizers do a nice job of making things intimate and approachable: only 25 wineries pour each day, so you can visit them all.  Each day features a different set of wines.  And since only the owner or winemaker, herself, is doing the pouring, it’s easy to engage them and to speak one-on-one.  This is the best way to learn about new trends, and fresh approaches.

“I take more chances with mine,” says Steinwachs.  She’s comparing her own Seagrape label, with its 300 cases, to her job as head winemaker for the award-winning Buttonwood label.  She produces 8000 cases of wine a year there.

“Like stem inclusion, which is sort of a geeky thing and not everybody likes it.  If I’m making a Buttonwood wine, I might do 20% stem inclusion, for a style that’s more palate-pleasing, but I might go 80% for Seagrape, a bit bigger.  And our chardonnay has a little bit of oak in it, because I like oaked chardonnay.   So with Seagrape I can dabble more.”

Steinwachs, who launched Seagrape in 2007 with her late husband, Dave Robinson, is pouring yet-unreleased wines at next month’s Garagiste.

Larry Schaffer (Bob Dickey photo)
Winemaker Larry Schaffer’s project has certainly grown since 2006, when the Tercero label hit the market with a whopping 100 cases.  At somewhere above 2000 cases now, he’s one of the largest Garagiste participants.  The event actually requires members make 1500 cases a year or less; Schaffer has been sort of grandfathered in.  “I still have the mindset of a garagiste,” he insists.  In fact, one of his best wines, a fragrant and bouncy gew├╝rztraminer, is called The Outlier.

On Saturday, Schaffer will be heading a seminar on mourvedre, a Rhone grape that he loves for its potential as a blending agent, a ros├ę or a stand-alone wine.  “It can be made into a multitude of styles, and it can really show sense of place,” he says.  A warmer climate can yield fruit-forward mourvedre wines, he adds, while a cooler clime can make them earthier.   The seminar, which will also focus on the history of mourvedre, will also feature Zaca Mesa winemaker Eric Mohseni and Atla Colina’s Bob Tillman.  It runs from 11:30am-12:30pm.  The Grand Tasting goes from 2pm (1pm for Early Access) to 5pm. 

A VIP All-Day Access ticket, which includes the seminar, lunch and tasting, costs $95.  The tasting alone costs $55 ($75 for 1pm Early Access).  Two-day passes reflect a 20% discount.

The times are the same on Sunday, which is Valentine’s Day; that day’s seminar is on sparkling wine and will feature Flying Goat’s Norm Yost, Kessler-Haak’s Dan Kessler and Halcyon Wine’s Tyler Elwell, a buzzed-about up-and-comer.

But no matter which day you go – go both! – Schaffer insists this is a boon for consumers.  “These winemakers are stretching their wings, starting off in new adventures, possibly doing things differently, working with different vineyards,” he tells me.  “More experimentation doesn’t mean the wine is better or worse.  But you don’t know until you try it, and this event affords consumers that.  And they are very likely to find something they really like.”

For more information on “Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure,” including a couples’ discount for Valentine’s Day and overnight stay options, go to garagistefestival.com.


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