Tiny Wineries Build an Institution

Meet four of the 48 artisan vintners pouring at the Third Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles

by Jane Firstenfeld
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Matt Brain, left, and Josh Baker will be pouring their Baker & Brain Wines at the upcoming Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles, Calif.
Paso Robles, Calif.—A wine event concocted by and for small, independent, artisan wine producers has in three years become a Central Coast institution. More than 48 wineries, most producing fewer than 1,200 cases per year, are scheduled to pour tastes of their limited wares during the third annual Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles Nov. 7-10. Half of the participants are new to the festival this year.

After an opening multi-winemaker dinner on Thurs., Nov. 7, the festival moves along to tastings and educational events in various locations: Friday’s “Shiners, Samples & Secrets” features “off-the-grid” wines.

Saturday’s “Main Event” tasting in the luxury barns at Windfall Farms is accompanied by educational seminars and followed by an after-party, where guests and winemakers can dance, drink and converse.

Seminars include “What's Wrong With This Picture? Educate Your Palate About the Most Common Wine Flaws,” a tasting seminar that will help consumers identify and understand the cause of wine flaws such as cork taint, oxidation, Brett, volatile acidity and more, with a side-by-side tasting. “Garagiste Outlaws: Breaking the Old World Blending Rules” introduces innovative blends from Central Coast winemakers and garagistes known for their innovative blends.

Aspiring and beginning winemakers, and consumers who want more background can enroll in Sunday’s winemaker symposium, “The Chemistry of Wine, Part 1,” focused on the wine lab and crucial winemaking decisions. Details, prices and registration for all are on the website http://www.garagistefestival.com/. The nonprofit event raises funds for the California Polytech State University, San Luis Obispo viticulture and enology department.

Get to know them
Wines & Vines has reported about the Garagiste Festival since before its first event in 2011, talking with the organizers about their goals for the operation and their own winemaking experiences. Since the festival’s essential attraction is the opportunity to sample unknown wines and meet their makers, we reached out to some of this year’s participants.

In general, these wineries don’t have tasting rooms, nor do they have vineyards that customers can visit. You won’t find the wines at BevMo! or on your grocer’s shelves, so the Garagiste Festival is a two-way street that connects potential buyers with winemakers who remain virtually undercover.

Cloak and Dagger Wines, with its remote office in Malibu, Calif., is a third-year festival participant and a charter member of the Garagistes. It’s the epitome of the Garagiste experience: Owner Ray Schofield is willing to talk about his winery, but not about his background, where the wine is made or where he sources those grapes he does not grow. “Handcrafted in secrecy” is the winery tagline.

This secrecy is embedded in the winery name; Schofield grows 15 acres of vineyards in the Paso Robles AVA, but sells many of the grapes, while purchasing from other growers in the neighborhood and Napa Valley, he said. “I try to get fruit I like, regardless of where it’s from. The Malibu address is just an office, and the wines are made at an undisclosed location in California.”

Schofield explained that he and his partners purchased the vineyard and started the operation in 2010 in secrecy, because of an unnamed conflict with his “previous life.”

Cloak and Dagger peaked at an annual production of about 1,000 cases, but averages more like 700-750 cases. Growth is a possibility “under the right circumstances. Never say never,” he said.

This third year festival has, he said, changed from a standpoint of events surrounding it, and added an extra day to accommodate the level of interest.

“The Grand Tasting hasn’t changed much, but it’s cozy,” he said. “What I like about this event is that the public seems to be really interested in the wines and the winemaker,” unlike more massive tastings, where, he observed, “people go for a cheap buzz. This is not a ‘drink ‘til you drop event’.”

Sans tasting room, Cloak and Dagger sells most of its product through its website, which is, Schofield said, “The only place to buy retail, in addition to a couple of small wine shops in Southern California and Paso Robles” and a few discerning restaurants.

There’s no mystery about Missing Leg, a 300-case winery in Paso Robles: It’s named for an antique British pub sign collected by owner/winemaker Karl Wicka’s father. Wicka is hardly an outsider in the wine industry. His wife and partner Heidi said, “Karl’s been making wine for a long time. He worked for Wild Horse under Ken Volk and John Priest, and has spent the last 12 years at Turley.”

Using grapes purchased on handshake contracts from growers around San Luis Obispo County, including Cruz and Righetti Vineyards, Missing Leg wines are all made at the Turley facility in Templeton, Calif. “An actual garage would be very unsanitary and not temperature controlled,” Heidi Wicka noted.

Even without a tasting room, Missing Leg sells some 80% of its production direct-to-consumer through twice-yearly allocation releases announced via snail mail. Some is sold direct via the website, and the wine is also distributed by J & L in San Luis Obispo County.

Missing Leg’s first release was in 2009, in mid-recession. “It was not good timing on our part,” Wicka said. “Karl’s day job is still very necessary.”

This will be the first time Missing Leg has joined the garagistes. “I hadn’t heard much about it until I was pouring at a museum event last year. They contacted us, and we did a tasting with them in Costa Mesa in the summertime,” one of a series of satellite events the group has launched outside of Paso.

“You get lost in large events,” Wicka commented. “We’re just hoping for more exposure, to introduce people to what Karl does.” At the Costa Mesa event, she said, “The questions were very intelligent and knowledgeable. Maybe by the time they leave, they’ll know even more.”

It’s only natural
Quirky names seem to be the norm among garagistes; some evolved organically. Wouldn’t you expect Baker & Brain Wines to be headed by a pastry chef and a rocket scientist?

But no, it’s actually the, um, brainchild of Josh Baker and Matt Brain. Both are full-fledged wine professionals: Baker is full-time winemaker for Phase 2 custom crush; Brain is a professor of viticulture and enology at Cal Poly. “We went around and around about picking a name; we wanted something that spoke to being artisan and handcrafted, with an eye on the science,” Baker said.

Since 2009, Baker & Brain has grown from 750 to 1,200 cases, even without a tasting room. Sales come through a wine club and events, and distribution in Northern California, locally and in Texas.

The wine is produced at Phase 2; grapes for the Pinot Noir and Rhône-style blends are sourced from vineyards ranging from Santa Barbara County to the Russian River Valley. “Our model for the label is to try and partner with the best growers around the state, not a single appellation,” Baker said.

This will be Baker & Brain’s first year as a full-blown participant at the Garagiste Festival, Baker said. “The big draw is to be with more like-minded people; a crowd of people specifically looking for boutique style, handcrafted wines.”

With the perspective of a seasoned professional, Baker explained that garagiste production poses different challenges. Sales, marketing and distribution bring their own problems. But, he said, “On the winemaking side, the biggest issue is that larger wineries have the ability to cover up their sins, any errors if they are made. For us, a couple of barrels represent our whole vintage of one wine: It’s got to be perfect.”

With a tasting room, a 500-member wine club and its own bonded winery, Paso Robles’ Hug Cellars sounds like an especially friendly place. And it is a family place, owned by Augie and Raquel Hug. Founded in 1994, it is perhaps the oldest of Paso’s garagiste wineries, producing around 1,500 cases per year, 2,000 in a “boom year.”

Augie Hug said this will be the winery’s first time at the Garagiste Festival. “We like what they represent.” With a day job as a consultant to the geothermal gas and oil industry, Hug’s involvement with the wine industry began with a restaurant in Cobb Mountain North of Calistoga, Calif., near the geothermal activity in Geyserville, Calif.

Moving to the Central Coast, Hug was first a retailer, selling wines from garagiste friends who were too small for tasting room. “This is my artistic outlet, because I love it. I’m not doing it to get rich.” His sales remain 90% DtC; Hug is on the wine list at a few local restaurants.

Hug has long-term vineyard leases in Paso Robles and Monterey County’s Arroyo Seco, which he described as “A good area without the high prices of the Santa Lucia Highlands.” A specialist in Rhone-style blends and an early member of the Rhone Rangers, he also makes Pinot Noir wines from “extreme coastal” vineyards in Cambria and San Simeon.

Although he’s not able personally to pour at the 2013 Garagiste Festival, Hug hopes the winery’s participation will “Get new people to know about and taste our wines. It’s a matter of getting out in front of the people,” he said.

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