Paso Robles Garagiste Festival Part I

Garagiste Festival Friday
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Garagiste (n): “a group of innovative winemakers in the Bordeaux region, producing “Vins de garage”, “Garage wine”. A group emerged in the mid-1990s in reaction to the traditional style of red Bordeaux wine, which is highly tannic and requires long ageing in the bottle to become drinkable. The garagistes developed a style more consistent with perceived international wine tastes.” (From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garagiste )

The third annual Paso Robles Garagiste Festival was held Thursday, November 7 through Sunday, November 10, 2013.  We attended the Friday “Opening Round” and the Saturday “Grand Tasting.”  While we saw a few familiar names, most of these wineries are so small and/or out of the way that they were new to us.  Overall, a terrific event which we will attend again in 2014 if the stars align correctly. This is our review of the Paso Robles Garagiste Festival Part I.

The Pavilion at the Lake

The Pavilion at the Lake

Friday’s Opening Round was held at the Pavilion on the Lake in Atascadero, about ten miles south of Paso Robles.  In all, 17 wineries were present.  The only one familiar to us was Pence Ranch, our newcomer of the year after we discovered them at the Pasadena Pinotfest 2013.  We headed for Pence Ranch immediately after entering the Pavilion.  And we were not disappointed.  Blair Pence is a great addition to the California wine industry, specifically pinot noir.  Every year Pence Ranch bottles three Estate pinots: one simply called “Estate,” the second their “Uplands Estate,” and the third “Westslope Estate.”  They were tasting their 2011 vintages (clearly not yet bottled as a close look at the photo below will demonstrate).  As of today (December 7, 2013) none of the three is available for sale on the winery website.  Prices quoted below are for the 2010 vintages, again from the winery website.

Pence Ranch Unlabeled 2011 Wines

Pence Ranch Unlabeled 2011 Wines

The 2011 Estate pinot noir ($30) retains the essence of the 2010 of the same name.  It is an approachable, friendly wine that displays many of the characteristics of the Santa Barbara – Santa Maria Valley area.  We have started using the word “desert” to describe these wines.  You can almost taste the dry dust.  If Pence Ranch ever decides to sell this wine, it will be a bargain.

The 2011 Uplands ($40) is made from vineyard blocks at the highest elevations.  The dirt up there is loamy with a hefty infusion of the calcareous rocks that give many pinot noirs a special flavor and aroma. It hardly seems necessary to add that this wine exhibits the minerality characteristic of other pinots grown in similar circumstances.  (Calcareous Winery in Paso Robles has vineyards atop mountains of limestone, for example.)

The 2011 Westslope ($50) is from a vineyard that is exposed to the winds blowing in from the Pacific ocean.  The soil is rich but the climate is brutal, causing the grapes to struggle.  Production is pretty low — in 2010 only 94 cases were made.  This wine tends to the more tannic side and needs a few years aging to realize its potential.

The Garagiste Scene

The Garagiste Scene

We don’t come from a multi-generation wine making family. We didn’t grow up in wine country or study abroad in Europe. We don’t have a traditional wine club or free tastings or pick up parties. We did (and still do) drink a lot of wine from up and down the west coast. We’re just passionate about wine.

Plan B Wine Cellars, like Pence Ranch, released their first vintage in 2010.  Also like Pence Ranch, their annual output is small at 900 cases.  (Pence Ranch produces 1,000 cases per year.)  Owners Marlow and Janis Barger have this to say from their website:

Plan B was pouring a 2011 “GMS.” The GMS opens with a butterscotch, desert aromas with notes of chocolate and blueberry.  We were not accustomed to these delightful aromas from this grape.  But the taste ran to form, a huge monster of a wine with14.9% alcohol.

Marlow and Janis Barger, Owners of Plan B Cellars

Marlow and Janis Barger, Owners of Plan B Cellars

Sea Shell Cellars produces a whopping 550 cases per year.  This is the kind of winery we were looking for.  And they displayed a bit of panache, pouring three 2011s: “Low Tide” Bordeaux blend ($28, sold out on the winery website), “Vineyard Collection” GSM ($28), and “Balboa Reserve,” a Rioja-style with 75% tempranillo and 25% grenache ($32).  (Prices are from the Garagiste Festival program, the 2011s are not yet available on the website.)

Kevin Carter of Sea Shell Cellars

Kevin Carter of Sea Shell Cellars

Sea Shell is intriguing.  They change the composition of their blends from year to year (appropriately, in our opinion).  Their wines are excellent.  The Balboa Reserve opens with aromas of raspberry and citrus.  Classic Rioja flavors with cocoa and bacon. Enough tannins to need at least a couple of years aging.

The Low Tide features aromas of blackberry and blueberry. On the palate it shows f red licorice with leather and tobacco notes. Again, the level of tannins suggests improvement with age. We were again reminded that we don’t particularly like Bordeaux-style blends.

Sea Shell Cellars wines

Sea Shell Cellars wines

Finally the Vineyard Collection exhibits the Rhône characteristics we expect from Paso Robles GSM products. Aromas of cherry are followed by flavors of souce and vanilla. Like the previous two offerings, the finish of red fruit tannin promises improvement with aging.

Sea Shell is located north of Paso Robles on the east side of Highway 101.  This is the same general area as RN Estate, so it’s not surprising that Sea Shell’s wines are pretty good.  They’re sitting on some great terroir.

Ascension Cellars featured spectacular labels designed by co-owner Erick Allen (see slideshow below). Erick is an interior designer.  His business partner Brian Sauls is in finance.  Which explains where the funding came from for their joint venture.  Producing 340 cases per year, Ascension is not going to make much profit in the wine business.  But Erick and Brian seem to be having fun and they’re making pretty darn good wine

[portfolio_slideshow include=”2907,2908,2909,2910,2911,2912,2913″ ]

The Ascension 2010 “Dalliance” GSM ($44) begins with aromas of strawberries and cherries. Flavors of blood oranges and other citrus notes are followed by light tannins on the finish.

Ascension was also pouring their 2012 “Evangelist” late harvest viognier ($26, may be half-bottle price).  Normally we pass on dessert wines but we took a chance and did not regret it.  Peaches and pears with an amazing hazelnut finish.

C. Nagy Wines (400 cases per year) appears to be following the Siduri model. Their address appears to be in a light industrial complex.  They don’t grow grapes, they just make wine. They source grapes from three vineyards: Bien Nacido (Santa Maria valley), Garey Ranch (also Santa Maria valley), and White Hawk (Los Alamos).  Their 2010 White Hawk syrah ($30) is outstanding, featuring smoky, leathery aromas. Plum and huckleberry flavors are followed by a smoky finish.  But the 2012 White Hawk viognier ($24, not yet available on the company website) was a bit too acid for our taste.

Clarissa Nagy

Clarissa Nagy

Michael Gill is located on Peachy Canyon Road, a well-known winery destination in Paso Robles.  We’ll be sure to stop by the next time we’re in the area.  Their motto, “Where the Wild Things Are,” is reflected in the décor of their tasting room.

Michael Gill Cellars (1,000 cases per year) had a 2011 Fleur de Xel viognier ($24) that was fairly priced and showed good value for the money.  It’s easy to let viognier veer too far in either the acid or sweet direction.  This one is quite well balanced, with aromas of honeysuckle and peaches.  With lemony citrus flavors and a dry mineral finish, we can recommend this wine without qualifications.

Michael Gill

Michael Gill

Michael Gill Tasting Room Where The Wild Things Are

Michael Gill Tasting Room Where The Wild Things Are

Conclusion

The Friday evening session was even better than we hoped.  The Garagiste Festival truly brought together very small wineries.  Some of them will not stay small for very long if they can scale up while maintaining quality.

Saturday’s Grand Tasting deserves two articles.  We made two circuits of the tasting room.  The first was devoted to pinot noir, with the second used to explore other offerings.

Stay tuned for Part II.

About the author

Tony Lima has been a California wine fan since arriving in California from the east coast in 1974. He's lived the growth and expansion of the West Coast industry first hand. He's seen the fickle California Wine consumer fads pop up and burst... the craze for Zinfandel, then oaky Chardonnay, then Merlot, now Pinot Noir. On behalf of fellow Californian oenophiles, he hunts for great pinot noir and great values in pinot noir all along the West Coast. His day job is Professor of Economics at California State University located in Hayward. His undergrad degree in chemical engineering (MIT) and his MBA (Harvard) and Ph.D. Economics (Stanford) are the root of his interest in the Business of Wine. He is a card-carrying member of the AAWE - American Association of Wine Economists.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the kind words. This was our first garagiste event but will not be our last. I think you captured the evening well. I’m glad you enjoyed our wine, though I have to say you are the first to call that one a monster, but that’s what’s cool about wine. Everyone gets a little different experience.

    Reply
    • Tony Lima says:

      Relying on my audio notes, but the technology is a work in progress. Tell you what — post your tasting notes here and I’ll approve the comment immediately. Even better, I’ll give you commenting privileges. Thanks for making such terrific wine!

      Reply

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