Rise of the California garagistes, from basements to barrels to fests
The first garagiste wine I ever tasted was one Luciano Sandrone made in the basement-garage of his house on the outskirts of Barolo, Italy. He and his wife, Mariuccia, were pasting the labels on the bottles by hand. Though he had a day job then and not one row of vines to his name (he didn’t come from a winemaking family), Sandrone went on to become one of the world’s most famous winemakers and now has a rather grand estate — and vineyards — in prime Barolo country. Nobody would have called him a garagiste back then, and there certainly wasn’t a movement by that name.
Today the term has become popular, designating rogue vintners who are passionate enough that they’re going ahead with or without funds and living the dream, making wine in small quantities in improvised cellars.
California’s Central Coast has even spawned a garagiste movement with its own laid-back festival. So far about 250 small-scale wineries, all producing fewer than 1,500 cases and many of them first-timers, have participated in the various garagiste festivals. The first was in Paso Robles in 2011, and now there’s not only a Southern Exposure edition in Solvang but also a new edition called Urban Exposure that was held at Union Station in downtown L.A. last month.
The vintners that participate are a diverse bunch. Some already work in wine and want a solo project. Most have day jobs in other fields and making wine is a long-held dream. A few have the funds to hire consultants. Others just ask lots of questions and go it on their own. And most hope to one day make enough wine, while still staying small, to leave their day jobs behind.
Most don’t have vineyards or even cellars, using custom-crush facilities to make their wine or renting space within a larger winery. That gives them the opportunity to source their grapes from some of the top vineyards on the Central Coast. They work on such small scale that they don’t need much, sometimes just a row of vines, enough to produce a single barrel. And because they’re working in such small quantities, garagistes have the freedom to experiment with outlier grape varieties or new techniques.
Mark Wasserman, Vinemark Cellars
As a kid, the 65-year-old Wasserman helped his grandfather Papa Joe make wine on his Ontario, Calif., farm. After picking the grapes, they’d foot-stomp the Zinfandel in a concrete vat in his basement. “I’ve been told the wine he made didn’t taste very good, but people drank it anyway,” says Wasserman, wryly.
To get into winemaking, Wasserman joined a home winemakers club called Cellarmasters in Woodland Hills. They encouraged him to get a Pinot Noir kit, which included everything he’d need. “I learned a lot from it, but the wine itself came out pretty bad,” he says, laughing. Why? “Because I’m not very patient and bottled it before it had finished fermenting. Some of the corks popped off.”
The next year he bought 100 pounds of Syrah, enough to make two cases of wine. That wine he deemed good enough to serve at his wedding two years later. He kept at it, all the while wondering whether he could ever get good enough to go commercial. A winning streak of gold medals at home-winemaking competitions finally convinced him. His first commercial release was in 2012.
He makes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but his favorite is Primitivo. Right now he shares space in a larger winery. Even though he’s been making wine for years, he says the hobby has turned out to cost more than he expected and involves much more labor and hand work.
Eric Carucci, Carucci Wines
When he was just 24, Carucci met a winemaker he pestered with so many questions that the guy finally suggested he buy some fruit and make some wine. He went out and bought half a ton of Merlot from Dry Creek in Sonoma and in his parents’ San Diego garage turned it into one barrel of wine. “It turned out great. I was actually very surprised. Pretty much, I was hooked from that day on,” says Carucci, now 30, who works as a financial analyst in Orange County.
He immediately started researching what he’d need to go commercial and where he could find the best fruit. He sussed out which areas are best for which grapes and which vineyards were gaining a lot of attention. And, in 2010, he made a Thompson Vineyard Syrah (46 cases) and a Pinot Noir (36 cases) from what is now Winslow Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills. The next year he added a Viognier to the lineup and has a Roussanne and a Grenache coming in 2015.
“One of the beauties of being small is that we can play around and try different things,” says Carucci. But he’ll have to bump up production to leave his day job, which is something he says he thinks about every day.
Chris Carter, Weatherborne Wine Corp.
Echo Park resident Carter, 34, has worked as a brew master for Golden Road Brewing and now runs the brewery’s lab. But he started out in wine with a degree from UC Davis and worked at wineries in New Zealand, Oregon and California for a decade before getting into beer.
“Then one day I realized I wanted to make my own mistakes, to be a winemaker for myself,” he says. He knows exactly what he wants from his small winery: to make Pinot Noir and only Pinot Noir. The winemaking part he has down. What’s been difficult is learning all the administrative and accounting stuff — and juggling the two jobs, driving up to Lompoc every other week or so to where he makes the wine. He just got his final permit last week, so he can now officially sell what he makes.
“My goal is to eventually have a small estate vineyard and just do a couple thousand cases of Pinot, be a little farmer and make a little money on the side.”
The fourth annual Garagiste Festival is Nov. 6 to 9 at the Ponderosa Pavilion at the Paso Robles Event Center. For more information, visit californiagaragistes.com.
Follow me on Twitter @sirenevirbila.
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