Garagiste Wine Festival: Northern Exposure – April 13, 2019
I attended the recent Garagiste Wine Festival: Northern Exposure tasting in Sonoma, and wrote a report for the Grape-Nutz.com website. An abbreviated version of the report is below – there are lots more photos plus tasting impressions from nearly 20 wineries here: Garagiste Wine Festival: Northern Exposure – April 13, 2019
Report on the Garagiste Wine Festival: Northern Exposure event, held on Saturday April 13th, 2019, at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall in Sonoma. This tasting showcased the wines from small and lesser-known wineries in California.
The event included a seminar as well as a silent auction in addition to the afternoon Grand Tasting. A treat for seminar attendees was the box lunch that immediately followed, provided by Sonoma’s outstanding the girl & the fig restaurant.
The non-profit Garagiste Events organization was founded in 2011 by Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick in Paso Robles. Both founders made a little wine themselves, and they were looking for a way that smaller producers could band together to showcase their wines. Since many small wineries receive little public exposure – most of the ones at this event do not have tasting rooms – and individually most have a limited marketing budget, working together made sense.
Since 2011, there have been Garagiste events in Paso Robles each fall, and regular tastings have been added in Santa Barbara County (“Southern Exposure”) and in Los Angeles (“Urban Exposure”). This “Northern Exposure” event was the second to be held in Sonoma, and it looks like this may become an annual Garagiste event.
The term “garagiste” originated in Bordeaux. It began as a derogatory term for producers felt to be small and insignificant enough that they could make their wine in a garage, but it soon picked up the additional meaning of artisan vintners who weren’t afraid to be different from the big wineries. For California’s Garagiste Events organization, producers must make no more than about 1,500 cases of wine per year to qualify.
Several hundred producers have participated in Garagiste tastings since their first one in 2011. Proceeds from the festivals are donated to the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Wine and Viticulture Program and are used toward granting scholarships as well as creating other opportunities for students in the program there.
The seminar had a lengthy title: “What Defines an AVA? An Exploration of the new West Sonoma Coast Appellation and Why the Distinction Matters.” It was moderated by Garagiste’s Stewart McLennan, and featured two panelists – Carroll Kemp of Alma Fria Wines and Chris Pittenger of Gros Ventre Cellars. Each of the panelists presented three West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs at the seminar, plus one Chardonnay from Alma Fria. The wines were outstanding – descriptions are included in the notes below for each of the three wineries.
Stewart McLennan, Carroll Kemp, Chris Pittenger, Doug Minnick
After brief introductions and discussions of the winemakers’ backgrounds and their wineries, Carroll spoke about the status of the approval process for the West Sonoma Coast AVA and the origins of the movement to create it. The overall Sonoma Coast AVA is very large – over 515,000 acres or 800 square miles. Established in 1987, the AVA stretches from the Mendocino border and Pacific Ocean in the north and west all the way to San Pablo Bay and the southwest reaches of Napa Valley in the south and east. Other appellations share parts of the Sonoma Coast AVA area, including much of Russian River Valley and the recently-approved Petaluma Gap.
Vintners from the western part of the Sonoma Coast appellation organized their own vintners association in 2011 – an effort to help differentiate their wines from those from elsewhere in the Sonoma Coast. The process of forming a West Sonoma Coast appellation began in 2015, and a formal petition to create an AVA is currently under review by the TTB – Carroll and Chris told us that they hope it will gain approval by the end of the year. They provided seminar attendees with a map of the proposed West Sonoma Coast AVA, and pointed out three sub-regions in particular. The existing Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, approved in 2011, occupies a central position within the West Sonoma Coast, while the Annapolis area is toward the north end and Freestone-Occidental toward the south. Winegrape production in the West Sonoma Coast is dominated by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with Syrah and a few other varieties playing a smaller role.
Carroll and Chris presented discussions of the West Sonoma Coast’s climate and soils – part of each is what makes this region distinctive and worthy of AVA status. They also spoke a bit about what makes the wines from the area distinct from those of other nearby growing regions – in particular, they noted the effect they feel the area’s redwoods and other conifers has on the aromatics of wines sourced from the many vineyards close to these trees. Some of the wines we tasted at the seminar were sourced from vineyards throughout the West Sonoma Coast, while others were from the specific sub-regions mentioned earlier.
The wines at the seminar were among the best I tasted at this Garagiste event, and Carroll and Chris did a fine job of explaining where the fruit came from and how the wines were made. I did feel that the seminar could have used more discussion about what makes the region and its wines distinctive, and veered off too often into winemaking techniques. While this was interesting to be sure, I thought there was a missed opportunity to delve further into “why the distinction matters” of forming a new West Sonoma Coast AVA. But overall, this seminar was well worthwhile and very enjoyable.
Grand Tasting General Impressions
While this was the second annual Garagiste Wine Festival: Northern Exposure tasting in Sonoma, it was actually the third in the Bay Area, with the first one held in Oakland in 2016. The Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall is a much better venue for the event than their previous spot in Oakland. The room for the Grand Tasting was large and airy, with plenty of space for the participating wineries and for display of the silent auction items as well. Although there was a good crowd on hand, the room never felt overly crowded and it was fairly easy to step right up to nearly all the winery tables I visited. The event ran very smoothly – great work by Stewart and Doug of Garagiste, as well as by key organization members Lisa Dinsmore, Michelle Kraker, Melanie Webber, and Elizabeth Johnson, and by the volunteer helpers.
Ben Brenner of Benevolent Neglect
There were 41 producers that participated in this year’s Northern Exposure event, just about the same as at last year’s tasting. Nearly all of the wineries on hand were from Northern California – a great sign for this event since the Garagiste Wine Festival organization is based in Paso Robles and they have had a stronger presence on the Central Coast than farther north. Most wineries pouring this year were from Napa and Sonoma, along with a few from Mendocino, Lodi, the Sierra Foothills, the urban Bay Area, as well as the Central Coast.
The event featured quite a few wineries I was not familiar with, and I made an effort to taste at a number of their tables as well as with producers I’d tried in the past (and several of those were ones I’d only tried once before). I made it to nearly 20 wineries, though I didn’t include notes here on a couple whose wines I didn’t think were especially memorable. As is often the case, winery tables at the Grand Tasting were organized alphabetically, and I didn’t do the best job this year of getting to many of them beyond the middle of the alphabet…oh well. The Garagiste Wine Festival tastings provide a great showcase for new and unfamiliar producers, and not unexpectedly, some of their wines were more hit-and-miss than at the more established wineries – something I also found at the previous Garagiste events I’ve attended. That said, several of the wineries that were completely new to me poured terrific line-ups of wines.
Ed Donovan of Boonville Road Wines
While partially a factor of which wineries I tried at the event, I felt that Sonoma Coast and Mendocino wines showed especially well. I tasted quite a few very good rosé wines, continuing a trend I’ve seen over the past 5-6 years at various tasting events – it seems like more wineries are taking rosé more seriously these days. I tasted a few outstanding cool-climate Syrahs as well. Favorite producers among the more established labels I tried included Alma Fria, Betwixt, Fields Family, Gros Ventre, Kendric, and Witching Stick (though none of those wineries are more than 15 years old). Producers which were new to me that I thought were especially impressive included Adron, Benevolent Neglect, Boonville Road, and March – three of those four launched their labels with the 2016 vintage so they’re very new.
You’ll find few if any tasting events in California that feature so many “under the radar” wineries as the Garagiste Wine Festival. It’s a great opportunity to discover smaller wine producers, many of whom are quite new. If finding new wineries is something you’d like to do, be sure to check out one of the upcoming Garagiste Wine Festival events and make some of your own wine discoveries!
Ryan Sherman of Fields Family Wines
Whites and Rosés
Alma Fria 2015 Campbell Ranch Chardonnay
Benevolent Neglect 2017 Bengier Vineyard Ribolla Gialla
Betwixt 2018 Abba Vineyard Rosé
Boonville Road 2018 Rosé
Camlow 2018 “Sus Volans” Whole Cluster Pinot Noir Rosé
Cutruzzola 2015 Riven Rock Vineyard Estate Riesling
Gros Ventre 2018 Rosé
Kendric 2017 Estate Chardonnay
March 2018 Ricci Vineyard Rosé of St. Laurent
Witching Stick 2017 Perli Vineyard Chardonnay
Adron 2016 Manchester Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir
Alma Fria 2016 Doña Margarita Vineyard Pinot Noir
Betwixt 2017 Lester Family Vineyard Pinot Noir
Boonville Road 2016 Broken Leg Vineyard Syrah
Calstar 2015 Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir
Fallon Place 2015 Landa Vineyard Zinfandel
Fields Family 2017 Bechthold Vineyard Cinsault
Gros Ventre 2016 Campbell Ranch Pinot Noir
Kendric 2017 Estate Syrah
March 2018 Ricci Vineyard St. Laurent
Witching Stick 2015 Perli Vineyard Syrah
Others of Note
Adron 2017 Black Knight Vineyard Chardonnay
Alma Fria 2016 Holtermann Vineyard Pinot Noir
Benevolent Neglect 2017 Nelson Family Vineyard Riesling
Boonville Road 2016 Casa Verde Vineyard Carignan
Calstar 2017 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc
Camlow 2014 “Magna Porcum” Pinot Noir
Cutruzzola 2014 Riven Rock Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir
Fallon Place 2016 Herbitage Vineyard Pinot Noir
Fields Family 2016 “100% Whole Cluster” Syrah
Gros Ventre 2016 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Kendric 2016 Estate Pinot Noir
St. Romedius 2016 Red Wine
Witching Stick 2016 Perli Vineyard Pinot Noir
Van Williamson of Witching Stick Wines
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