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Bustin' outta the garage: Renegade micro winemakers shirk tradition at the Paso Garagiste Fest 

What do sweaty teenage rock ’n’ roll bands, quirky tech startups, and small-batch wine all have in common? They’re all often conceived in garages—between dusty boxes stuffed with last year’s Christmas decorations and that workout bike mom bought during a late-night infomercial binge.

RAISE A GLASS TO THE REBELLION:  Forget everything you know about wine and get ready for the sixth annual Garagiste Festival, which features a Friday Night Heaven: Rare, Reserve, and Retro event at the Carlton Hotel in Atascadero (Nov. 11). On Saturday, taste more than 50 wineries at the main tasting event held at the Paso Robles Event Center (Nov. 12). Check out californiagaragistes.com for information on two additional Saturday seminars, Illegal Blends! Garagiste Winemakers Break Old Wine Rules, hosted by winemakers Erick Allen (Ascension Cellars), Brian Brown (ONX), and Steve Lemley (Pulchella Winery); and A Peek Behind the Curtain of Big Wineries with Adam Lazarre, one of the creators of superstar wines Rex Goliath and Cycles-Gladiator. Visit californiagaragistes.com for details.
  • RAISE A GLASS TO THE REBELLION: Forget everything you know about wine and get ready for the sixth annual Garagiste Festival, which features a Friday Night Heaven: Rare, Reserve, and Retro event at the Carlton Hotel in Atascadero (Nov. 11). On Saturday, taste more than 50 wineries at the main tasting event held at the Paso Robles Event Center (Nov. 12). Check out californiagaragistes.com for information on two additional Saturday seminars, Illegal Blends! Garagiste Winemakers Break Old Wine Rules, hosted by winemakers Erick Allen (Ascension Cellars), Brian Brown (ONX), and Steve Lemley (Pulchella Winery); and A Peek Behind the Curtain of Big Wineries with Adam Lazarre, one of the creators of superstar wines Rex Goliath and Cycles-Gladiator. Visit californiagaragistes.com for details.

Why the garage? It’s the perfect makeshift clubhouse for everyday inventors, a sacred place where “the rules” simply do not apply. In France, the rebellious winemakers who made wine in unconventional styles were labeled with the term “garagiste,” but little did authorities know that this name would go on to conjure a sense of pride for masterful micro producers across the world. 

This Nov. 11 through 13, more than 50 renegade winemakers will converge on downtown Paso Robles for the sixth annual Garagiste Festival, a celebration of larger-than-life small-lot wines born from figurative (and literal) garages across the Paso Robles AVA. 

Note: We’re not just talking about some fancy “ultra boutique” title here. Each winery produces fewer than 1,200 cases per year, but don’t mistake their output as “small.” In the wine world, these movers and shakers are thinking bigger—and bolder—than the powers that be. And now, an interview with three unruly winemakers ready to rock.


Introduce yourself:
Bret Urness, owner/janitor/winemaker at Levo Wines located in Tin City, Paso Robles.

Output: 800 to 1,200 cases annually.

What would you change about the “wine world”? 

I am really new in the wine industry, but I’m hoping that I can make wine that delivers an experience rather than just a product. I hope we can push boundaries aesthetically and step over traditional lines that have been drawn out in the sand. I want to make sexy wines on the inside and out. I want the wines to tell a story.

Super power?

Time travel would be dope. 

click to enlarge GO BOLDLY FORTH:  A young winemaker with a yearning to “tell a story” in each bottle, Bret Urness of Levo Wines represents a new crop of outside-the-box producers. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GARAGISTE FESTIVAL
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF GARAGISTE FESTIVAL
  • GO BOLDLY FORTH: A young winemaker with a yearning to “tell a story” in each bottle, Bret Urness of Levo Wines represents a new crop of outside-the-box producers.

What about a winemaking super power?

To be able to pick all my fruit perfectly every time.

Craziest harvest?

This harvest was a bit of a doozy, one I’ll remember for a long time. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. There are times where you have to dig deep, and your love for your product really comes out. I’m happy the harvest is over now, but looking back, there was a lot of heart put into this juice. I’m excited to share that with people.

Why should “non wine” people care about the Garagiste festival?

Garagiste is a gateway drug to the wine world. It’s a bunch of humble, passionate people making delicious wine. We ain’t snobs!

Quick! What is the Best dinner, wine, and music for your perfect day off?

I’m not too picky. Give me a hunk of meat straight off the fire, some colossal cabernet or cool climate syrah, and spin something soulful and funky.


Who are you?
Steve Martell, owner/winemaker at Kaleidos, located in the Templeton Gap.

click to enlarge DAMN FINE TIME:  Steve Martell, owner/winemaker at Kaleidos, located in the Templeton Gap, believes that there’s nothing better than a fine swig of syrah and a crackling bonfire. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GARAGISTE FESTIVAL
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF GARAGISTE FESTIVAL
  • DAMN FINE TIME: Steve Martell, owner/winemaker at Kaleidos, located in the Templeton Gap, believes that there’s nothing better than a fine swig of syrah and a crackling bonfire.

Output: 300 to 500 cases annually.

What’s your poison? Rhone varietals.

How do you buck the status quo?

I use minimalist, hands-off techniques. I strive to showcase the grapes and the vineyard where they were grown without over-manipulating the wines to achieve some desired character or style. 

What’s the one thing you’d change about the “wine world”?

If I could change anything, I would take the pretentiousness out of wine and make it more friendly and approachable for novices and aficionados alike. 

What personal super power would you choose, if given the chance? 

To be able to teleport myself anywhere so I could travel all over the world without the travel time. 

What about a winemaking super power?

To be able to communicate with, and control, yeast and bacteria so I could direct them to make the best wines possible.

Funniest wine experience?

After graduating from UCSC, I spent a month backpacking around Chile. Early on during the trip, I went wine tasting and bought a couple of bottles that I enjoyed. I spent the rest of the trip lugging the wine around with me. A couple of months later, I returned home to San Diego, where I saw the same wine on the shelf in the liquor store around the corner for less than what I had bought it for in Chile. Little did I know it was a big international brand, and I carried that wine with me for a month for no reason.

Why should the average Joe get out to the Garagiste Fest?

It’s a great event for wine lovers and anyone who has any interest in wine. All the producers are small to micro producers and their product is their passion. You’ll taste unique wines and get to talk to the owners and winemakers and get some insight into what makes each wine special.

Best dinner ever? 

I would say a barbecue dinner with steak and veggies, a good bottle of syrah, some reggae music, good friends, and a bonfire.


Tell us who you are: JP French, owner/winemaker of JP III Wines in Paso Robles.

click to enlarge MEET THE GARAGISTES:  Paso Robles winemaker JP French produces just 300 cases a year of his single lot label, JP III, but don’t call it a side project. Like more than 50 of his fellow winemakers, he pays painstaking attention to detail; blood, sweat, and tears go into each handcrafted bottle. - PHOTO COURTESY OF GARAGISTE FESTIVAL
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF GARAGISTE FESTIVAL
  • MEET THE GARAGISTES: Paso Robles winemaker JP French produces just 300 cases a year of his single lot label, JP III, but don’t call it a side project. Like more than 50 of his fellow winemakers, he pays painstaking attention to detail; blood, sweat, and tears go into each handcrafted bottle.

Output: 300 cases annually.

What’s your poison? Tempranillo

What’s the one thing you’d change about the wine world?

Government intervention, but that goes without saying. Let the hard, passionate workers succeed without giving everything up.

Super power time! Personal? Winemaking?

Personal power? I guess we’d all love to wear a red cape. Winemaking power: I’d love to have the power of Mary Poppins and to be able to have the winery clean itself up, including topping off all the wines with Co2.

Craziest wine experience?

Harvest after harvest, working months on end without a break, can be considered insane, if not crazy.

What makes the Garagiste Festival different from other wine fests out there?

I believe this festival to be the best one I’ve done in my 17 years of experience. It’s very unpretentious with very positive attitudes among the wineries and the guests. I’ve met some of my best customers through this event.

Last meal?

Bubbles ... lots of bubbles! Fresh fish, veggies, spicy fruit salsa. I’m sure there is some Hawaiian music in the background because I’m sitting on a beach in Kauai. Don’t forget about the cheese! 

Hayley Thomas Cain thinks great wine pairs best with The Ramones. She can be reached at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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