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Tenth annual Garagiste Wine Festival showcases Paso's passionate small-lot producers 

click to enlarge POURING FOR A PURPOSE Proceeds from the Garagiste festivals fund student scholarships in Cal Poly's Wine and Viticulture Department.

Photo Courtesy Of Garagiste Wine Festival

POURING FOR A PURPOSE Proceeds from the Garagiste festivals fund student scholarships in Cal Poly's Wine and Viticulture Department.

It's not easy making a splash in California's fastest growing wine region and largest geographic wine appellation.

The Paso Robles American Viticultural Area (AVA) boasts more than 200 wineries and 40,000 vineyard acres. Mega-producers such as Justin Winery pump out between 300,000 and 400,000 cases of wine annually. Behemoth J. Lohr even dwarfs competition statewide with 1.76 million cases.

Closer to the ocean, the soon-to-be-recognized SLO Coast AVA's 30-plus wineries also count industry heavyweights among their ranks. SLO's Edna Valley Winery rivals Justin in production, while Laetitia Vineyard in Arroyo Grande releases an impressive 150,000 cases annually.

Enter the Garagiste Wine Festival—celebrating its 10th year—which aims to spotlight local winemakers producing fewer than 1,500 cases annually. While many are just starting out, hoping to garner attention, others are veterans with zero desire to mass produce.

Copia Vineyards co-owners Anita and Varinder Sahi, of Paso Robles, will be pouring for their third time at the Garagiste Festival, a two-day event kicking off Nov. 12 at Pavilion on the Lake in Atascadero. The evening features an intimate tasting of rare releases from 50-plus participating winemakers.

On Nov. 13, festivities move to the Paso Event Center, where winemakers will present their small-batch repertoires to an expanded audience.

click to enlarge ABUNDANCE Anita Sahi, co-owner of Copia Vineyards in Paso Robles, and her husband, co-owner and winemaker Varinder Sahi, celebrated the first harvest of their own grenache vines this year. - COURTESY PHOTO BY MYKAELA FAULCONER
  • Courtesy Photo By Mykaela Faulconer
  • ABUNDANCE Anita Sahi, co-owner of Copia Vineyards in Paso Robles, and her husband, co-owner and winemaker Varinder Sahi, celebrated the first harvest of their own grenache vines this year.

"The Garagiste Festival is one of our favorite events," said Anita Sahi. "It connects us with consumers who are looking for boutique producers of the wines they love from the Central Coast. A lot of these folks have ended up becoming our club members."

In 2018 at the Sahis' first Garagiste Festival, they had just purchased property in Paso's Willow Creek District. Former owners Michael and Andrea Dewitt also enticed the Sahis to acquire their fledgling Copia brand, which produced about 150 cases.

"It didn't occur to us that we were going to take over the label. We just thought we'd take over this property," she said. "We also bought the neighboring parcel for a total of 50 acres."

The Sahis tasted through the Dewitts' 2015 vintage, which impressed them.

"We also loved the name Copia, which means abundance," Sahi added. "It kind of encapsulated our feeling when we first came to Paso and particularly when we found this property."

In 2019 the Sahis expanded their 2 acres of existing grenache, syrah, and mourvedre vines and added cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot.

Presently, they're producing between 1,400 and 1,500 cases, including a chardonnay with grapes sourced from Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County.

They've also elevated the label, with Copia's primarily Rhone-varietal blends regularly earning 90 to 95 points from critics and publications, including Jeb Dunnuck and Wine Enthusiast.

Garagiste co-founders Doug Minnick and Stewart McLennan, who launched the festival series in Paso in 2011, say the area is home to the state's highest concentration of micro-wineries.

Minnick and McLennan are winemakers themselves, and they adopted the French term garagiste to pay homage to independent, artisan winemakers handcrafting small batches of wine, sometimes in their garages.

Minnick, of Studio City, sources grapes for his Hoi Polloi wines from Paso, while McLennan and his Sharpei Moon and Golden Triangle brands are based in Templeton.

"We knew these micro-wineries were making wonderful, adventurous, hard-to-find wines, but most did not have tasting rooms and couldn't be found on the wine country maps," Minnick said. "We wanted to help these winemakers find their audience and bring attention to the burgeoning micro-winery movement coming out of Paso Robles specifically, and California generally."

Garagiste festivals have expanded to locations in Solvang, Sonoma, and Los Angeles, "but Paso is our home and center," Minnick said.

click to enlarge LA FAMILIA Winemaker Edgar Torres; his wife, Erika; 8-year-old son, Evan; and chocolate Labrador, Osos, enjoy Paper Street Vineyard in Paso Robles. Torres sources grapes from the vineyard, owned by J. Dusi Wines. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BODEGA DE EDGAR
  • Photo Courtesy Of Bodega De Edgar
  • LA FAMILIA Winemaker Edgar Torres; his wife, Erika; 8-year-old son, Evan; and chocolate Labrador, Osos, enjoy Paper Street Vineyard in Paso Robles. Torres sources grapes from the vineyard, owned by J. Dusi Wines.

This year's 10-year anniversary event brings back seven of the "original garagistes," including winemaker Edgar Torres of Cayucos. Torres' repertoire of Spanish-style blends and single varietals—such as albariño and tempranillo—has expanded from 250 cases under the label Bodega de Edgar to 6,000 cases and two additional brands.

Straight out of Paso showcases local grapes, while Torres' latest creative outlet, Songs, is "my French interpretation of varieties that I got trained with" as well as a nod to his favorite tunes, he said.

Torres plans to produce the same varieties each year but change the names based on their unique flavor output. For instance, his Young Forever label—paying tribute to artist Jay-Z—is a potent 100 percent cabernet franc bottled after only eight months in barrel.

Additionally, he said, the label fonts will incorporate font styles from associated album covers.

Torres might even have a few Songs samples on hand at the festival's rare and reserve pouring the first night of the festival.

click to enlarge CONSTANT COMPANION Jason Haas, partner and general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso, inspects the cellar with his sidekick, 6-year-old Australian shepherd Sadie. - PHOTO COURTESY OF TABLAS CREEK VINEYARD
  • Photo Courtesy Of Tablas Creek Vineyard
  • CONSTANT COMPANION Jason Haas, partner and general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso, inspects the cellar with his sidekick, 6-year-old Australian shepherd Sadie.

Another festival highlight will be a discussion and tasting with Jason Haas, the second-generation proprietor of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso. Haas plans to touch on sustainable vineyard practices.

"I think any winery can incorporate regenerative techniques—something as simple as planting cover crops, or moving to weed mechanically rather than chemically, or planting wide-spaced—which doesn't require much or any water," Haas said.

"Sometimes people are daunted by the idea that they have to do everything at once, when incremental improvements are often the best way to go about it."

Tablas Creek became the world's first winery to achieve Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) last year. "We've been trying to [improve] our ROC work this year, moving production on-site for things that we formerly had to purchase, like organic feed for our sheep, or biochar," he said.

After Haas' seminar, an anticipated 700 festival attendees will get up close and personal with "winemakers who don't make enough wine to satisfy big distributors, and, therefore, aren't subject to their high-volume demands," Minnick said. "This results in the widest range of styles and varieties you will find at any wine event anywhere.

"We even limit ticket sales to make sure the room isn't crowded, so [attendees] have an opportunity to talk to the winemakers, and vice versa."

Sahi, for one, says she is "excited to be back in person at one of our favorite fests of the year."

She offers the following advice to budding winemakers: "I'd emphasize authenticity and staying true to oneself.

"The other advice ... is that it truly helps to work every position in your own business—from cellar rat to tasting room associate. It's the best way to learn and lead by example.

"Winemaking is tangible and satisfying work. It's part craft and part art. On one hand, you are bound by Mother Nature and what she gave you in a particular growing season.

"On the other hand, you have influence as a winemaker, both by respecting the site as well as certain stylistic choices.

"At the end of it all, it's one of the only pieces of art that is consumed, most often among friends and family," she continued. "We have been lucky, as newer winemakers, to have received great critical scores, but our greatest satisfaction comes from being across from a guest experiencing their enjoyment as they try the wines. That feels like true success to us." Δ

Flavor Writer Cherish Whyte believes big things come in small packages. Reach her at cwhyte@newtimesslo.com.

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