It is hard to believe that it was just a little under eleven years ago that I was approached by Stewart McLennan (an old friend from my New York acting/theater days) and Doug Minnick about an idea they had to put on a festival in Paso Robles that would focus on the small-production, under-the-radar winemakers that were seemingly in every nook, cranny, field, garage and barn in the Central Coast. Stewart and Doug were each making wine in their garages at the time and had an affinity with these innovative, often renegade, winemakers.
I was running my own Public Relations firm and my wine credentials were at the “I love wine, but know little about it” stage. I was intrigued, and then flabbergasted, when they said they planned to premiere the festival in six months time and needed my help generating awareness and ticket sales through PR. But, they were determined and, with the help of event planner Lisa Dinsmore, the festival roared into being.
Stewart and Doug named the festival for the nickname given to small-production French winemakers in Bordeaux, who were making wine against AOC rules to the disdain of ‘chateau’ winemakers, who referred to them as ‘garage winemakers’ …i.e. garagistes. That disdain soon turned to fame when Robert Parker discovered them and their wines became some of the most sought-after wines in the world.
A video made to promote the 2011 festival
An under 1500 case limit was established, and it was not hard to find interested winemakers – in fact, the challenge was finding space for all who were interested. For me, as a publicist, it was a fantastic story and one in which the media expressed an immediate interest. It didn't hurt that Justin Smith of Paso Robles' Saxum, whose wine had just been named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year, i.e. the No. 1 wine in the world, agreed to headline a winemaker panel.
A stunning venue was established – the gorgeous Windfall Farms, an (at the time) non-working horse farm with pristine brick stables whose stalls worked beautifully for positioning over 40 winemakers.
It was decided that the non-profit venture would benefit the local, and increasingly renowned, Cal Poly Wine and Viticulture Program. We began to get media coverage, signed up an enthusiastic group of volunteers and, like magic (okay with a lot of blood sweat and tears, but some fairy dust!), all the pieces fell into place and, the day of the festival, we were astonished to see a long line of festival goers waiting for us to open the doors.
Indeed, they had a fantastic time, loving our ‘no snobs allowed’ ethos and the one on one chats with the winemakers the festival facilitated - an early decision was that only winemakers could pour, not tasting room personnel. And the winemakers found themselves face to face with a legion of new fans and wine club members for their formerly 'undiscovered' wines.
The very first Garagiste Festival: Paso Robles 2011 (photo credit: Tom Lake)
It was a raging success, so much so that the team decided to expand into another breathtakingly beautiful and wine-rich region: Santa Barbara County (and surrounding AVAs), which was busting at the seams with innovative small production winemakers. The visitor-friendly town of Solvang welcomed the idea, and us, and the striking and historic Mission style Veterans hall on Solvang’s main drag proved to be a perfect venue.
We launched The Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure, in early 2013 and, again, the media was excited and tickets flew out the door.
After that success, the festival expanded to annual events in Los Angeles (Urban Exposure) and Sonoma (Northern Exposure) with equal success. We also hosted a series of mini-tasting events and several wine dinners, including a fabulous pop-up winemaker dinner in Paso with famed chef Ludo Lefebvre for the 2012 Garagiste Festival.
The 'Ludo" dinner in 2012 - (photo credit: Tom Lake)
Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure traveled around Los Angeles, from Union Station for its first outing in 2014, to Art Deco marvel, The Wiltern, in 2015 & 2016, to Santa Monica in 2017 & 2018 and to Glendale in 2019 where we will return this summer.
In 2018, we launched in beautiful Sonoma at their Veteran's Hall, returned in 2019 and early 2020 and will be back in 2022!
Since inception, the festivals have showcased over 500 different wineries and over 4,000 wines to over 13,000 wine lovers. In its third year, the flagship festival in Paso grew out of Windfall Farms and moved to the more spacious Paso Fairgrounds where, with an eye to maintaining an intimate experience, we were able to accommodate many more attendees, the over 60 winemakers pouring each year and our infamous Keep It Rocking After Party.
We continued to receive national and international media coverage as the festival’s reputation grew. And, in no small measure thanks to the festival and its renown, the word ‘garagiste’ entered the American lexicon as a positive expression for innovative, artisan commercial winemakers handcrafting wines in the US.
Among the many accolades the festival has received are US’ Best Wine Festival by USA Today, “Best Festival” by Sunset Magazine, “Best of the Fests” by Fest Forums, one of the ‘Top Nine Incredible Epicurean Vacations’ in the world by ABC News, and, from the Los Angeles Times, a frequent attendee, “tasting nirvana,” “strange and wondrous,” and “one not to miss.”
The festival has helped many winemakers who, in some cases, had their first significant showcase at the festival, achieve national recognition. Alta Colina, Liquid Farms, Nicora, Cloak and Dagger, Caliza, Levo, Onyx, Cutrazzola, Vines on the Marycrest, Bodega de Edgar, Two Shepherds, Casa Dumetz, LXV, Kaena, and Tercero are just some of the well known wineries who have poured at the festival, with many having grown well past our 1500 case limit. The festival also served as a kind of inspirational launching pad for what became Paso Robles’ popular Tin City.
Clockwise from top left: Cloak & Dagger, Levo, Two Shepherds, Vines on the Marycrest, Weatherborne, LXV, Alta Colina and Cuttrazola at the 2014 Garagiste Festival: Urban Exposure in Los Angeles (photo credit: Tom Lake)
And, it served an important role in my wine life, spurring me to further my wine education – after all, I reasoned, how can I publicize these winemakers without understanding more about their product and process. So, I took a three hour class on the fundamentals of wine at LA’s The Wine House, and was hooked.
I moved on to the prestigious WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) program, achieving WSET Level 2 and 3 Award credentials, and took the leap into one of the wine world’s most challenging credentials: the WSET’s Diploma in Wine and Spirits.
It took nearly three years, but I earned my diploma in 2017, traveling to London for the graduation ceremony at London’s Guild Hall where Jancis Robinson was the keynote and the legendary Steven Spurrier handed me my diploma.
Since then I have completed the WSET ETP educator program, received my French Wine Scholar Certification with honors, WSET Sake 1 certification and am in progress with Spanish Wine Scholar and Master of Loire wine certifications. I started, and run the WSET wine education program in Paso Robles, a Wine House satellite, where, since late 2018, I have loved teaching hundreds of industry professionals (and wine lovers) at the spacious Broken Earth Winery tasting room, helping them achieve their certifications, as well as teaching in Los Angeles in The Wine House WSET Diploma and WSG French Wine Scholar programs. I also had a blast with my 'Tasting Like a Pro' seminar at the Paso 2019 festival.
So, along with the many winemakers (and artisan food vendors from ice cream to chocolate to olive oil) who leapt out of the gate from The Garagiste Festival, I, too, was ‘launched’ through my work with this now iconic event. As I move into other wine ventures, my wine roots, and deep awe, will always be with those extraordinary garagiste winemakers who each year craft their passion into some of the world’s most exciting wines.
And it has had its impact on the other members of the garagiste team, each of who now has their own successful winery: Doug has Hoi Polloi Winery and the Double Trouble Tasting Room in Santa Clarita; Stewart (with his partner and unsung heroine of the Garagiste Festival Michelle Kraker) has Sharpei Moon Wines in Templeton, among other ventures, and Lisa Dinsmore (along with the other unsung hero of the festival, her husband Dave Dinsmore) has longtime ‘festival fave’ winery Ascension Cellars.
While Covid put the brakes on the festival for two years, it roared back into life in Paso this fall for its 10th Anniversary in the window between Delta and Omicron, a huge success with over 60 winemakers and nearly 1,000 wine lovers celebrating coming together after the long Covid hibernation.
Garagiste Festival, Paso Robles 2021: Stewart and Tablas Creek's Jason Haas headlining the return of the Festival's Winemaker Seminar, t-shirts and lots of happy festival attendees. (photo credit: Angela Jacobson)
As Omicron fades (fingers crossed), Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure returns to Solvang February 25th and 26th after a two-year absence.
Who knows what wine dreams will be launched there this year? Come to the festival and find out - maybe the dream will be yours!
Click here for details about The Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure in Solvang.
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