When Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick met in 2011 and started kicking around the idea of showcasing Paso Robles’ underground, small production winemakers, neither could guess that, seven years later, the Garagiste Festival would be celebrating its 8th anniversary and 21st event at its Paso Robles home base on Nov. 9-11 — having achieved international renown as one of the most popular wine events in the country. In fact, just this month, the festival was named the country’s “Best Wine Festival’ in the USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice travel award contest.
Clearly, The Garagiste Festival is not just any wine festival.
“We are the first and only festival to feature micro-wineries and share their renegade, rules-breaking ‘no snobs allowed’ ethos,” said McLennan.
“There is great freedom in being small,’ adds Minnick. “Getting their wines into supermarkets isn’t even a consideration, so they just make the wines they are passionate about, the wines they want to drink — and they are among the most interesting, iconoclastic and delicious wines in the world. We want to drink them, too!”
The festival has showcased over 3,000 wines for over 10,000 wine lovers at twenty Garagiste Festivals across California since inception — igniting the awareness, business, and reputations of hundreds of artisan winemakers.
McLennan and Minnick were no strangers to winemaking when they met. Each had been producing wines in their garages with an eye to future commercial production, inspired by Paso Robles’ growing population of commercial winemakers who were handcrafting small batches of really interesting wines.
“As we were honing our own winemaking and leveraging the generous advice of these winemakers, we were also tasting our way across the Paso ‘underground’,” said Minnick.” We realized that there was a wealth of undiscovered wines out there. While most had websites, very few had tasting rooms, and lacked the time, staff and resources to market their wines widely.”
“We wanted to bring attention to these wines just as Robert Parker had shone a spotlight on the ‘garagistes’ of Bordeaux,” added McLennan. The term garagistes (pronounced garage-east) was originally used in the Bordeaux region of France to denigrate renegade small-lot winemakers, sometimes working in their “garages” (anything considered not a chateau), who refused to follow the “rules.” Robert Parker ‘discovered’ them and today those “vins de garages’ are some of the most highly-sought after wines in the world — and the term ‘garagiste’ is now synonymous with artisan, quality winemakers.
Even though the winemakers McLennan and Minnick were discovering were not making wine in their garages, they were under the radar and shared the ‘garagiste’ rules-breaking spirit, so ‘Garagiste’ became the festival’s name, launching in Paso on Nov. 12, 2011. It was an immediate hit with both winemakers and consumers.
A signature feature of the festival is that the winemakers are onsite to pour their wines. The festival limits attendance to encourage interaction between attendees and winemakers, meaning it routinely sells out.
Demand has driven expansion to Los Angeles, Solvang, and Sonoma; but, as McLennan notes, Paso will always be the ‘mother ship’ and spiritual core of the festival. Many of the winemakers who poured at the first festival have grown well past the festival’s 1,500 maximum case production requirement and are thriving, partly as a result of the attention they received at the festival — for example, over 60 percent of the winemakers resident at Tin City poured their wines at early Garagiste Festivals, and wineries that are becoming Paso institutions such as Vines on the Marycrest, Nicora Wines, Alta Colina, Caliza Winery, Ranchero Cellars, ONX Wines, and Paix Sur Terre, were key early participants.
The festival also has an educational component, offering dozens of seminars over the years allowing attendees to taste the influence of various oak treatments, stem-inclusion, and rare varieties, as well as in-depth interviews with wine industry luminaries such as Justin Smith of Saxum, Madeline Puckett of Wine Folly, Matt Kettmann of Wine Enthusiast and Bob Lindquist of Qupe. This year’s seminar will feature winemakers who focus on Spanish varieties including Enrique Torres of Diablo Paso and Louisa Sawyer Lindquist of Verdad.
The non-profit festival supports The Garagiste Scholarship fund at Cal Poly. Students who directly benefit from the festival can be found working in wineries across the county.
Minnick and McLennan have moved their own winemaking ventures well out of the garage, and today are commercial winemakers with thriving labels. Minnick’s winery, Hoi Polloi, also boasts its own tasting room, the Double Trouble Wine Room in Newhall. McLennan, whose label is Golden Triangle, evangelizes for garagistes on his radio show, The Garagiste Show, which is heard weekly on the KRUSH FM.
And, to the delight of their ever-expanding audience thirsty for new discoveries, their mission of bringing underground winemakers above ground is ongoing — over 20 percent of the 60-plus winemakers pouring in Paso this November are brand new to the festival. Said Minnick: “At The Garagiste Festival, everybody wins. We’re like a matchmaking service where everybody ends up getting married!”
The 8th annual Paso Robles Garagiste Festival with 60-plus micro-production winemakers, an Industry Night, Rare and Reserve tasting, rocking After Party and more will be held Nov. 9 through 11 at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds and other local venues. For tickets and more information, go to www.garagistefestival.com.