Meet the Garagiste Winemakers of Paso Robles

A group of cult winemakers are flouting tradition and pioneering their own path. The result? Some of the most interesting wines being made in California.
Photo by Dina Mande

In the fall of 2011, about 40 of the tiniest wineries in Paso Robles descended upon a remote farm to pour their wines to an eager audience in search of the next cult brand.

The event, the first-ever Garagiste Festival, was a hit. Its success spawned a series of sold-out tastings in Paso Robles, the Santa Ynez Valley and Los Angeles each year, along with one past and likely future events in the Bay Area.

“We knew a lot of these small winemakers, and we knew they were making the most interesting wine out there,” says Doug Minnick, a former music executive who co-founded the festival with actor Stewart McLennan. “But it was very hard to find them. They didn’t have tasting rooms, they weren’t on the maps. So we wanted to give the movement a center and a home and a name.

“We figured a festival would be a great way to bring these wineries together under one roof. It worked.” Basing the movement in Paso Robles was strategic.

“There are small winemakers working everywhere, but it was especially robust in Paso,” says Minnick, who has launched his own brand, Hoi Polloi. McLennan also started a brand, Golden Triangle. “There’s a special and unique camaraderie in Paso, where winemakers really work together in so many ways. We really wanted to shine a light on that culture. We’ve got 500 wineries in our orbit now, but we still think of Paso as the center.”

In addition to the movement’s intimate, hands-on tenets, the garagistes of Paso Robles are vanguards of creative branding. A walk around these festivals rewards the eye as much as the palate. These innovative winemakers are ditching the cursive logos of yesteryear in favor of custom artwork, flashy colors and visual storytelling.

Here’s a look at six brands at the forefront of boutique winemaking and boundary-busting design, including one that’s taking the concept nationwide.

Bret Urness Levo Wines
Bret Urness of Levo Wines / Photo by Dina Mande

Bret Urness, Levo Wines

“I like the ancient ideas of how wine is made, but I just really think that wine got incredibly intimidating and buried in tradition, as far as it looks aesthetically,” says Bret Urness of Levo Wines, who aims his ever-changing labels at millennials. “Wine is so fun, but everyone is so boring about how it looks.”

Urness worked events at an Idaho winery during high school, and he appreciated the industry’s hands-on work ethic. After he played football at Santa Barbara City College, he received a crash course on winemaking in Portugal’s Douro region in 2010, then returned to California the next year to start Levo with a couple of tons of Sangiovese grapes.

“This gives our consumers a bit of immediacy. They gotta have it, and they never know what they’re gonna get out of the box.”

Based in Paso Robles’ Tin City warehouse district, Urness now makes about 1,000 cases a year, currently divided among seven wines: one white blend, one rosé, and expressions of Chardonnay, Syrah (two bottlings), Grenache and Petite Sirah, sourced mostly from Santa Barbara County.

“I’m hanging tough with the Santa Barbara stuff,” he says. “I love the energy of the wines down there, and they’re intriguing aromatically. Plus, it’s downright cheaper.”

The names and labels of Levo’s wines change every year.

“There are a lot of good people making good wine out there, so how do you intrigue your customer base?” says Urness. “This gives our consumers a bit of immediacy. They gotta have it, and they never know what they’re gonna get out of the box.”

“I didn’t know about Bon Jovi until I named that wine.”

It may speak to his consumer base, but not everyone’s a fan.

“In distribution, people hate it,” he says. “Wholesale wants to kill me. They’ll push it in the market super-hard and get people to say, ‘I love The Heavy.’ Then, all of the sudden, that doesn’t exist.”

The brand uses wine names like The Heavy, Smithereens and White Noise, but Urness has made some funny missteps, like Bad Medicine.

“I didn’t know about Bon Jovi until I named that wine,” he says with a laugh, referring to the band’s hit 1988 song of the same name. “I had to tell everyone that I wasn’t a huge Bon Jovi fan.”

His latest series, Into the Static, gets deeper. “There’s always static on my radio when I go to my favorite places,” says Urness. “They help you separate from your day, and you get to take a deep breath. Metaphorically, wine kinda does the same thing.”

Vailia Esh of Desparada Wines.
Vailia Esh of Desparada Wines / Photo by Dina Mande

Vailia Esh, Desparada Wines

“There’s this Wild West feel to [Paso Robles], and it’s a little less pretentious than some other wine countries of California,” says Vailia Esh of Desparada Wines . “You have the ability to do whatever.”

Such opportunity brought the San Diego-raised winemaker to town in 2007. She bought a 30-foot, 1977 travel trailer, parked it on a vineyard, landed a cellar job and began to make her own wine two years later. She focuses on Bordeaux and Italian varieties. One-third of her production is Sauvignon Blanc. Many of her wines, both red and white, are aged in amphora.

The brand’s name speaks to “someone who marches to their own beat, thinks outside the box, like an outlier or an outlaw.”

When it came time to develop her brand in 2011, she convinced the designers at the since-closed Proof Wine Collective to take her on, thanks in part to the arm-twisting of her boyfriend, Russell From of Herman Story. The two are now married.

“It was like going to the psychiatrist’s office,” says Esh. “Three hours later, I walked out feeling completely wiped and drained emotionally.”

Esh later hired one of the designers, Philip Muzzy, to focus full-time on her branding. “[The designers] focused on how to make a label and packaging that was as unique and exciting as what’s inside the bottle.”

The brand’s name, Desparada, speaks to “someone who marches to their own beat, thinks outside the box, like an outlier or outlaw,” says Esh.

The font comes from old Mexican posters, and the imagery used includes interpretations of Venus, Diana and “mythical women in history” from 19th-century French academic paintings. The women pictured are clothed in cut-up pencil drawings of nudes by Gustav Klimt.

“You can see the faces and boobs and hands if you’re looking for them,” says Esh.

After a few years when Desparada created new labels every vintage, the brand is settling into a steadier design protocol.

“They’re really labor-intensive labels,” says Esh, who makes about 3,000 cases a year. “It’s an incredible amount of work.”

Orion Stang of Dilecta Wines.
Orion Stang of Dilecta Wines / Photo by Dina Mande
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Orion Stang, Dilecta Wines

“Before I even made the wine, my mom was giving me ideas,” says Orion Stang, owner of Dilecta Wines, whose mother, Betty Wick, is an illustrator and painter. “She had the first label done before I even had wine in the bottle.”

As a child, his mom and dad would take Stang along as they explored Paso Robles’s emerging wine country from their home in nearby Cambria. He studied cooking in the Napa Valley but wound up falling for wine.

In 2007, Stang returned to the Central Coast and landed a job at Booker Vineyard, where he served as assistant winemaker from 2008–11.

He then started Dilecta, which means “to be loved” in Latin, hence the hidden hearts on each label. Stang made his wines at Russell From’s Herman Story facility.

“I have to keep telling people that my mom was not high when she drew the labels. It’s her personality.”

“I was drawn to his labels because he was thinking outside the box,” says Stang. “That was just really inspiring. He sourced from 30-odd vineyards. I had the chance to view what the Central Coast offered in terms of amazing fruit.”

Stang also sources widely, with about 70 percent of his grapes coming from Santa Barbara County. Dilecta makes about 1,000 cases of wine annually, predominantly Rhône-style reds, plus an upcoming Chardonnay and a little Cabernet Sauvignon. Stang’s first tasting room just opened near Denner and Linne Calodo on Vineyard Drive.

“I’ve been doing the underground thing out of my kitchen for the past four years,” he says of past direct-to-consumer efforts. “This is a new level for me.”

Thanks to his mom, the labels were the easiest part of the equation.

“Every time you look at them, you see something new,” says Stang. “I have to keep telling people that my mom was not high when she drew them. It’s her personality. She comes up with the weirdest, off-the-wall kind of stuff.”

Ryan Pease of Paix Sur Terre.
Ryan Pease of Paix Sur Terre / Photo by Dina Mande

Ryan Pease, Paix Sur Terre

“I was drinking Domaine Tempier from the bottle along the Rhône river in Arles, the same place that Van Gogh painted Starry Night, under the fireworks on Bastille Day,” says Ryan Pease, who owns Paix Sur Terre with his wife, Nicole. “That’s pretty much when Mourvèdre clicked for me.”

The Walnut Creek native had just graduated Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in finance, but he didn’t want an office gig. Pease started in the tasting room at Linne Calodo in 2006, and quickly moved to the cellar.

“Fruit is easy to come by, so the challenge is finding savory aromatics and flavors as well as minerality.”

“I find out that I’m working for one of the Rhône masters in California, with the 2007 harvest coming up,” says Pease, now head winemaker for Grey Wolf and Barton Family Wines as well as a consultant for Four Lanterns. “That’s the one that put Paso on the map.”

In 2010, Pease launched Paix Sur Terre, which means “peace on earth,” to scratch his itch for Mourvèdre. He makes about 700 cases of single-vineyard wines from Glenrose, Alta Colina and Yankowski-Weeks vineyards. He also currently bottles an Ugni Blanc and a Rhône-style red blend.

“I realized that we have absolutely great Mourvèdre, but that no one was showcasing it, except for Tablas Creek,” says Pease, who uses only neutral oak and whole cluster fermentation. “My whole trip on Paso is that fruit is easy to come by, so the challenge is finding savory aromatics and flavors as well as minerality. Mourvèdre is great vessel to do that with.”
He turned to childhood friend Jon Blythe for the labels.

“He’s an immensely talented individual, and I don’t think he had taken his art seriously enough,” says Pease. He hired Blythe to create a new label for each bottling each vintage. “He is pretty much living off of his art full-time now.”

Now, with his colorful labels gaining traction, there’s no turning back. “People absolutely love it,” says Pease. “There’s a lot of anticipation from our wine club members each year.”

Jen Bartz of Last Summer Wines
Jen Bartz of Last Summer… / Photo by Dina Mande

Jen Bartz, Last Summer…

As an Air Force brat, Jen Bartz lived all over the world, which included years in Italy, where she developed an early appreciation for food and drink. After she graduated from University of California-Santa Cruz, she prepared to attend medical school, but discovered that many doctors weren’t thrilled by their jobs.

“None of them were very encouraging,” says Bartz. “That was the opposite of what happened when I got into the wine business.”

“A lot of Paso is bigger and oaky, which is good, but a totally different style.”

That pursuit was inspired by a visit to Tuscany, where she hung out with a winemaker one afternoon.

“In the course of that time, something just clicked in my head and I decided that was what I wanted to do, that I wanted to make wine,” says Bartz. She landed an internship in Paso Robles at Booker Vineyard in 2013, and then, after a post-harvest trip to India, became assistant winemaker for Andrew Jones at Field Recordings.

“I told him that I wanted to make a specific style of Grenache, and he said he’d help if I worked for him,” says Bartz, who uses fruit from Spanish Springs and Old Potrero vineyards to make a light and bright version of the Rhône grape. “A lot of Paso is bigger and oaky, which is good, but a totally different style, so I felt like I wouldn’t be stepping on too many toes.”

Her brand, Last Summer…, features artwork by Bartz based on her travels: An elephant graced the 2014 label (a nod to India), and a turtle swims across the 2015 (Costa Rica). She recently moved to Kauai, where she teaches meditation, but she’ll return for each harvest.

The 2016 vintage will be her biggest yet, with about 300 cases, which includes some Picpoul Blanc. But the label is still a mystery for Bartz, who’s been living occasionally out of a Volkswagen bus on the island. “It’s very possible that it’s going to be the van,” she says.

Andrew Nelson of Rabble Wine Co..
Andrew Nelson of Rabble Wine Co. / Photo by Dina Mande

Andrew Nelson, Rabble Wine Co.

“We want to jump off the shelf, and we want to be unconventional, but we want to do it authentically,” says Andrew Nelson of Rabble Wine Co., which also produces the smaller Tooth & Nail, Stasis and Amor Fati brands. “How do you go super unconventional without being gimmicky?”

In 2012, when the company started with just 2,600 cases, his answer was Force of Nature, a brand that combined striking, fairytale-inspired images of castles and dragons with easy-to-like wines in the $20 range.

“Authenticity is the most important piece of the garagiste movement. People have to actually care.”

Due to trademark issues, the name was changed to Rabble in 2015, but the vividly colored imagery, now designed by San Luis Obispo-based firm Makers & Allies, remains on the more than 60,000 cases produced annually, distributed in 45 states. Rabble, like Dave Phinney’s The Prisoner before it (acquired by Constellation Brands for $285 million in 2016), confirms that wines with nontraditional labeling can be scaled up successfully.

“Authenticity is the most important piece of the garagiste movement,” says Nelson, who formerly worked for Diageo. “People have to actually care.”

“It’s the Quentin Tarantino approach: You make the audience work for their dinner.”

By the time a brand lands on a retail shelf or wine list, says Nelson, “it’s been sold seven times, either in mindshare or currency. If there’s no authenticity, you just struggle to make it through that path. If there’s any break in that chain, they’re not gonna show the wines.”

Rabble’s labels are based on 15th-century woodblocks from the Nuremberg Chronicle, which convey storytelling and mystery.
“It’s the Quentin Tarantino approach: You make the audience work for their dinner,” says Nelson. “He’ll start the movie at the ending, so you’re lost, but you’re into it. We wanted to build that engagement. Love it or hate it, we want you to see it on the shelf and behind the bar, and ask some questions.”

 

Published on August 2, 2017
Topics: California
About the Author
Matt Kettmann
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

A fifth generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.

Email: mkettmann@wineenthusiast.net.



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