The Renegade Winemakers Creating Unusual Bottles with Cult Appeal

garagiste people winemakers brewers
Illustration by Ryan McAmis

In the minds of many drinkers, winemaking is a noble pursuit, rich with pastoral elegance and sprawling estates. But garagistes want nothing to do with that. These winemakers specialize in no-pretense, limited-run bottlings. They’re named for the places where much of their juice gets made. Garages.

Garagistes are not uniquely, or even originally, American. Still, their philosophy is particularly amenable to the New World, where winemakers are unencumbered by centuries of tradition and rule-breaking gets romanticized in the retelling.

The movement began in mid-1990s Bordeaux. A regional band of winemakers had grown tired of how the industry worked in France. Stringent rules and style guidelines that stretched back centuries stymied their creative impulses. Eventually, these winemakers were forced out of regulation-upholding chateaus and left to peddle their products out of unmarked garages and dilapidated warehouses.

But something happened on the way to that place. Established wineries used the term “garagiste” derisively, but these independent producers wore the label as a badge of honor. They churned out wine with bold, brash flavors. You could taste their passion in the glass. Combined with limited output, it formed a recipe for cultish desire.

winemaker portrait
William Allen of Two Shepherds / Photo by Tom Lake

“Having a very small production often means a higher level of quality control,” says Scott Sampler, who runs his garagiste operation, the Central Coast Group Project, out of an industrial park in Buellton, California. “If you’re sourcing fruit, you can be highly selective, and you can take more risks. And if you’re ambitious and talented, you can travel all over and you can find obscure vineyards that big winemakers would never use.”

By the late 2000s, that renegade ethos had gained traction in the U.S. Much like the food truck craze that ignited around the same time, it was pioneered by independent artisans without the sizable investments needed for more traditional brick-and-mortar operations.

garagiste festival ca
Garagiste Wine Festival / Photo by Tom Lake

In 2011, the Garagiste Wine Festival debuted in Paso Robles, California. The festival now holds annual events in Sonoma, Los Angeles and Solvang. All styles and production methods are welcome, as organizers define garagistes as anyone that produces less than 1,500 cases a year. By comparison, a solid mid-sized winery like Gundlach Bundschu might put out 50,000 cases annually.

Nevertheless, certain touchstones unite the garagiste community.

Garagiste Festival CA
Garagiste Festival / Photo by Laura Simak

“I often associate garagiste[s] with méthode ancestrale—skin-on white wines, stuff that hasn’t been filtered, minimal sulfur,” says Joel Caruso, a California-based sommelier. “You’re expecting an inconsistent product, but that’s part of the charm. I think it’s a really honest way to approach the market. Without any sort of any business plan model, it frees the winemaker up to be more creative and to follow their muse.”

Dieter Cronje embodies this notion. At his “day job” at Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria, California, he specializes in polished, cool-climate Pinot Noir. But as a part-time garagiste at Riding Monkey Wines, in Orcutt, California, he makes a skin-fermented Chenin Blanc that’s out of the ordinary. Full of acid and phenolic texture, it’s as fun to drink as it is categorically vexing.

Many garagistes’ creations are meant to be consumed immediately, giving these vins de soif ample allure during the current coronavirus pandemic. From the cobblestoned streets of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York, to the converted work lofts of SoDo area of Seattle, these bottlings are more relevant than ever. Because garagistes flourish within the confines of concrete grids rather than along sloping hills, they’re particularly well-positioned for curbside pickups.

Garagiste Festival
Garagiste Festival / Photo by Tom Lake

“My clientele doesn’t care if it’s made on a pastoral vineyard or if it’s made in a tiny shoebox warehouse,” says Sampler. He debuted a line of unconventional patio pounders recently that included a carbonic white, a skin-contact blush and a 451-day, skin-on Syrah that never saw a barrel. “They’re into the wine, they’re not coming for the scenery.”

Adventurousness offers its own brand of romance, and scores of modern drinkers are lining up for a view. For a community that’s made its mark in defiance of time-honored tradition, garagistes sure are showing well with age.

Published on July 6, 2020
Topics: Winemakers