In the mid-1990s, a group of Bordeaux winemakers decided to change the character and personality of red Bordeaux wine. The general opinion held then by this group of young and dissatisfied winemakers was that traditional Bordeaux was too tannic and required long aging. Vaunted “new” Bordeaux wines soon attracted attention, such Chateau Valandraud, an unclassified St. Emilion blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The mystique of Valandraud got a boost when Robert Parker rated the 1995 Valandraud higher than Chateau Petrus.
The aim of the rebellious young winemakers, however, was not to replace traditional red Bordeaux, just give the style a new twist, one that became famously known as the “garagiste” movement. Made in a “garage,” these low-production expensive wines proved to be trendy with both supporters and critics. The garagiste pulled off a defining move, pitting a daring new style for a traditional wine that hadn’t changed much in decades. Making way for something new is the gospel being preached by young winemakers in the New World, so it was only natural that the movement would make its way across the ocean, eventually settling in Paso Robles, California.
In November 2010, Paso Garagiste was founded and today is an active association of 45 underground winemakers, with each member committed to produce less than 1,200 cases a year. “We knew there was a powerful artisan wine movement with deep roots in Paso Robles that simply needed the right vehicle to bring it to light,” says Paso Garagiste winemaker Stewart McLennan, who with fellow garagistes Doug Minnick and Dan Erland Andersen, founded Paso Garagiste. That vehicle was the first Paso Garagiste Festival held last November. Doug Minnick added that the goal of Paso Garagiste is to help nurture the next generation of artisan winemakers in the county and to donate funds to support the Cal-Poly Wine and Viticulture Program.
The loosely structured movement, which, according to McLennan, has no official membership, attracts budding winemakers from as far away as Los Angeles. “We have guys that are boot-strapping, guys starting a second career, but we all share the same passion for making wine,” says McLennan
Borrowing a name from the Bordeaux movement is where the comparison ends. The members of Paso Garagiste don’t limit themselves only to the five Bordeaux red varieties. In fact, many of the members focus on Rhone-style wines, believing that Paso has the right stuff for the likes of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, even if some of the old-time growers around Paso still call the “M” grape Mataro. Most of the Paso Garagiste winemakers purchase grapes. “We buy all of our grapes from Westside Paso,” says Nick Elliot, owner and winemaker of Nicora Wines.
The Nicora Rhone-style reds I tasted include a majority Syrah blended with a little Grenache that Elliot calls Buxom. Euphoric is mainly Grenache with a little Syrah and both of which are finished at 16% alcohol. Elliot says that the west Paso area where he buys his grapes presents a dilemma for him. “West Paso is pretty warm and we need to get the pH up in the grapes, so I’m looking for more concentration and extra hang time for the grapes.” At 16%, Buxom is ripe and plump but it’s also hot, and Euphoric is surely high spirited. And the extra time on the vine means more potential alcohol in the resulting wine and more money paid out to the federal government. The federal tax to wineries for still wines up to 14% alcohol is $1.07 a gallon and $1.57 a gallon for wines above 14% alcohol. In California, an additional $.20 a gallon is added for both levels.
Chuck Carlson, a Paso Garagiste from Arroyo Grande, didn’t go in the Rhone direction, preferring to specialize in Pinot Noir. “I make very small amounts of these wines (Pinot Noir) more as a way to work with varieties than what I work with at my day job.” He’s the senior winemaker and general manager at Curtis Winery in Buellton. Carlson’s Pinots hover just under 14% alcohol, but don’t show any heat, just nicely balanced wines with pure-fruit flavors.
Justin Kahler heads up JK Wine Company, a small family winery in Paso Robles with a focus on Rhone and Spanish varieties under the Katin and Arada labels. Katin is dedicated to Rhone varieties, while Arada features Albarino in a white proprietary blend called Las Ramblas Blanca. “I try to fill in complexity and layers,” says Kahler about his wines. “My goal is to bring balance to the wines.” Kahler plans to add Tempranillo to his collection of wines, and meanwhile his nod to Bordeaux is a string of single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons and a Cabernet Franc-based blend. Kahler has tried to keep a strong connection to the earth with a green label on Katin wines, while Arada is the Spanish word for plow. “My wife Katie and I discovered the word arada in an old mission book,” explains Kahler.
Most of the wines made by the Paso Garagiste winemakers are in lots of 100 cases or less, making availability a problem. While many of the wines are sold through wine clubs, some like those of JK Wine Company are available for tasting and sale in a co-op tasting room in Paso Robles and in select restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco. More information is available through the winery websites or at PasoGaragiste.com.