Thursday, August 22, 2013

Let the Harvesting and Festivals Begin!

As I sit at my desk writing, I hear the whirr of a helicopter overhead, in response to the latest breaking news story in Los Angeles. This harkens back to my early days in LA, when the choppers raced up the 405 Freeway in hot pursuit of the white Ford Bronco driven by OJ Simpson; which reminds me of the cross-country trip I took to get from NYC to the land called “California,” where an El Niño storm system seemed to be washing the entire city out to sea. Ah, good old California, where the drama is high … and the weather is perfect.

And now, as the end of summer is upon us, and the days are getting shorter, and the kids are getting ready to leave for college, the harvesting of the wine grapes has begun.  And just as importantly, so have the wine festivals!

Based on some discussions I’ve had with vintners recently, the year 2013 is showing signs of being a very good year for grapes in California, with crops being harvested approximately 2-3 weeks earlier than last year.  And yields are looking good too, which is excellent news in lieu of the horrific news out of France, where up to 90% of the crop in some regions was destroyed by summer hail storms.

The huge State of California is a land of varied and perfect microclimates for grape growing, and the boom in the wine industry over the last few decades has been a huge boost to the state’s economy. Per the Wine Institute (, California has 3,800 bonded wineries, responsible for more than 90% of all wine production in the United States, with a retail value amounting to a whopping $22 billion in 2012. In terms of yields, which are measured in hectoliters (hl) per hectare – where 1 hl is approximately equal to 133 bottles of wine – the US is the world’s fourth largest wine producer, behind France, Italy, and Spain, with yields close to 21 million hl. That’s a lot of wine, and the majority of it is made in the Golden State.

Living in Southern California, I feel lucky to be so close to some of the most spectacular wine country in the world, whose beauty rivals that of Old World wine regions in Italy and France (which are not too shabby, either). I try to get up to California wine country regularly, and wine festivals are now a big part of my life. The one event I never miss is The Garagiste Festival ( in Paso Robles, held at the glorious Windfall Farms, a 724-acre thoroughbred breeding farm (formerly owned by Jeopardy’s Alex Trebek). This year’s festival, the third, runs November 7-10.

Garagiste (pronounced “gar-uh-zhē-stuh”) is defined by Collins Dictionary ( as “a small-scale entrepreneurial wine-maker, originally from the Bordeaux region of France, especially one who does not adhere to the traditions of wine-making.” The Paso Robles and Santa Ynez regions (as well as many other areas of the world) are chock full of entrepreneurial garagistes, artisanal wine makers who are producing bold wines that in some cases defy traditional, old-world winemaking, typically being fruit forward and higher in alcohol and residual sugar. 

The Garagiste Festival focuses on wineries producing fewer than 1,200 cases per year – quite small when compared with larger wineries like Kendall-Jackson ( that produce upwards of 5 million cases annually. “The fact that [the garagistes] are producing in such small quantities means that they are very hands on and paying very close attention to what they’re making,” says Doug Minnick, co-founder with Stewart McLennan of the festival.  And this attention “shows in the product,” he adds.

Minnick says that virtually every winery at the event has the actual wine maker or owner or both pouring their wines, not their tasting room employees, so talking with these artisanal winemakers is one of the biggest treats of the festival. Their stories of how they came to make wines are each unique and inspiring. Their passion is contagious … and their wines are delicious.

The Garagiste Festival last year attracted wine lovers – who tend to be more knowledgeable than average wine festival attendees, per Minnick    from  as far as Australia, and from about 18 different states. As Minnick says, and I agree, “There’s nothing else like this festival out there.”

Another positive aspect of the The Garagiste Festival is that its proceeds go to support young winemakers at the Wine and Viticulture Program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. 

Go to for ticket information. I hope to see you there.

Until next time, cheers!

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