Small-Winery Event Sells Out

Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles grows attendance and image in second year

by Jane Firstenfeld
garagiste festival
Organizers set up a tent adjacent to Windfall Farms’ stallion barn, which housed the main tastings during the second Garagiste Festival.
Paso Robles, Calif.—An informal alliance of garagiste winemakers (self-defined as producing 1,200 or fewer cases per year) celebrated its second annual Garagiste Festival in mid-November. As a measure of its success, attendance surpassed 1,000 and all events were sold out.

Bringing attention to the “garagiste movement” and supporting the Wine & Viticulture program at nearby California Polytechnic University are the goals. Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick, founders of the Garagiste Festival, were relieved but exhausted when they spoke with Wines & Vines last week.

By extending the schedule from three days to four, they said, total attendance increased from 500-700 at the inaugural fest in 2011 to more than 1,000 at this year’s Nov. 8-11 festival. All events were sold out: dinners, tastings and educational seminars. To accommodate the crowds and keep them moving along, a tent was set up adjacent to Windfall Farms’ stallion barn, which housed the main tastings.

“We had four different groups moving through the building, but with a great group of volunteers we could keep the VIPs well taken care of in the tent,” McLennan said. “We maxed out the structure.”

“The seminars were really popular this year, and this year we expanded the geographic range of the speakers with Andrew Murray from Los Olivos, Jeff Cohn from Oakland’s JC Cellars and William Allen from Santa Rosa’s Two Shepherds Winery," Minnick said. These and other presenters shared nuts and bolts information about winemaking and marketing.

Reaching broader audience
Since one of the festival’s main goals is to introduce the garagistes’ brands to a broader audience, organizers were pleased to note that “far and away the vast majority” of attendees were from outside the local San Luis Obispo County area. “More than 70% were from outside SLO, from all over the country,” Minnick boasted.

“We set out to drive business and attention to these winemakers. These guys don’t have a lot of time to market their product. Nothing’s better than to hear a winemaker say people have signed up for his club, or he added new wine bar clients,” Minnick said. With room for only 48 winemakers to pour, “We had to turn some away,” he said.

Expanding the event this year brought in more people and still yielded a profit, said Minnick and McLennan, but the hard costs went up. “Next year, we may do an auction, and we’re looking to expand the number of events. We’ve got a couple of things in the works and might do more satellite tastings, as we’ve done in Los Angeles,” McLennan said.

As garagistes themselves, Minnick and McLennan acknowledge the difficulty in marketing a tiny winery. “Getting PR exposure is expensive, not that you can’t do it on your own. Our loosely banded group relies on camaraderie and sharing of ideas. We learn from each other, though some people are reticent to share their secrets. If I were staring on my own in another area, I would definitely be putting together a group of like-minded people,” McLennan acknowledged.

“We’ve tried to give them an umbrella and bring attention to all the garagistes—the rising tide that floats all boats,” Minnick added.

“From an industry point of view, we’d like to expose them en masse to the industry: distributors, brokers, journalists,” McLennan said. With almost all the wines poured by their makers, both consumers and professionals have direct exposure. “Bigger festivals tend to lose their personality,” he noted.

As a willing, good-humored winemaker who has unfailingly supported the group, Amy Butler of 500-case Ranchero Cellars won this year’s Spirit of Garagiste Award. A graduate of University of California, Davis, who “floated through Sonoma and Napa” before planting her flag in Paso, “She’s a true maverick. Any time we ask her for anything for the group, she’s there,” McLennan said.

For the students
Although the garagistes are not a membership trade organization, gleaning all their funding from event proceeds, sponsorships and pro bono sweat equity, last year they donated $10,000 to the Wine & Viticulture program at Cal Poly and have pledged the same amount this year.

Department director James Cooper said last year’s contribution went into the pot supporting the school’s 14-acre vineyard and pilot winery. “With limited state funding, all private support helps to maintain us,” he told Wines & Vines. The winery is not bonded but produces commercial wine through Paso Robles’ 1,200-case Orcutt Road Cellars.

Several of the garagistes have addressed university classes, and their festival provides educational and entertaining volunteer opportunities for the students.

With about 300 undergraduates enrolled in the program, “We’re in fund-raising mode,” Cooper said. The department has graduated 60-80 students per year since its first class of 2007. All perform industry internships, and although many stay on with major producers, a few are launching wine brands that could, at the moment, be defined as “garagiste.” 

Cooper attended the Garagiste Festival for the first time this year. “I liked that it was the small guys, pouring their own wines. As festivals go, it was small enough that you could meet a lot of people.”

To keep up with the garagistes, visit pasogaragiste.com.

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