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Garagiste of Wine

Gary Parker, Owner
The WineSellar & Brasserie

Garagiste. (garage-east) Noun, France

French word for a person working in a garage. 

The term “Garagiste” has become a common one for those of us in the wine trade, but is still widely unknown to those who are not in the trade or even to those who are serious about all things wine.

It was originally used as an insult or a slant to smaller, upstart wine producers in Bordeaux, France, who did not follow the entrenched protocol for making wine in their region. There was (and still is) a lot of animosity from the established Chateaux about these rule breaking renegades for making small amounts of wine using unalike methods, creating (usually) bolder, brasher styles of wine, all the while shunning many decades of local tradition.

The Garagiste origins began toward the end of the 20th century, most notably in the late 1990’s when a famous wine critic rated a Garagiste wine, the 1995 Chateau Valandraud, higher than the most expensive and sought-after Bordeaux wine, Chateau Petrus.

This momentous event changed some of the landscape of winemaking in Bordeaux, and soon, many Garagiste want-to-be’s were doing their garage winemaking.

I witnessed this disdain between the two camps first hand, all the way back to 2001, where I was leading a tour group on a tasting through the Bordeaux appellation of Saint-Emilion. We stopped at Chateau Teyssier for a tasting, hosted by owner/British implant John Maltrose. 

While sampling his excellent wines, he explained to us how and why he broke with long-established local winemaking techniques. First, he was an outsider, and wasn’t subjected to generational teachings of winemaking in Saint-Emilion. And second, he wanted to make a bigger style of wine with more wood influences.

This didn’t go over too well with the locals, and he and his wife were seemingly socially isolated. John said while all the children play together, the other vintners won’t talk to him because he breaks the mold of what their image of Saint-Emilion wines are supposed to be. Over a decade later, some of John’s neighbors have softened their stance, while others are still mired in tradition and resentment.

Throughout the course of a couple decades or so, the excitement and exposure of these wines have brought on would-be Garagiste whose products have been less than superior, while still commanding higher prices. This has had a negative impact on the Garagiste image, and has had some wine journalists and critics proclaiming Garagiste as a fad or cult rage, and is losing steam in the market.

Many of the unsuccessful Garagiste projects have been weeded out, and the truly great ones have continued on. In reality, all wines of quality and value will make the rise steadily and assuredly.

In California, the term “Garagiste” is not so frowned-upon. In fact, being a rebel, a creator, a trailblazer, is basically the American way of life.  Larger, established wineries are just that, established, and don’t seem largely threatened. They too have recently blazed their own trails, and in the young, evolving world of wine in the United States, change happens every day. Innovations and discoveries are welcomed, as all producers of wine are always looking for ways to improve their products.

I recently attended The Garagiste Wine Festival in Solvang that was open to both the trade and the general public. This was no ordinary wine tasting. In attendance were over 60 small producers from Santa Barbara and nearby environs, each of whom produce somewhere between 25 to 1,000 cases of wine a year.

They were eagerly pouring their hearts into the glasses of over 250 curious, excited wine lovers, yours truly included. It was exciting to see the different ideas from these pioneers of my industry. Some wines were really exceptional, others less so. But I did not encounter a single wine I wouldn’t enjoy drinking at one time or another. I think that is really special, and a testament to the unspoken camaraderie fellow winemakers in the United States seem to enjoy.

It was a noted contrast to me to see many of these Garagiste producers slipping in between hand lugging cases of wine from the parking lot two hours before the event, and then later to be held in reverence by those tasting their wines. And then lugging their wines and presentation materials back to the parking lot on their own, an hour after the event.

Many of these people are struggling with finances at their early stages in a hopeful career, while others still hold on to their day jobs. Others are fully committed, and it’s a make-it-or-break-it attitude, all in or all out. Very brave!

It will be interesting to see what becomes of this group of innovators. Who are the ones who will “make it?” Who are the ones that will “make it big?” Time will tell. I know I will be doing business with a more than one California Garagiste in the near future.

 

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