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Paso’s Garagiste Winemakers

November 1, 2017

GARAGISTES – (garage-east) n, Fr. – A term originally used in the Bordeaux region of France to denigrate renegade small-lot wine makers, sometimes working in their garage, who refused to follow the “rules.” Now a full-fledged movement responsible for making some of the best wine in the world.

Paso Robles is home to many garagiste winemakers making some of the best wine out there. In honor of the Garagiste Wine Festival, November 10-12, we got to know a few of Paso Wine’s artisan winemakers a little better. Learn why David McGee, Monochrome Wines, Mindy Oliver, Croma Vera Wines, and Joyce Murray, Bon Niche Cellars identify themselves as garagiste wineries.

David McGee, Monochrome Wines

Garagiste refers to small lot winemakers, often working out of their garage. Where did you make your first vintage?  We actually worked out Monochrome’s approach to winemaking in a garage, by making a lot of small, experimental batches, trying out new ideas, and then blending them all together.  Of course, working in a garage was not easy given that we were making white wines and said garage (in San Miguel) was frequently 105 degrees.  However, the experience making numerous micro-batches has formed the basis of our approach since we started making wines commercially, which we did in 2016.  We make our wines at ONX’s facility in Tin City, but still do a lot of experimental things in 10-, 15-, or 30-gallon lots.

How many cases do you make? For the 2016 vintage (our first), we made a total of 495 cases, divided up among six blends.

How did you decide on your brand name? Logo and label design? For a winery focused exclusively on white wines, the name Monochrome (“one color”) seemed like a natural fit.  However, the name also suggests a photographic analogy.  Many people think of black-and-white (monochrome) photos as being less interesting than color, yet most fine art photographs are in black-and-white.  If you ask photographers, most will tell you that shooting in black-and-white is more challenging than shooting in color since you don’t have color to distract from any shortcomings in composition, subject matter, or tonality.  You need to get all the fundamentals just right for the photo to work.  Similarly, most winemakers will tell you that making complex white wines is more challenging than making complex reds, as you can’t rely on tannin, oak, and extraction to build complexity or mask any shortcomings in the fruit and wine.

For our label and bottle details, we wanted to select a signature color that would reflect who we are and what we do.  All our wines have one thing in common:  they all start as “white” grapes.  In reality, white grapes are not actually white but occur in colors ranging from lime green to a pale, golden straw color, depending upon the variety, degree of ripeness, etc.  We, therefore, looked at various photographs of grape clusters and isolated several shades along the spectrum of colors that existed in the clusters, and those became the color elements we used in the Monochrome “color wheel”, label details, and the wax we use to cover the cork.

What is the most interesting/non-traditional vessel or tool you’ve used to make wine (assuming you don’t have all the fancy equipment of a large winery)? We enjoy doing interesting and non-traditional things, so the list is rather long!  We have made Marsanne (and now Chardonnay) in an earthenware amphora.  We have hand-destemmed Sauvignon Blanc and Albarino using a handmade destemmer inspired by a winemaking text from the 1850s. We have made extensive use of mini-barrels (half-barrels), both in new French oak and in stainless. We have crushed fruit with both our hands and our feet.  We have used small variable-capacity tanks for true carbonic maceration of some Albarino.  Generally, we’ll try anything that seems interesting and likely to add a new flavor element to our blending options!

What is one of your fondest/funniest memories of learning to make wine?  Having a 1/2 ton bin of fermented grape skins accidentally dumped on my head while while trying to guide them into a big basket press.  You’d like to think that sort of thing doesn’t happen at Chateau Lafite…. but it probably does!

Do you want to stay a garagiste winemaker or do you have visions of growing?  Being successful enough to grow would be great, but I don’t think we’ll ever lose our desire to be creative, to experiment, and to be just a little different from the mass-production wineries.

Any words of wisdom for other dreamers interested in getting into the winemaking scene?  To paraphrase a quote by Coco Chanel, “To be memorable, you must first be different”.  There are now over 300 wineries in the Paso Robles area alone.  What is going to make you and your brand stand out, and not just be number 301?   At a recent course at UC Davis, the running joke was that over 90% of small wineries essentially had the same story:  “We’re a small, family-owned winery.  We hand-craft wines that are reflective of our terroir.  And we’ve won a few awards.”   So if you’re going to start a winery, don’t be a cliche… be something unique.

Mindy Oliver, Croma Vera Wines

Garagiste refers to small lot winemakers, often working out of their garage. Where did you make your first vintage? My husband and I made our first unofficial vintage in our garage. It was much harder than we thought it would be. But our garage smelled fantastic!

Do/did you have a winemaking mentor? How has he/she helped you? Our winemaker, Jeremy Leffert, and I share a passion for Spanish grape varietals grown on the Central Coast and we make a great team. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I had not met Jeremy when I did. I also have to give some credit to Mike Sinor. He warned me, pretty sternly, that making the wine was going to be the easiest part of running a winery. He was right, of course. Mike gave me a good, healthy dose of reality from the start.

How many cases do you make? We made about 800 cases in 2015, which was our first vintage, about 850 cases in 2016 and will probably be around 950 for 2017.

How did you decide on your brand name? Logo and label design? We wanted a brand identity that reflected both our wine style and my beginnings in art and graphic design. Croma Vera is Latin for True Colors. Our logo is made up of three brush strokes in three different wine shades representing the creativity of winemaking. Being a graphic designer by trade came in handy here. I designed our logo and all of our labels.

What is the most interesting/non-traditional vessel or tool you’ve used to make wine (assuming you don’t have all the fancy equipment of a large winery)? We still use our tiny Hungarian oak barrel that we bought when we were making wine in our garage. No doubt it will end up as a story piece in our tasting room one day.

What is one of your fondest/funniest memories of learning to make wine? My husband and I taking turns getting up in the middle of the night to do punchdowns in the garage. There were some strong similarities between that and getting up in the middle of the night to take care of our boys when they were infants. The wine became our newest child.

Do you want to stay a garagiste winemaker or do you have visions of growing? We plan to grow slowly but never become so large that we can’t personally taste each barrel.

Any words of wisdom for other dreamers interested in getting into the winemaking scene? I’ve learned that life can be short. If there is something you dream about doing, whether it is making wine or bringing peace to the world, there is no time like the present. But you still have to do your homework.

Wally and Joyce Murray, Bon Niche Cellars

Garagiste refers to small lot winemakers, often working out of their garage. Where did you make your first vintage? Our first winemaking experience was for personal consumption. We made it in our new ag building at our vineyard. We laughed a lot and questioned every decision and every measurement. We made the special labels all new home winemakers insist on making. When we gave the wine as gifts, we suggested they lay it down…for a very, very long time! But things improved quickly!

What spurred your dream to start making wine?  As long-time wine collectors, we were always fascinated by the process. When we moved to Paso Robles we immersed ourselves in seminars, classes, and industry organizations. Making friends with educated winemakers was a great asset to our moving forward.

How many cases do you make? 600-700 cases typically, but we have made up to 1,000.

How did you decide on your brand name? Logo and label design? We were inspired by 20 years of world travels and decided to use photos of our trips. We knew it would be fun to use great photos taken by other people as well, so we started our photo contest and that has been a great success!

What is the most interesting/non-traditional vessel or tool you’ve used to make wine (assuming you don’t have all the fancy equipment of a large winery)? A gorgeous, shiny, red Italian hand-cranked crusher/destemer — aka lots of work! We quickly upgraded to a larger model and made the original crusher/destemer a display piece.

What is one of your fondest/funniest memories of learning to make wine? The day we received the thrilling phone call telling us we had won Best of Show at the 2016 San Diego County Fair for our 2012 Malbec L’Entree. It also won Best of Malbec and Best of Paso in that competition.

Do you want to stay a garagiste winemaker or do you have visions of growing? We are happy where we are – having fun, selling wine, and enjoying life!

Taste our featured garagistes’ wines along with 60+ additional wineries at the 7th Annual Garagiste Wine Festival. Get your tickets here!