‘Vin de Garage’ in Northern California
Some friends, known since youth, joined gangs, fraternities, rotary clubs, professional associations or workers unions.
A few became “garagistes.”
According to French lore, garagistes, or garage winemakers, began producing, well, vins de garage in the 1990’s. They were reputed as slightly edgy, streaked with rebellious tendencies and prone to wander far from any pack. They produced (or procured) grapes to produce low-yield, small volume wines produced with new oak.
Consider Château Valandraud, in Bordeaux, France. This one hectare (2.5 acre) plot of vines produced such superior low-quantity wine that, in the eyes of wine critic Robert Parker – it ranked higher than the famed Pètrus wine for quality. In the 1990’s word of this silent rebellion spread to the Ribera del Duero in Spain, then to Australia. California garagistes, though previously unlabeled, had been producing such wines since the 1980s, with cult labels including Screaming Eagle and those from Harlan Estate.
What made these bottle desirable, and pricey?
The answer is simple: their lack of availability, uniqueness and quality.
Ah, the lure of exclusivity.
Today the term garagiste refers to individuals who produce limited wines, often doing much labor themselves. They rarely have links to large capital investment or deep pocketed wealth, are not beholden to traditional beliefs and are often wary of predominant mindsets. They are as much entrepreneurs as agriculturalists.
They brought bottles to a recent gathering at Sheep Ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California (as well as their rosé). The red was wonderful – layered, complex, excellent with food, and the rosé crisp and delicious.
At the same gathering, Richard and Diane Steinberg from Los Altos brought their own bottles – including Syrah grown on their own acres using 19th century plantings from the Barossa Valley of Australia. Again, superb taste and professionally executed – balanced, full, well crafted.
To be honest, many wines I tasted after sampling these garagiste wines – bottles from professional winemakers in California – were surprisingly blunt in comparison. I found the handcrafted wines – honed from years of experience – to be a treat because they had an edge of individuality, and were not crafted to suit mainstream market tastes.
The point? When traveling, sample local wines when possible but also don’t be afraid to venture to a friend of a friend who produces small quantity, little known wine. I once tasted low volume Merlot produced by relatives of my nephew’s wife, Iris, in Italy – in the freezing cold weather of winter outside the shed where it was made. It was superb. Fortunately, Iris and her husband Malachi labeled the wine, then served it at their wedding.
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