Out of the Garage: How Paso Helped Me Become a Garagiste Winemaker

By Doug Minnick

Around the time of the first Garagiste Wine Festival, and having been inspired by our fellow  garagistes, my wine-loving compatriots (we nicknamed ourselves the Four Stooges - just come and watch us work some time) jumped in and made our first vintage with the help of many friends in the Paso winemaking community. Yes, it is an actual "community" and we could not have done it without them. They fielded endless questions, loaned us equipment and generally made the whole process more approachable, if not exactly simple. Here's where the story goes:

Our first vintage turned out pretty well. We made a barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon, and when that went smoothly, we followed it up with a barrel of Syrah. We learned some lessons (like what to do when your fermentation smells funny, among other things) and yet ended up winning a Gold Medal from the Winemaker Magazine Competition (the largest amateur competition in the country). There was no looking back. We were hooked.

In fact, when we were getting our first half-ton of fruit, one of the other home winemakers there laughed and said, "Oh, you've got the sickness now - it only gets worse from here. It's a like a hobby on steroids. Better warn your wives." It turned out that this soothsayer of Syrah was absolutely correct. Just ask our wives.

Emboldened by having not failed miserably, we increased our production the next year - two more Syrahs, from Paso’s Cass Vineyards and Alta Colina Vineyards - and won another Gold Medal. The processes that once seemed so daunting - transporting fruit over 300 miles, finding the necessary supplies outside of wine country, and evaluating and solving problems on the fly - were now becoming familiar.  After that, we expanded our grape varieties to Grenache and Mourvedre - which provided our most challenging year yet.  However, we eventually produced a GSM blend of which we are extremely proud and can't stop drinking. Last year, we found some amazing Russian River Pinot Noir and more Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso. Did I mention we were hooked?

We've heard it said that you can ask ten winemakers one question and get twenty different answers. That's almost literally true. The answer often depends on what you are trying to accomplish. Now having some practical experience under our belt, we began to make stylistic decisions and have frequent... um...spirited debates (after many glasses) about our winemaking philosophy. There are many different opinions and approaches to making wine, but as one keeps learning and growing, one becomes better equipped to be creative and deliberate about directions and outcomes. In the end, what matters most is what YOU want the final product to be. After all you're the one who has to sell it (and drink it). It's a world of infinite depth and creativity, like most great pursuits.

Winemaking, as we were warned, had become our obsession. And so, this year, we Stooges have made the big decision to go commercial - to produce wine under a bond for sale. We no longer have to haul fruit down Interstate 5 from Paso to Los Angeles, but we can still be found driving back and forth - sometimes going up and back in the same day - to visit the barrels in Paso, take a quick taste (you have to make sure it's progressing the way you want it to...really!) and pat them fondly. It is all just so much fun.

Ever thought about making wine yourself (or just want a deeper knowledge of the subject)? Paso is a great place to start and what better place to begin than at The Garagiste Festival's Sunday Symposium “Beginning Winemaking 101: Getting Your Hands Dirty." Sponsored by Laffort and led by Cal Poly professor and garagiste winemaker Matt Brain on November 9th, from 11:00am-1:00pm, it is open to everyone at all levels of experience. Just bring your desire to learn. Not only is this info invaluable if you want to make wine, it gives you greater perspective if you just want to expand your enjoyment as a consumer.  But beware, once you start on the winemaking road, there may be no stopping...and I know from experience.....

For tickets info about the Garagiste Festival and the winemaking symposium go to garagistefestival.com

Doug is the co-founder of The Garagiste Festival and can still be found driving up and down Interstate 5 with fellow Stooges Ted Behlendorf, Dan Andersen, and Scott Gruber though they no longer have to worry about explaining the steaming blue fertilizer drums in the back of a rental truck to curious policemen.