Garagiste Winemakers – the good, the bad and the funny

GARAGISTES -(gar-uh-zhē-stuh) 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.” Today it is a full-fledged movement responsible for making some of the best wine in the world. Syn: Rule-breakers, pioneers, renegades, mavericks, driven by passion.

These are small production commercial winemakers who are making under 1200 cases per year. Most of them don’t have tasting rooms, nor do they have big marketing budgets to promote their wines. The Garagiste Festival was created to celebrate the artisan winemakers.


As I headed up to Solvang in Santa Ynez to attend the Garagiste Festival, I thought about the romantic notion of making wine. Who doesn’t want to have a small winery that they can call their own? But, remember the joke, “How do you make a small fortune in wine?  Start with a large one!”

I thought it would be fun to ask some of the winemakers what some of their first memories or challenges are when it comes to being a Garagiste. Many of the winemakers have “day jobs” as winemakers for other larger wineries, others make only their own label. Either way, these Garagiste winemakers share the same challenges, as well as the same passion for wine.

In 2001, Etienne Terlinden went to Central Coast Wines, where many small winemakers make their wine, in order to make his own wine, Cordon Wines. He has worked at Gainey and Letitia, where he learned from mistakes. By the time he began making his own wine, he had a good sense of what he was doing. One of his first memories of making his own wine was when he caught his friend having sex in the press – yes, the wine press! They had rotated it and filled it with hot water, turning it into a hot tub. Obviously, Etienne cleaned the press but he said it was his best vintage ever!

Clarissa Nagy met her husband and partner Jonathan while working as winemaker at Byron Winery. They made a barrel of Viognier for their wedding guests in 2004 and C. Nagy was born. Today they make 600 cases of wine. Clarissa’s experience has the small winery running efficiently; they have their own wine making space, their own equipment and use the same growers each year. But Clarissa finds that her biggest challenge as a Garagiste winemaker is balancing her time effectively between wine making and motherhood.

Owner Blair Pence was bit by the Burgundy bug and begin looking for a site to plant grapes. In 2005, he bought land that offers a wide variety of terroirs. The first vintage of Pence Ranch wines was in 2010 and they produce 1000 cases. Winemaker Jeff Fink explained that his favorite part about being a Garagiste is the hands-on approach to winemaking. The process is not over mechanized and because of their size, they are able to blind taste every barrel.

Josh Klapper

I first met Josh Klapper when he was the Assistant Sommelier at Sona Restaurant and remember when he started making La Fenetre wine in 2004. While I knew he was working in the restaurant and then driving up to Santa Ynez, it sounded romantic to me. Sommelier by day, winemaker by night and weekends, I never thought about how he managed it. That first harvest is one of Josh’s first memories. He left his home at 3:00 am, drove 3 hours to Santa Barbara wine country and didn’t head home until 6:00 am the next day. After being awake for 27 hours, Josh recalls pulling the car over in Malibu at 4:00 am and crying from exhaustion. But, obviously, and fortunately, it didn’t scare him off and today he has relocated to the the Central Coast and makes La Fenetre wines full time.

Winemaker and owner Karen Steinwachs holds a “day job” as winemaker at Buttonwood and in 2007 founded Seagrape Wine Co, which produces 500 cases. Karen has the best of both worlds. With Seagrape, Karen is able to take more chances and try new things because she is only accountable to herself. But, she points out that the challenge of being a Garagiste winemaker is that most Garagiste wineries don’t have tasting rooms to promote their wines, making it harder to make a living.

Dan Kessler and his wife Ellen began producing Kessler Haak Wines in 2008 from their 30 acre organically farmed vineyard in the Sta. Rita Hills. Their first memories of making wine were when both the tractor and the fermentation got stuck. While they got the tractor out, they tried to restart fermentation by getting a lynch hose to siphon the juice. Dan didn’t anticipate the speed with which the juice would travel up the siphon and got a mouthful of raw, burning alcohol. Today they are smarter, more experienced winemakers and find the biggest challenge of being a Garagiste is getting people to know your brand and how they can find the wines.

Ryan Roark spent time in France during college where he worked with two brothers who ran their own wine business. Inspired, Ryan began Roark Wine Co in 2009 and makes 500 cases of wine. What he loves about being a Garagiste winemaker is the creativity involved. “When you don’t have the resources, you find ways to make it work.” He runs the business and does all of the work himself. After three years in business, he plans to turn a profit this year and is able to make enough wine to be sustainable.

Brother and sister team Zac and Almond Wasserman started Frequency Wines in 2010. Almond had worked one harvest with winemaker Joey Tensley and today Zac works for Joey Tensley. With limited experience, they started Frequency and continue to learn as they go. With plans to make 175 cases this year, what they enjoy about being Garagiste winemakers is that they meet others doing the same thing, share experiences and learn from them. They also enjoy working together as brother and sister as it has strengthened their bond.

Shawn Shai Halahmy has worked in the real estate industry for 22 years; in 2008 he began Shai Cellars. Producing 300-325 cases of wine each year, Shawn enjoys the blending process the most. But, he points out that the biggest challenge of being a Garagiste winemaker is that despite all the research in how to make good wine, the one missing piece is how to sell the wine.

Kaena Wine Co (Kaena means “potential for greatness in Hawaiian) was founded in 2001 by Mikael Sigouin. Mikael is the winemaker for Beckman. As a Garagiste winemaker he makes Kaena wines “for himself.” Being from Hawaii, his wines are made for the food he grew up on – Asian flavors, salty and sweet foods, foods that want wines with acid and balance.

Next time you are buying wine, seek out the smaller, lesser-known producers. There are so many of them producing delicious, small-lots, perhaps one of these will become your next favorite wine!