Sonoma’s Garagiste Wine Festival: Good things come in small batches

If discovering a talented, under-the-radar winemaker elicits the glee of unearthing a diamond in the rough, the Garagiste Wine Festival is designed for you.

On Saturday, April 27, the annual wine event will return to Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall, where more than 40 tiny-production wineries will be on site to pour their limited, hard-to-find wines.

Founded in Paso Robles in 2011, with satellite events in Sonoma County since 2018, the Garagiste Festival invites winemakers who produce 1,500 cases of wine or less per year to share their wines with consumers during the one-day event.

The Northern Exposure edition will feature wines from Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and El Dorado counties, as well as Lodi, Sierra Foothills, Suisun Valley, Anderson Valley and Santa Clara Valley.

Given 90% of the participating wineries don’t have a tasting room, the festival offers an excellent opportunity to discover the breadth of Sonoma County’s lesser-known winemaking talent.

This year, 11 new wineries will participate in the event, including Cary Q Wines from winemaker Cary Quintana.

Based in the East Bay, Quintana produces about 100 to 150 cases of wine per year at Punchdown Cellars in Santa Rosa, with a focus on fruit from the Sierra Foothills.

Like many garagiste winemakers, Quintana has a career outside the wine industry, so finding time to promote her brand has been a challenge.

“Given my bandwidth of time and limited wine production, I’m very selective about where I pour my wines,” said Quintana, who launched her brand 10 years ago. “But the Garagiste Festival is a really enticing way to showcase my wines, including those from the Sierra Foothills, to a broader audience. It’s a great platform for small, independent winemakers.”

For Alissa Lind, who founded Healdsburg’s Cruess Wine with her husband, Anthony Beckman, in 2013, the Garagiste Festival is an opportunity to connect with the right consumers.

“The festival attracts the kind of wine lovers who want to understand the story and methods behind the wines they’re drinking,” Lind said. “For small producers who lack a huge marketing budget or formal tasting room, it’s perfect for connecting us to the people who most want to drink our wines. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

What is a garagiste?

Coined in Bordeaux, France, in the early 1990s, the term garagiste was given to rebellious winemakers who were fed up with the region’s strict, centuries-old rules for winemaking.

Rather than adhere to tradition, these adventurous men and women made small lots of uncharacteristically robust wines in garages, warehouses and anywhere else they wanted.

Threatened by this novel way of making wine, the traditionalists called these turncoat winemakers “garagistes.” While the term was intended to insult, it became a badge of honor to those who took pride in going rogue.

The Garagiste Festival was inspired by these independent French winemakers and their determination to forge a new path.

A true garagiste

Born in Haute-Savoie, France, Jacques Mathieu never intended to make wine when he moved to the United States. But once he fell into the hobbyist winemaking community, it felt like home.

In 1996, the Mathieu family launched Côte des Cailloux, a petit, Sonoma Valley winery that produces about 300 to 400 cases of wine per year.

Today, Mathieu’s son, Cody Mathieu, helps manage the small brand, along with his own wine label, Potter Valley Wine Works.

This year’s Garagiste Festival, will be the Mathieus’ first.

“We don’t have tasting rooms or big budgets like the industrial wine companies do, so it’s hard for us to gain traction in the industry,” Cody Mathieu said. “Participating in the Garagiste Festival is really about connecting with local customers and creating a good bond with our community.”

With no local distribution in wine shops or restaurants and limited social media presence, spreading the word about Côte des Cailloux can be a challenge.

“For us, it’s about getting on the ground and participating in events like Garagiste, which allow us to tell our story,” Mathieu said. “At the end of the day, all we have is our story. Our hope is that people will fall in love with it and become our customers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or Follow Sarah on Instagram at @whiskymuse.

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