A couple of weeks ago, an ex-mormon, an ex-pro snowboarder, a man of mystery known as The Conspirator, and a group of 40 or so of their peers gathered at the Veterans Memorial Hall in Solvang, CA. You may wonder what would bring this diverse cast of characters together under one roof? Wine, of course.
All of the aforementioned are not only winemakers, but they made some of my favorite wines at the 7th Annual Garagiste Wine Festival: Southern Exposure, held over the weekend of February 8-10, 2019 in Solvang, California.
As I’ve said many times before, I absolutely love the Garagiste Festivals for discovering new wines. There truly is no other wine event like it. A festival that offers 40+ micro-wineries – most of which don’t have tasting rooms and some who only produce a few hundred cases per year – an opportunity to share their wines with those who may never have heard of them otherwise.
Most of the time, it is the winemaker him or herself pouring the wine and describing everything that went into that particular vintage – the type of soil in the vineyard, how the climate and weather impacted the grapes that year, the ups and downs of harvest, and their unique process for getting the wine from the vineyard to the glass you hold in your hand.
The vibe is always fun, relaxed and incredibly educational. Now taking place annually in Paso Robles, Solvang, Los Angeles and Sonoma, the Garagiste Festival consistently features some of the finest unsung wine talent out there.
Kings Carey is a small-production boutique label, produced by winemaker James Sparks. James started his life as a mormon and has since left the religion to become a rock star Santa Barbara County winemaker. I first met James and tried his wines at the same Garagiste Festival in Solvang 5 years ago. He was pouring wines for Liquid Farm – a label for which he still makes exceptional Chardonnay, Rosé and Pinot Noir.
Whether making wine for Kings Carey or for Liquid Farm, you can taste his laser focus on detail and quality in every bottle he makes. I loved his just-released 2018 Rose of Grenache as well as his 2018 Semillon which would be magical with a plate of oysters.
Maidenstoen focuses solely on site-specific, vineyard designate California Riesling. For anyone who has been turned off by too many overly sweet, Botrytis-bomb Rieslings, Maidenstoen wines will be totally transformative. Winemaker and ex-pro snowboarder Mike Callahan developed a passion for wine while working at a liquor store in Colorado where he was exposed to some interesting and unusual imported varietals.
He then moved to California’s central coast to work for a couple well-known winemakers, including Ken Volk and Bill Brosseau, while honing and developing his own style. He started his Maidenstoen label in 2013, focusing on Riesling grown in unique and often extreme vineyards throughout the state.
At the Garagiste Festival, Mike poured three of his Rieslings, each one having its own unique, distinct characteristics while sharing a common backbone of structure and bright acidity. Mike explained that his style largely comes from monitoring grape ripeness to achieve lower PH levels and higher acidity, along with fastidious vineyard management to keep air flowing through the vineyards (ie, no Botrytis or mildew).
For those who are less familiar, Botrytis cinerea or “Noble rot” is a mold that grows on grapes and uniquely can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on the varietal. For Riesling, many winemakers feel Botrytis is a good thing, giving the wine a concentrated, sweet honeyed flavor profile and a floral aroma many describe as being reminiscent of honeysuckle.
Mike on the other hand unapologetically believes Botrytis is a terrible thing for Riesling which strips away the wine’s unique terroir or sense of place. This was demonstrated perfectly in his wines. His 2016 Coast View Vineyard Riesling is from a steep, high altitude vineyard with rocky soil and large diurnal temperature swings – all of which make the vines work extra hard to produce fruit. This struggle results in a highly-expressive, drier style wine with beautiful acidity and great age-ability. I think this was my favorite of the three, but they were all so good it was almost too hard to choose.
I also liked the 2016 Lafond Vineyard Riesling (Sta. Rita Hills), which hails from the oldest California Riesling vineyard on the Central Coast. This wine had a touch more sweetness and fruitiness to it compared to the Coast View, however a nice acidity – clearly a trademark of Mike’s wines – sneaks in on the palate, balancing the flavor profile out perfectly.
If you can find Maidenstoen Wines at your local wine shop, do yourself a favor and buy a bottle (or several). It’s a steal at roughly $22/bottle and will give you a glimpse into the vast potential of California Riesling.
I’ve known Ray Schofield of Cloak & Dagger wines (aka, The Conspirator) since 2012 when I met him at the 2nd annual Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles. With an unwavering dedication to hand-crafting extremely limited amounts of exceptional red wines in total secrecy, he continues to remain a man of complete mystery.
Even though I’ve remained a loyal fan of his wines over the last 6+ years, I still only know a few things for certain: 1. He makes his wines in the Templeton Gap area west of Paso Robles. 2. He will under absolutely NO circumstance tell you the blend of grapes he uses in his incredible Cryptology red blend (even if you’re a Master Sommelier who attempts to guess the blend and wants to know if you’re correct). 3. His Illuminatus Sangiovese is quite possibly one of the best examples of the varietal I’ve tried in California. 4. Whatever he is doing at his “undisclosed” winery location, he has every right to keep it a secret because his wines just keep getting better and better with each vintage.
We tasted through his portfolio of 5 wines which included a Zinfandel (The Defector) and a Malbec/Petite Verdot/Cabernet Franc blend called Espionage. While all were incredible, there was something particularly delicious about his Cryptology blend. I think there was a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon in there, which of course Ray would neither confirm nor deny.
Don’t miss your chance to meet a new cast of winemaking characters when the Garagistes head to Sonoma on April 13, 2019 for the 2nd Annual Garagiste Festival: Northern Exposure. Hope to see you all there!