Friday, November 18, 2016


           To continue Adam Lazarre's presentation, four wines were poured. Two were large production and the others were his own label. A 2014 Sea Monster Eclectic White blend is "built" for Whole Foods. There were 6,000 cases made, grapes coming mostly from the Santa Ynez AVA and unoaked. Eclectic is an apt description for this $15 bottle that includes Viognier, Riesling, Grenache Blanc, Gewürztraminer and (what the heck) a kiss of Chard. It worked, go figure.
A little easier to figure was the other large volume offering. A commonly seen combo in this area, it was an 82% Petite Sirah and 18% Syrah blend. There were 16,000 cases made for a $14 retail and the grape sources were mostly Livermore with some N. Santa Barbara fruit as well. The wine is a 2014 Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah, Central Coast by label. It sounded like a California appellation might be appropriate in this case since Livermore is an AVA on its own. Both regions provide cool climate versions of the fruit and perhaps I didn't correctly hear his breakdown.
The idea was to compare and contrast mass produced wines from his own label. The costs addressed in the first part of this posting aside, there were a couple of major differences between his small lot wines and the ones above.  The wines were 2014 Lazarre Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley, of which only 175 cases were produced at a shelf price $22. A more than fair price point for the quality of the wine and considering the tonnage cost of Chard from that region. His focus is on Pinot Noir, which was poured as a 2012 version from the Central Coast appellation. Only 480 cases were made for sale at $36 and sourced from Santa Maria and Santa Lucia Highlands. It was more an old world style in look and on the palate than many of the somewhat massive Pinots seen from Santa Barbara and parts of Monterey County.
His comparison dealt with knowing the vineyard and the fruit, being involved with picking decisions, use of oak, smaller containers for fermentation. And, that the winemaker was personally in touch, on a daily basis, with the progress of the product. Plus the need for work arounds for things as simple as not having a bottle line and the toys while producing a superior product. Yet even the Pinot Noir was at the low end of  Central Coast pricing for the variety.
The second session of the day was called Illegal Blends. The being based on the restrictive laws seen in many growing regions in the world as to what grapes can go into a bottle. The garagistes can play it anyway they want. And that is one reason we get to taste Albarino, Counoise, Tannat at this event.
I would point out that all the wines poured were rated Best of Class or received 91 or more ratings from publications or competitions.
Erick Allen of Ascension Cellars poured 2015 "Silver" Blanc. Made at Cass (Paso Robles) and using SIP certified Chardonnay from Castoro Cellars, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier were also in this blend. The Rhone varietals were estate grown and both his wines were 13.9% alcohol. While the wine was light it offered more body on the palate than I expected. There were 465 cases at $36. The second pour was the 2013 "Soul Shaker" of which only 135 cases were made, priced at $66. It is his best selling wine and the fruit is sourced from Cass. It is 73 % Bordeaux blend - 40/20/13% Cab, Merlot and Petit Verdot with the remainder being Syrah. For the Paso area, these types of blends are fairly common, having mixed results as they combine "illegal" wines. It is an interesting experiment that may need some familiarization tasting to those not used to what Syrah can do to the more familiar combination.
Brian Brown of ONX Wines poured 2014 "Mad Crush", a $48 wine with 561 cases being made. There is a bit of something for everyone in this blend of 45% Grenache melded with nearly 1/5th Tempranillo and Malbec and 9% each Mourvedre & Zin. I found it very fruit forward with an evident backbone of tannin that should balance out as it sees more time in the bottle.
Steve Lemley from Pulchella Winery showed "The Awakening" 2014, an "unplanned" blend of which 125 cases were produced, priced at $45 and having a 15.7% alcohol level. Very deep in color, the wine is 66% Tannat, 34% Petite Sirah. Another example of a grape that is just gaining a foothold and another that was a standard for many years and fell out of favor for a while, now making a comeback, being used. Only the garagistes are playing on that field and making for one of the most interesting gatherings of the year. Can't wait for #7!


          The wizards of small lot wines are back in their garages by now but the flavors linger on. Even a trained professional, such as myself, can be overwhelmed (some over served) by the variety of options served at the popular Garagiste Festival. And the word continues to spread. While a more local event when starting six years ago, I spoke with many who'd travelled from San Diego, the Sacramento area and from up north. They had good things to say about the lodging and dining options available in Paso Robles as well as their experience at the event. Many had learned of the Fest from word of mouth and were first timers but many indicated being repeats. And it was a knowledgeable crowd, who expressed being pleased with the ability  to engage the winemakers directly. It made for a nice end of season boost for the local restaurants and hotels too.

If not familiar with this group, there are a variety of things to do aside from the tasting and a mix of ticket options. First off is a Friday dinner and continues through Sunday's passport to some of the participating wineries, generally not open for public tastings. The main event is Saturday, beginning with a pair of seminars if you chose that level of attendance, and that includes lunch and early entry into the tasting. The day ends with a chance to wind down at an after party.

The seminars are a focus for me as they provide fodder for this blog. Much of what I post is information on trends, newly popular varietals, current ideas on winemaking, growth in various wine growing areas. Garagiste types are great for sourcing information on that as they are often on the first wave in such areas. 

First up was Adam Lazarre with, "A Peek Behind the Curtain" presentation. We are from a similar generation in the business and he took me back to my wholesale days with brands he was involved with, such as Jekel, Sonoma-Cutrer and Hahn. He is a brand building winemaker who does large production labels for Bev Mo, Whole Foods etc. and has grown 25,000 case wineries to over 100K. He discussed the differences between that experience and his own miniature production label.

I have discussed some of this in prior writing as I believe bringing people into the wine culture is good for the industry. You don't do that with $65 bottles of Cab, you need a mass market appeal and approachable wines. That is what the big boys (and increasingly women) provide. Adam pointed out the value in economy of scale and its effect on final price when entering the national distribution arena . The top selling (mostly multi label) thirty producers in the country sell 90% of the wine. None do less than 600,000 cases with #1Gallo putting 75M into the market. Over233M cases are made by the six top producers. After that, the double digits fall  off but the next thirteen on the list still are in the millions of cases with the last ten producing merely hundreds of thousands.

Compared to the Garagiste maker, the savings in cost of labels, closures, capsules and bottles is enormous. Often 50% or better in cost variance. And the ability to operate with all the new tech toys that artisan makers have no hope of capitalizing is also an advantage. Thus we get lots of reasonably priced everyday wines that are blended to a house style and dressed up with some back of the curtain techniques from made to order effects of available yeasts, oak alternatives and even powdered lees. This is not the little old winemaker image but it provides a product that allows people to become fans of wine, usually moving up the ladder. And that is good for the wine business.

                                                                                                                        To Be Continued

Never too early to start planning for 2017 events. Early announcements, some including early ticket promo pricing are out from the following events.

Santa Barbara Vintners ( will celebrate New Spring Releases Weekend  over April 20-23. Discounts are available for tickets through the end of the year. If you need your wine event fix sooner than that, World of Pinot Noir ( also in Santa Barbara, will be held March 3-4. For those who really can't wait, Rhone Rangers to the rescue! The Paso Robles branch ( holds a now annual gathering at Broken Earth winery on Sunday March19. Known as the Experience it offers a complete day of panel discussions, lunch, silent auction and grand tasting. Tickets for the entire event or just the tasting portion are available. Full details and tickets are available via the indicated web sites.

Saturday, October 1, 2016


          The weekend of Oct. 14-16 is Harvest Wine Weekend  in the varied sub-appellation areas surrounding Paso Robles. The final major event on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance schedule for 2016, it is an unstructured opportunity to pick what you'd like to do at 140 wineries in the area. From dinners and various more casual daily food events, to music and art, there is bound to be something for you to enjoy.

The local Cabs of Distinction will hold a Grand Tasting at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort. Offering more than seventy wines made with Bordeaux varietals, it is a perfect kickoff to your weekend, running from 4 to 6 the afternoon of the 14th. Small bites are included and most participating wineries are represented by owners or winemakers. Details to this and what the wineries are doing for this special three days can be found via the PRWCA web site, You can search by day, winery or activity or scroll through the full alphabetical listing. Where tickets are involved, information is on the individual web sites shown on the details pages.


            November 11-13 is the weekend for the 6th rendition of that barrel of monkeys known as the Garagiste Festival.  Some great background to this group, the garage band of winemaking, is on their website, which also gives you the opportunity to sign up for "The Dirt" newsletter and to purchase tickets. My review of last year's event is in the archives of this blog.

There are over 200 wines and more than 60 producers of small lot and hard to find wines being poured. Friday night features a dinner at the Carlton Hotel in Atascadero. Saturday starts with a morning seminar from 11 to 12:30 at the Paso Robles Event Center, where the remaining events will take place. The panel will discuss "Illegal Blends" that test the boundaries of tradition. The Main Event tasting runs from 2 to 5 with the always fun After Party kicking off at 5:30. Hope to see you there. Also check into the free-wheeling Sunday options as many of those pouring on Saturday are putting out the welcome mat at their wineries.

Saturday, August 20, 2016


            About this time last year, I got the SOMM Journal issue with the results of the San Francisco International Wine Competition. I wrote a blog piece questioning the scale and value of such an event (see archive). Not to pick on this particular judging but the intrinsic worth of large panel judging resulting in questionable rewards. There are so many such events, though rarely of the size and scope of SFIWC, that every tasting room you visit has medals hanging from bottles on display.

Bigger and better than ever may not be necessarily so. The magazine only had room for the Best of Show, Double Gold & Gold winners (13 pages alone), The wasn't space for winners of lesser medals in the magazine. In his introduction to the listing, the respected Anthony Dias Blue, Executive Director of the event and Editor in Chief of SOMM, noted re: the 2016 event, that the judges had tasted 4,618 wines in four days. And the Double Gold category saw a 9% increase over 2015. Is giving such prestige to 279 wines a good thing? On a typical 100 point judging rank, is it possible that the number of wines scored at 96 or above should actually grow? And what does such largesse say for the value of the medal, having become more common?

Moreover, what does it say that $125 Cabernets are considered in the same realm as $16 ones? Or that many well thought of wineries avoid these judgings ?  The most egregious Double Gold example from last year being a $10 bottle of  mass produced, bubbles added, sparkler was given the same award as a $400 bottle of  true Champagne. In what universe would this happen if not one full of palate fatigue from doing over a thousand wines per day.

That said, there were some gems in small production wineries seeking some marketing clout. Sadly but frankly, to the average tourist wine imbiber, a medal is a medal. Be it Orange County, LA the Mid State Fair or the Fresno Wine & Folk Festival (which I made up I think), medals are impressive. So buyer beware. In some cases the award may be a shot to the foot. The B.R. Cohn winery, for example, submitted  its 2014 N. Coast Cabernet ($25) and the 2013 Olive Hill Estate version ($58). Both received a Double Gold award, giving prospective buyers a choice of equally judged wines for $300 or $700 a case. Vintage and stylistic preferences aside, kind of a no-brainer. Likely not the marketing three pointer for which Mr. Cohn was shooting.

A similar situation involved Hall Wines, a Napa vintner that won Best of Varietal with their $80 "Ellie's" '13 Cabernet along with the Double Gold. But both the "Coeur" ($70) and the Napa appellation ($55) from that vintage were also given the Double. This may not be a bad thing as it certainly establishes a pattern of well crafted wines from the brand, across a spectrum of pricing. But the Halls are an exception to my general hypothesis. Risking what is already an exceptionally well thought of  and award winning maker of Cabernet by tossing their hats into this immense ring. In this case it may have added to the icing already on the cake.

Given the Cab categories' price spread of winners, $10 for Cypress '14 Central Coast to a ZD '12 Reserve at $190, I question why allegedly superior brands with a reputation supporting their price point would chance comparisons.  One fix would be to judge the wines in the current manner but report the results in price tiers. Perhaps even taste them in that manner but not disclose pricing to the panel to avoid dollar envy.

Another problem I've experienced when judging wines is the fairness of comparing the same varietal from unfamiliar regions. There can be significant variation in what the locals find attractive in an emerging New World, South American version of the same grape versus what those in an Old World region may expect. And with all the factors of weather and soils or degree days etc., I find it difficult to make a fair distinction between Pinot Noir from the NW to those from Central Coast. Plus one must allow for personal preferences, which is nearly impossible to overcome, that puts some bias. Most serious judging events realize that and attempt to mitigate it by having a panel that can kick out the high & low scores and use the average for the rest in rating the wines.

I enjoy being on such panels and you generally find consensus on most wines, so I'm not trying to be a wet blanket here.  It is also educational to pit a group of, for example, Sangiovese from Tuscany vs. ones made in a California AVA, thus expanding you palate as well. People often ask me about my favorite wine. I tell them it should be the one in your glass that you are enjoying at the moment. Salute!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


            The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance holds the 34th Wine Fest Weekend, May 19-22. Details and Tickets and full information are available at The weekend offers a variety of events within the overall structure. Saturday morning has a seminar on characteristics of  Paso Robles and sub-AVAs. Two winemaker dinners are available on Thursday night. There is a Reserve tasting Friday evening and the Grand Tasting in the park Saturday afternoon. Boxed lunches and food trucks are available and a picnic area provided. Wineries are offering various Festival related events and specials for ticket holding Festival Fans. One example of which is Friday night at Derby Wine Estates (.com) tasting room and patio. They will kick off this year's Wine Festival with an exclusive "Salt Lick BBQ" event! 

A Texas Brisket, Ribs and Salt Lick Sausage plate will be prepared for you, by the legendary Pit Master Scott Roberts, all the way from Driftwood Texas. The Derby Smokehouse will be preparing delicious side dishes to compliment this Authentic Texas BBQ!  Join the fun May 20th from 5:30-9:00pm. Pat and Matt of The Guitar Circus will be entertaining the crowd with their dueling guitar act. Tickets are $30 for general public, available on the web site above.

The Chardonnay Symposium (.com for details) will be held the weekend of May 12-14 in various locations in the beach towns near San Luis Obispo and surrounding wine growing sites. As the above mentioned CABs event, this event is also a SOMM Journal magazine involved event with a wide range of tastings, seminars and dining events. Many of the events involve sommeliers from around the country and versions of the varietal from many different Chardonnay centric areas.

June 13th is the date for the first American Albariño Summit. The event will take place at Brecon Estate (.com) in Paso Robles. This unique event features both an Albariño tasting and optional educational seminar. At least twenty Central Coast wineries will be pouring their current offerings at the tasting.  The seminar is from 5 to 6pm and the tasting will be 5:30 to 7:30.

The panel includes Albariño experts talking about the origin and history of the grape, viticulture and a sommelier to enlighten us on food pairings. Seminar tastings include a comparison of  Spanish, Portuguese and California versions of the wine. The main tasting will include live flamenco guitar and food pairings reminiscent of NW Spain. Tickets for both are $50 or tasting only at $35 and purchased via

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


            The things to do and places to go have come fast and furious in the past few weeks. So much so I haven't had time to catch you up on them.

Let's start with Wi-Vi, The Central Coast Wine Industry Conference & Tradeshow. This event now has five years of ever improving history and increased interest. Started , with a different title, by Becky (First Crush Winery) and Lowell (Precision Ag Consulting) Zelinski, they have handed off the event to Wine Business Magazine . The publisher has been part of Wi-Vi since the early days but now has added it to a series of trade oriented gatherings they offer. However, Becky hosted the direct to consumer seminar sessions, focusing on tasting room and wine club marketing.  The enology and viticulture classes were run by Lowell and offered continuing education credits for those attending.

Attendance has grown to well over 1,000 and trade show booths were getting lots of action as they were easy to visit on either side of the lunch buffet. The timing worked well for those drawn to some focused tastings in the same space. Also a varietal focus seminar & tasting of Cabernet Franc was the latest in the annual session led by Lance Cutler. Locally, The Farm Winery, Daou Vineyards and Calcareous Vineyard presented well received samples. Some party time was also on the agenda and provided plenty of face to face networking.

This has turned into a major event and draws industry people from all the California wine regions. I'm looking forward to another successful event next year.

Next up was the CABs of Distinction tasting and trade event run by SOMM Journal  magazine and the Paso area marketing group that promotes area Cabernet Sauvignon, the Cab Collective.  The second version of the program was a two day exposure for media and sommeliers to the quality of local versions of the varietal and Bordeaux style blends. It included a double blind tasting of Paso wines compared to high end Bordeaux and other well know California growing areas.

The Paso Robles chapter of Rhone Rangers holds monthly tastings of single varietals that are fun social occasions but also include seminars from time to time. The April get together, held at the new Alta Colina location, concentrated on Mourvedre. There is not a lot of tonnage available so varietal bottlings are not common. Most of the juice goes into GSM blends with Grenache and Syrah. The four wines tasted were all grown within a few miles of each other. The consensus of the winemakers is that there is this Westside sweet spot for this difficult to grow and very late ripening grape. Often harvested as late as November.

Monday, February 1, 2016


            My email is being flooded with wine events of interest here on the Central Coast. So, time to make a list and check it twice. The details and ticketing information are varied and often have a complex set of offerings. Rather than try to present that much information, I'll provide the links to the source of the ones you may find of interest.

The next two events on the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (PRWCA) list are Blend Fest, February 19-21 and the March 18-20 Vintage Paso Zinfandel Weekend. The first is held on the coast in the lovely area around Cambria and was  a recent addition to the Alliance line up that proved popular when begun last year. It can also be tied to travel plans including the Hearst Castle and San Simeon. Zin Weekend also offers a travel double header as the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival is held in the same time frame and is offering (link via the event details) a special screening of the sequel to the SOMM movie on opening day after a seminar led by Master Somm Fred Dame. A fellow Central Coaster and former wine director of Monterey's famous Sardine Factory restaurant, he is in part to blame for my entry in SOMM-ism. The weekend has some structured aspects but is free form in terms of planning visits to wineries rather than a large tasting format. Get all the facts and figures at and check out the site for suggested itineraries, lodging and dining options and a wealth of useful information on the area.

The Garagistes take their show back to Solvang for the annual Southern Exposure  tasting of small lot wines that are rarely available for tasting or purchase. Held February 13-14, ducats and info are found at their site,

In Paso, at Broken Earth winery, on February 14, our local Rhone Rangers will hold a morning seminar followed by lunch (limited seats). Then a grand tasting of the wide variety of wines made from Rhone based grapes. Their site is at where details and tickets are available.

Santa Barbara is the venue for a Winter Wine Classic on February 20th ( and a Spring Weekend of April 21-24, provided by the area vintners ( More about wine events in the county can also be found at Another major area tasting is the World of Pinot Noir, March 4-5, at the Bacara Resort. This is an international event with Pinots from Burgundy, NZ and all U.S growing areas. A great look at the varietal, combined with educational sessions and some very nice dining events. Full WOPN details can be found, as well as tickets,  at

Growing annually as an industry must-do, WiVi Central Coast Conference & Trade Show,  will be held at the Paso Robles Events Center, March 15-16.Though the event is geared to wineries and growers, it has also provided tastings and seminars of interest to people who are oenophiles and might be something you'd enjoy. Check out the program at

The Paso Robles Cab Collective will bring the SOMMs back to Paso for this year's edition of Cabs of Distinction, April 12-14. This is limited to trade and media but a public tasting is slated for later this year. Their site is

Check my prior post re: Hospice du Rhone  and Food & Wine's Pebble Beach event. There are many marketing sub-set groups that post smaller, winery oriented events. You might want to look at:, and