BC’s garagiste movement is gaining steam
The WISE Hall in Vancouver is typical of many community halls that once dotted the Canadian landscape in the early part of the 20th century. With few frills but a decent dance floor, stage, modest kitchen (plus lounge and billiards room below) it harks back to a quite different era in the city’s history.
When the former Methodist church became the Welsh, Irish, Scottish & English Club (in 1963) it was very much a reflection of the Eurocentric times. Situated on Vancouver’s once but no longer Bohemian east-side, it lives on. Folksy and gently edgy, a favoured haunt of aspiring indie bands, it has also witnessed the likes of such luminaries as Veda Hille, Art Bergmann and Neko Case.
All of which made the WISE the perfect venue for the 2016 Vancouver edition of the remarkable Garagiste: The Small Guys Wine Festival. On an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, this past April, a score of the Okanagan’s lesser-knowns packed in, as well as one equally under the radar winery from Vancouver Island.
However, this was not some rag-tag group of winemaker wannabees. Far from it, in fact. As the 200 people or so in attendance discovered, the calibre of ‘garagiste’ wines in BC is more than just passable — hence the considerable following.
When festival founders Jennifer Schell and Terry Meyer Stone came up with the idea of a showcase specifically for smaller players they turned to Bordeaux for inspiration. The name alludes to a small group of winemakers who — frustrated of being hampered by DOC regulations — took their winemaking ‘underground,’ often as not in their own garage. Hence the name now widely known.
The first Garagiste event took place in 2014, at Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls. There’s a family connection, as owner Jak Meyer is Terry Meyer Stone’s brother. Subsequent tastings took place in Kelowna and Vancouver, with the fall 2016 Okanagan event planned for the parking lot at Canadian Tire, Penticton. Even though that first festival happened only a couple of years ago, the international grapevine has already been doing its job: last summer the UK’s influential Financial Times named Garagiste North among five of the best wine festivals held around the world.
Terry Meyer Stone, who co-owns Anarchist Mountain Vineyard, says the idea came out of a conversation she had with Food and Wine Trails Magazine publisher Jennifer Schell, about the challenges smaller wineries face in getting the word (and the wine) out.
Most ‘garagistes’ wear more than one hat, balancing their passion for wine with a day job — which, often as not, also involves wine. Terry is the DTC and wine club manager at Tinhorn Creek Winery, and her husband Andrew manages Constellation’s Sunrock Vineyard (and worked previously for Meyer and Liquidity.)
“The little guys often do have tasting rooms,” she says, “although they tend not to be included in tours, so we thought: ‘Why not gather everyone together in one spot and invite people to come to us?’”
She too feels that the WISE Hall made for the perfect Garagiste venue (“We don’t belong in a hotel ballroom.”) although this year’s overwhelming response means they’ve outgrown the location.
Terry and Andrew bought their vineyard in 2010. It had been planted by a previous owner, a retired miner, who planted a “suitcase” Dijon Chardonnay clone and blasted a hole in the rocks to make a reservoir. The site is halfway up the corkscrew road that climbs Anarchist Mountain, immediately east of Osoyoos, is positively breath-taking. “We bought it for the view,” she admits. But the terroir with its different soils, cool mornings and late in the day sun added up to one “very cool micro-climate” — which motivated them to move beyond purely growing grapes for sale to make their own single vineyard wine.
The couple’s primary focus is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, made by Meyer Family winemaker Chris Carson (“He’s so amazing with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir”), although recently they’ve added Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Currently they make about 250 cases a year, which may grow to 300 with the possibility of a red blend and a single variety Cab Franc.
Terry says they like their level of production and it’s unlikely the business will grow much more, although they might purchase grapes for a second tier but still focus on the single vineyard wines.
Above all, she says, “The garagistes’ common thread is a true passion for the wine,” and their willingness “to take a few chances.”
The end result at this festival is that it’s the principals who are pouring. “People want to talk to them and find out their stories,” she says. In the end, though, “You can’t be growing grapes and not make wine.”
Anthony Buchanan jokes that he got into wine seriously at a young age. “It was something I gravitated towards,” says Buchanan, who was running his own, successful hairdressing business when he went to his first public tasting in Victoria, BC.
“I soon discovered that I enjoyed learning and talking about wine. By the age of 26, I was educating myself — and actually became the youngest member of the Opimian Society.”
When Buchanan immersed himself in WSET Level Two, and started to learn more about viticulture and winemaking, his interest was piqued, so much so that he decided it was time for a career change.
“At the time I thought I’d become a sommelier,” says Buchanan. But he soon realized he wanted more.
He enrolled in Winemaking 101 at Okanagan College (the original program in the valley) and worked his first harvest at Blue Mountain.
“That confirmed I was on the right path,” he says and eventually enrolled in a two-year online course at Washington State University, before moving to the Okanagan in 2010 to take a job with the ill-fated Holman Lang group. Eventually he worked with Bench 1775 and then with Wild Goose, before arriving at Desert Hills.
Along the way, he was introduced to Similkameen’s Eau Vivre Winery, which has landed two BC Lieutenant Governor Wine Awards for its Pinot Noir. With some of their grapes he now makes Anthony Buchanan Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc — and were poured them for the first time at this spring’s Garagiste North in Vancouver.
“Always make the wine you prefer to drink yourself,” he says.
“I’ve always gravitated towards Pinot Noir for its acidity and food friendly character,” says Buchanan, who says he doesn’t cut corners, and knows the style of wine he wants to make. “My wife and I had always thought we might buy a small piece of property and make our own wine,” but this was the next best thing. “We plan to keep it small; make a make a max of 500 to 700 cases, with maybe two single vineyard designated Pinot Noirs and the Pinot Blanc,” says Buchanan.
When the Garagistes came along the Buchanans were invited by another small winery to attend a meet and greet in Penticton. “It’s a real cool little society, where you can walk into a room and meet others who are in a similar situation to yourself and swap ideas. I don’t think you get that level of exchange on a larger scale. Plus, I’m still a bit of a rookie, so I never would have met so many key people had it not been for the garagistes.”
In the meantime, Buchanan is starting to sell their wine to a few restaurants in Vancouver and the Okanagan — although he’s anxious to make sure he can keep up with supply and demand until the next vintages are ready.
And as to why people love the idea of the garagiste festival? It’s because the owner wears a whole bunch of different hats, says Buchanan, from vineyard manager to winemaker, marketer and more.
Black Market Wine Co.’s Rob Hammersley discovered wine through a friend at University of Manitoba, who serendipitously flunked engineering only to discover that U of M had a two-year exchange program with UC Davis. He found his niche in oenology, and now lives in Napa.
“Once every couple of months he would hold a tasting, with a huge map of wine on the wall, explaining: ‘this wine comes from here and tastes like this because … ’”
From that moment, Hammersely (who’s studied extensively) says he’s “been hooked on the sense of wine and place” — so much so that he’s even visited Kenya’s only winery. “A pining for knowledge of everything about wine” eventually led to BC Wine Studio’s Mark Simpson, a winemaker (and brewmaster) who’s been instrumental in helping numerous garagistes realize their dreams, with varying degrees of involvement.
Hammersley and his partner Michelle Shewchuk operate in a very hands-on fashion. “I look on it as a bit of a twist on the custom crush aspect. I source my own fruit, my own barrels, and some of the equipment is mine.”
“I do as much of the work as I can—but under Mark’s guidance: I use his expertise to guide my own process. Ultimately,” says Hammersley, “it’s collaborative: They’re not his wines with my label, they’re our wines.”
While some garagistes are driven very much by emotion, Hammersley, a (senior corporate finance professional who specialises in acquisitions) is more sanguine. He has a long term perspective for Black Market Wine Co.
“My whole approach to this market is like what I do for my day job. The key part is to evaluate the risk that you’re taking. Anyone can make wine — that’s the easy part. It’s the selling that’s challenging. I want to make sure we have a slice of the market before we invest in land and so on.”
Hammersley, too, chooses to make wines he enjoys drinking but they’re also made with varieties he believes are “on the path to being great.” He appreciates that the Okanagan is relatively unfettered by typical AOC regulations and is a “big fan” of blending, focusing on their ‘Syndicate’ Bordeaux blends red and white.
“I find — especially with small lot winemaking — with the ability to choose a certain style you’re better positioned to achieve that balance.”
Hammersley is effusive about the opportunities offered by the Garagiste festivals. “It’s a fantastic venue for some of the small guys like ourselves, who don’t get a whole lot of opportunity to shine. … It’s hard for a producer to stand out against big brands. But this is like having our own little universe.”
No question, BC’s garagiste movement is here to stay. More than that, though, the people behind it represent a new era in BC wine and the next generation of truly terroir driven winemakers.
Anarchist Elevation Chardonnay 2014 ($26)
From old vine Dijon clone Chardonnay, planted by the original owner in the early 1980s. Citrus and pear notes on top followed by a palate of bright orchard fruit over well managed French oak; creamy and textured, with a lingering close.
Anarchist Wildfire Pinot Noir 2014 ($35)
Upfront bright cherry and violet followed by a plush but well balanced medium bodied palate with red fruit and vanilla notes before a soft finish.
Anthony Buchanan Pinot Blanc 2015 ($20)
Upfront hints of orchard fruits and some creamy notes, followed by pear and vanilla notes on a well textured palate with a touch of well managed oak, underpinned by crisp acidity.
Anthony Buchanan Pinot Noir 2014 ($35)
Buchanan got his start working at Blue Mountain and it shows with this textbook Pinot from Similkameen, with vibrant strawberry and cherry and a touch of spice supported by fine, well integrated tannins for an elegant mouthfeel.
Black Market Collusion 2015 ($30)
Inaugural release of first Bordeaux styled white blend (60% Sauvignon Blanc/ 40% Sémillon), with the Semillon aged in oak to bring added texture. Up front tropical, citrus and creamy notes with a mouth-filling palate of citrus, grapefruit and a touch of vanilla, buoyed by lively acidity.
Black Market Syndicate 2013 ($40)
Rob Hammersley’s blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (37%), Merlot (36%), Cabernet Franc (23%) and Petit Verdot (4%) yields cherry and plum notes up front, followed by a full bodied palate of cassis, cherry and toasty vanilla with a touch of clove and other spices, the fruit balanced by well managed oak and approachable tannins before a long and plush finish.