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Meet under-the-radar wine producers at Sonoma's Garagiste Festival

The French term “garagiste” originated in the ’90s with small scale, independent-minded wine producers from the Bordeaux region of France. They made wine that was - while not necessarily created in a garage - nontraditional, with a very short aging period.

Since its first event in Paso Robles in 2011, the Garagiste Wine Festival has borrowed the term as a nod to those entrepreneurial renegades who chose an unconventional path.

At the Garagiste Wine Festival in Sonoma on Feb. 15 (the Garagiste Festival Northern Exposure), you’ll get to meet some of the rebels who are under the radar in Wine Country.

“The winemakers are the ones who will be pouring,” said Doug Minnick, Garagiste co-founder. “We want people to get a chance to meet the winemakers and hear their story. You might meet people living on a shoestring budget. Or people who are second careerists, like a doctor. Or people who are the children of famous winemakers now pursuing their own label. It’s not just about the wine. It’s also about their story.”

The Grand Tasting, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., is $65, with a VIP package priced at $130 (which allows entry at noon). More than 40 winemakers from Northern California will be at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall to show their wines. For details, visit garagistefestival.com.

This is the third regional festival in Sonoma. About 300 attendees are expected, according to Min-?nick, who considers himself the consummate matchmaker.

“These people don’t just want to taste wine, they want to discover it,” he said. “And these wineries are the boutiques of the boutiques.”

Wineries that produce 10,000 cases or less a year fit the description of “boutique.” This festival showcases winemakers who produce 1,500 cases and fewer.

“Our audience is a little further on their wine journey, and wine priced at $30 to $80 won’t scare them away,” Minnick said.

Unlike major wine producers, most of the wineries at the festival don’t have tasting rooms or distributors. Sidestepping the traditional model for selling their wines, these winemakers opt for innovative methods. They include creating wine clubs, building allocation lists of people who commit to regularly buying their wines, networking on social media and even producing podcasts.

Cecilia Enriquez sells most of her product to her wine club. Beyond that, she holds private events in people’s homes and participates in a handful of festivals. Finally, she has a vacation rental on her property where she introduces guests to her wines.

Enriquez, 32, produces 600 to 700 cases a year of her brand –– Enriquez Wines, Russian River pinot noir.

The Boston University graduate who majored in business came West in 2009 for a ski trip in Lake Tahoe with her family. When they later visited Sonoma County and were smitten with its beauty, she half jokingly told her parents, “I’ll come out here and start the family brand. How hard could it be?”

Enriquez expected her parents to retire in Sonoma County, but her father continues to practice medicine in New Jersey. Instead, she was the one who moved here.

“My parents shipped me out here at 23 to learn how to farm and make wine and to hopefully not bankrupt them,” she quipped. “I was naïve. I didn’t want to go into the medical profession because I didn’t want to work the long hours my dad worked.”

But Enriquez said today she works just as many hours as her father, who is on call 24/7.

“At least I don’t have people’s lives in my hands, maybe just their mental state,” she said.

Enriquez began her business with wine consultants and mentors, but now she makes the wine on her own. It’s a time-consuming job. Even so, Enriquez said she has no regrets.

“I would do it all over again the same way I’ve done it,” she said. “We small producers value quality over quantity.”

Bart Hansen, another boutique producer, likes calling his own shots. He worked for larger wineries for most of his winemaking career, and his credits include Kenwood Vineyards, Benziger and Imagery Estate.

Hansen, 54, decided to focus on his own brand in 2007, naming it Dane Cellars after his son. He produces just 500 cases a year out of a Sonoma warehouse on 8th Street East.

“I always had the dream of creating my own label, and it’s very home-grown,” he said. “I keep the books, make the wine and sell the wine.”

Hansen markets the wine through a weekly podcast called “The Wine Makers,” which already has 100,000 downloads on iTunes.

“We boutique producers are our own bosses,” he said. “We don’t have pressure from a distributor saying, ‘We don’t want you to make chenin blanc. We want you to make chardonnay.’ We’re all about doing our own thing.”

Hansen said what he loves most is following his passion with the varietals he wants to make. His lineup includes chenin blanc, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, grenache and mourvedre.

“I love the experience of meeting the people who are drinking my wine,” Hansen said. “I tell them our story. We all have a story.”

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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