Garage Wines: Small Winemakers Don’t Cry

by | 6 Jun, 2011

Local garagistes talk about typicity and consistency, rather than about concentration and new barrels. They advocate for a more diversified industry, with a stronger character and a long-term vision. Small winemakers don’t cry. They speak up.

In today’s globalized world, where wine is a commodity controlled by a handful of actors, differentiation is a survival factor, almost an act of desperation. Markets claim for quality and consistency at advantageous prices – many would dare to call them dumping prices– but also for character, identity, uniqueness. In this strenuous tag-of-war where the smallest players are dragged along by a system that favors image over content, garagistes or independent winemakers must not only make noise (sometimes dreadful ones), but also open or create new niches to position their products and sell not only good wine, but a part of their soul, how they see and interact with the world, a part of themselves.

In plain English, they need to make their voices heard in a world full of hyperboles and interjections.

The vins de garage movement is born on the right end of the Gironde estuary, specifically in Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. In a move to compete against sacred cows like Château Cheval Blanc or Château Ausone, protected and glorified as Premier Grand Cru Classé by the French laws, a group of winemakers joins the game and ends up setting its own rules. Regardless of the size of the château or maison, or quality designations, or French history and tradition, they start to sell their small productions for surprisingly high prices, sometimes even exaggeratedly high, and somehow attain the cult wine status thanks to the generous scores given by wine critic gurus.

The father of this new category is Jean-Luc Thunevin with his Valandraud from Saint-Émilion. A wine that has been pampered beyond logics, with extremely low production, destemmed by hand, barrel fermentation, bâtonnage, and the maximum practicable care required to produce a quality, differentiating wine. Other garage wines followed swiftly, like Le Pin, Croix de Labrie, Château L’Hermitage, Magrez Fombrauge, and Girolate. Michel Rolland would not overlook the opportunity. In a blink of an eye, this phenomenon crossed borders to Spain with 

Pingus, Italy with Montevetrano, Australia with Torbreck, New Zealand with Felton Road and the U.S. with Screaming Eagle, to name a few.

These expensive and scarce vins de garage –or boutique wines, as they are called in the U.S., became a screaming success because many among them –particularly these uptight Bordeaux wines, obeyed the tastes and trends imposed by American reviews, particularly those of Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. Overall, these are remarkably ripe, concentrated wines that boast the influence of new oak. They want to impress, rather than to seduce. They are high-flown, many times to the point of overdoing it. This arguable and controversial style somehow blurred the garagiste movement when it labeled –under the very same ‘garage’ category– other trends that were following rather different philosophies and were precisely trying to (and are still fighting) to escape the main stream by producing natural or organic wines, or to rescue old and forgotten vineyards.


“Garage wines became a fashion in Saint-Émilion. They are extremely over-extracted and full of wood. Defining what a garage wine should or should not have is not an easy matter. Mostly, it’s about limited productions, or doing things at a human scale. It’s about getting your hands dirty. Truth be told, as a movement, garage wines are history,” says Derek Mossman, a partner in the local Garage Wine Co. project and one of the founders of Movimiento de Viñateros independientes –MOVI (independent Winemakers’ Movement).

Garagistes, true ones, try to elbow their way into a market dominated by a handful of big fish. That’s why they need to speak up. Yell if they may. Mossman cries at the top of his voice to advocate for a more diversified industry that not only features commodities and icon wines, but also an array of various sizes, styles, philosophies and prices.

“Everybody seems to be after selling mass-produced and icon wines. What we are doing is neglecting mid-level wines. That’s perhaps were our greatest strengths lie. Why doesn’t anyone bother to do so? Why does no one offer anything different? Because difference is painful. You need to leave your comfort zone, get your hands dirty, find new buyers. be creative,” he explains.

MOVI is home to various winegrowing and winemaking visions that share a will to stand out and build a niche in world markets. That’s precisely what Flaherty Wines is doing. With plantations in San Felipe, Aconcagua Valley, California-born winemaker and technical director of Tarapacá, Ed Flaherty, produces his own personal wine from Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo varieties. A portion of the grapes is produced by a neighbor vintner, but Tempranillo grows in the backyard of his own home, where he lives with Jen and his children.

“They are head-trained, high-density vineyards. What I’m missing in my life is time, so, head training makes management easier. VSP forces you to make adjustments all the time, like weeding and bud thinning. I’m thrilled with the results,” he explains.

Flaherty and his wife, Jen, work side by side. He is the chief winemaker and she’s his assistant. Grapes are fermented in bins and wines are aged in barrels kept in the cellar they have at home. “We do everything together. It’s not easy, but we have lots of fun. When we built the house, this project was not even a dream. We didn’t know the house would end up being a winery!” he says laughing.

In 2008, he partnered with his fellow countryman, Jim Pryor, to develop some wines in Punitaqui, specifically, a Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère blend. Vineyards are managed organically and tended overhead. A system that Flaherty honors, provided that vines are not young and grow in poor soil. In zones with strong solar radiation, like in the north of Chile, this unappreciated method offers better protection to the bunches, and prevents aromas and acids from burning out.

As part of another project, he planted Syrah, Petit Syrah and Tempranillo in the rainfed areas of the Maule Valley. His intention is to have Flaherty Wines grow little by little, not to lose the north, the family-owned spirit of the project and the goal of producing nothing but terroir wines. “We are not sure about anything. We have no plan. We’ll play by ear. This is a venture, a hobby, a dream to have something of our own. In California you need to be a billionaire to own a tiny piece of land. An ordinary man like me can have that here,” he explains.


Another member of MoVi who has placed his bets on a garage project is Andrés Costa. Rukumilla, located in Lonquén, Maipo Valley consists of a single hectare that embraces the house with vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Syrah. The sole wine produced from them is a faithful reflection of the vines. “Making a natural wine was an option. Actually, the only viable option. I’m not a winemaker, so I get all mixed up with adjustments,” he jokes around.

Weekends in Lonquén are a true family reunion. The dining room turns into a labeling line. His wife and four kids stick labels on the bottles and at lunchtime, bottles are tossed aside for the family to eat. The whole process is definitely non-industrial but we take winemaking seriously. Not only are nature’s processes honored, but grapes are vinified in small, top-notch technology stainless tanks and every effort is made to ensure that fruit will be able to express itself at best.

“Financial results are not our carrot,” he giggles. “My motivation is bringing my family together around this project. it’s a way of life. We get together every weekend to work on it. We label bottles, pile up cases, weed, plant flowers. It’s our chance to enjoy nature,” he goes on.

The harvest is party time. The house is full of relatives and friends. The harvest is a true show of shears and laughter that starts in the little hours of the morning and the only breaks they take are to make a toast, have an empanada or cook a BBQ. If some bottles of earlier vintages had been kept for vertical tastings or presentations to wine writers, they definitely do not survive the party.

“This year we broke even. We’re not losing money. The bottles we drink during the harvest don’t go in the balance sheet. If they did, I’d definitely be in the red,” he jokes.

Vistamar’s current winemaker, Irene Paiva, wasn’t expecting much either when she startled bottling her very own I Latina. Her first production, consisting only of Syrah from a Peumo vintner in the Cachapoal Valley, was vinified in a little adobe house in Curicó where barrels were part of the furniture and where the winemaker would check the aging process while her kids would run around her.

At present, she also produces a Carmenère from the same zone, to which she adds a little Syrah. Her cellar is the house next door where the barrels and five little stainless steel tanks to conduct controlled, clean fermentation are located. “I Latina has a new child. The more masculine and outspoken character of Syrah is now tamed by the gentle Carmenère. I’m very happy with what we’ve accomplished. I totally see myself in the wine I make,” Irene says.


In Lolol, in a place known as Valle de los Artistas (the Spanish for ‘the Valley of the Artists’), the Villalobos family owns five hectares of old Carignan vines that grow wildly amid native flora like quillay, boldo, maitén, wild blackberries and rosehips. A rainfed vineyard that was abandoned for several decades is now home to one 

of Chile’s most original wines ever. As a living proof of perseverance and survival, the arms of the grapevines grow entangled around the branches of other trees.

“We realized we had a rough diamond in our hands: the only Carignan vineyards in this area that were not uprooted and replaced for more commercial cultivars,” explains Rolando Villalobos, who along with his father –sculptor Enrique Villalobos–, his mother, Rita, and his brothers Martín and Alejandro, are committed to making this wine, a true collector’s item, known all over the world.

All farming chores are done with horses, as the ancient Colchagua tradition dictates. It’s organic viticulture all the way, beyond certifications and marketing campaigns. Grapes are fermented in bins with native yeasts, avoiding sulfur dioxide as much as possible.

“We were given all kinds of pieces of advice: ‘add Tintorera to boost the color. Use chips to add a touch of vanilla. Use new barrels to make it rounder and add wood notes. We didn’t take any. Instead, we chose to go natural. a delicate, thin wine with low alcohol content. An honest representative for our winery,” Rolando explains.

Unlike Bordeaux garagistes, who favor concentration and new barrels, these wines have little wood but a great fruity character. Derek Mossman claims that barrels must be as neutral as possible, so that the essence of terroir can prevail. “There’s no other way: you have to use old barrels,” he says smiling. “Besides, that’s all we can afford. That’s how we do it, and our wine boasts the pure character of fruit and a funny- but-complex little something. A touch that cannot be certified.

His project has gradually taken off from the modest USD 14,000 invested 11 years ago. “I got the money from selling my shares at Concha y Toro,” he jokes. This garagiste hates to speak about growth. He prefers to talk about variability. And to show different things. Today he bottles little productions of red wine from Maipo Alto and dreams of the Carignan from deep in the Maule Valley, from which he is proudly producing two batches of Sauzal and Reserva de Caliboro.

All Chilean garagistes are looking to grow, but modestly. Andrés Costa, for instance, is more than happy breaking even. The key is not offering more of the same, but standing out in the market with a product that is capable of making its voice heard with an improvised, genuine and diverse speech of ongoing learning. “Garage wines give us the hope that one day we will be a true winemaking country. Regrettably, today we just make wine,” he sentences.




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