One bottle of white wine changed Mat Garretson's life.
In 1983, Garretson, then a college student working part-time in an Atlanta wine shop, tried a Condrieu, the fragrant French Viognier from the Northern Rhône. "It was like nothing I'd ever had," recalls Garretson, 40. "That bottle is the reason I'm here today."
"Here" is a terminal in the Denver airport, where Garretson's waiting for a flight back to Paso Robles after a Colorado sales trip to promote Garretson Wine Co., the venture he launched with his wife, Amie, in 2001.
Many of the retailers and restaurateurs he calls on haven't heard of the couple's bootstrap operation. That's understandable, because the current annual production is only 5,000 cases -- about 40 percent Syrah, 20 percent Viognier and the balance mostly Roussanne and Grenache.
But practically everyone he visits has heard of the Hospice du Rhône, the annual celebration Garretson cofounded in 1997 with California vintner John Alban. The event now stands as the world's largest gathering devoted exclusively to Rhône varieties. This year, 160 producers from five continents came to Paso Robles from May 29 to 31 to pour for more than 3,000 attendees.
Garretson came up with the concept after attending the Wine Spectator California Wine Experience in San Francisco in 1990. A bottle of Joseph Phelps Vin de Mistral Viognier wowed him, but he didn't know of anyone promoting the variety. So he started the Viognier Guild, which had all of 30 participants at its first gathering in 1993 at a vineyard in northeast Georgia. "We had more wines than people," remembers Garretson.
Back then, Garretson was working for his father's aerosol manufacturing company. Although the money was nice, the job bored him. "I didn't want to be 80 someday and regret not following my passion," he says.
That inspired him to relocate to Paso Robles in 1994 to become the director of sales at Eberle Winery, one of the region's best-known estates. After the move, the Viognier Guild exploded in popularity and spread the Rhône grape word to consumers and California vintners. The group's signature event was renamed Hospice du Rhône to clarify that it celebrated all 22 Rhône varieties, not just Viognier.
Ten years ago, about 400 acres of Syrah grew in California. Now the total is more than 14,000 acres, and Syrah provides some of the state's most exciting reds. Part of the credit for that groundswell goes to Garretson.
"Mat is a great mouthpiece for the movement. He's tireless," says Justin Smith, owner of Saxum Vineyards, one of Paso Robles' finest Syrah estates. "I don't know where we'd be without Hospice. But we definitely wouldn't be where we are now."
But Garretson was too exhausted to savor success. Along with full-time jobs with Eberle and Hospice, he also began making his own wine in 1996. And while early efforts showed promise, Garretson knew he could improve. "You need to have time," he explains. "When a barrel needs to be topped [to prevent oxidation], it has to get done. Not a week later after a sales trip."
In 1998 Garretson left Eberle and hired staff to run Hospice. In 2001, he moved into a no-frills warehouse winery close to Highway 101 in Paso Robles. All of his wines are made with purchased grapes, mostly from the area's rocky western hills.
Garretson favors a very ripe style, aiming for richness and intensity, and he's not afraid to take chances with the winemaking. Quality, if a bit inconsistent, is improving, and prices range from $20 to $75. Among his best wines is the 2001 The Reliquary Central Coast (88, $75), a Syrah blend.
With luck, 2003 should be the winery's first profitable year. Although Garretson wants to buy a vineyard in western Paso Robles, finances dictate the schedule. And he is adamant about never exceeding 10,000 cases. Quality, Garretson knows, comes from attention to detail. "Until 2001, I was a part-time winemaker. Now I have the luxury of time."