St. Patrick’s Day Wine/Wine In A Recession #2: Garretson “The Craic” Syrah

Mat Garretson is among the few wine-makers with whom I feel a truly personal connection. One of California’s premier Rhône Rangers, he dates his wine epiphany back to the day in 1982 when, as a retailer in his home city of Atlanta, he was gifted a birthday bottle of Viognier from that grape’s spiritual home of Condrieu, in the northern Rhône. That bottle sparked “an obsession so complete,” as he put it, that Garretson decided to spread the gospel. (I had a similar epiphany tasting Viognier at Domane Les Gouberts in Gigondas in 1999. Mine was only a Côtes du Rhône but it was an experience my palate never forgot.) His first step, in 1991, was to found something called The Viognier Guild and take the name MrViognier as his aol address; his next was to move to California in 1993 in search of wine work, where he founded the Hospice du Rhône, an annual tasting and promotional event that has done as much to spread the word of Rhône varietals across America as anything; and, in 1997, going the whole hog to found his own winery, Garretson Wines, bottling exclusively Rhône varietals from growers across Paso Robles and the Central Coast.

I first met Mat several years ago at an industry tasting in New York hosted by his distributors T. Edward. There we discovered not only that we shared what some might call an unhealthy devotion to the Viognier grape but that we were each greatly influenced by Paul Weller. To his lasting credit as an iconoclast, Garretson’s period of preference is Weller’s Style Council years – a subject he’s always been happy to elaborate upon, and one that he has backed up in print. The shade of orange chosen for Garretson Wines’ logo was, he told me and explains further on his web site, lifted directly from The Cost Of Loving LP. He even married into this infatuation. When Garretson met his future wife at a restaurant in 1997 “we soon found we had mutual interests…in Rhône wines, Paul Weller, France.”

Mat Garretson posts The Cost of Loving LP cover on his web site to demonstrate the shade of orange he adapted as his company’s color.

Over the subsequent decade, the portfolio of Garretson Wines expanded considerably to include single varietal bottles of Viognier (but of course), Roussanne, Grenache, Mourvèdre, a rosé, a couple of entry level “G series” wines, and two distinct Syrahs: the 100% Syrah “The Aisling,” and “The Craic,” which included a small dose of Viognier in the Côte-Rôtie style. The Gaelic names are a direct tribute to Garretson’s Irish roots (the “craic” refers to having a good time, making it an ideal wine for St. Patrick’s Day); the garish labels are a desire to pay back for all those dull gold and black labels he suffered as a wine retailer, a “cathartic release” as he called it.

Garretson’s wines came to be known as famously pure expressions of the torrid Californian climate, extraordinarily bold, and extremely high in alcohol. A feature on this very issue in the New York Times in 2005 included reference to Garretson’s 2002 vintage and his own lack of apology for bottling them as he found them – i.e. with high sugar alcohol – as opposed to finding ways to lower the alcohol content in the cellar. “The numbers be damned if you’re picking the fruit when it’s really ripe,” he was quoted as saying. As a result, the 2002 vintage of “The Craic” came it an alarmingly dangerous 16.4% alcohol – and, both despite and because of this, when I saw it on sale in a local shop (Garretson’s wines always seemed, to me, to be so highly in demand that they never surfaced much in New York), I decided to buy it. It was well over $20, above my everyday price but not exorbitant by Californian standards, and I figured it was worth it to see if such a high-octane wine could possibly settle down over a period of time. I opened it up at the end of February, 2009, approximately six years after bottling. Here’s the review I posted at the Wine-Lover’s Discussion Group:

“Perhaps not surprisingly, the wine was almost impossibly black in the glass, having left oodles upon oodles of tannin behind in the bottle. As if the very very long legs lingering on the inside of the glass weren’t evidence enough of high alcohol, the nose was like port – or, at the very least, a powerful zinfandel, with a chocolate aroma and some licorice overwhelming what was left of dark black berries, the boysenberry kind that, again, one associates with zin. There was also some coffee, mocha and tar in the nose that followed into the palate, where there was also some pronounced earthiness – though not much by way of Syrah’s typical bacony, roasted meats or black pepper.

And yet, for all that you’d be more likely to label this a Turley Zin than anything to do with Rhône grapes, I have to insist that it was well-balanced, with no overwhelming oak presence, and while extraordinarily rich and powerful, it was really quite endearing. We just had to make sure we took it slowly. (My wife made up her signature black olive/cauliflower pesto, and the match was ideal.)

Apparently there’s 2-4% Viognier in the blend, but you could never confuse this with a Côte–Rôtie. Well, I couldn’t, though Garretson’s web site has a quote from Parker that calls The Craic “A Paso Robles Côte-Rôtie look-alike…” Parker must have been drinking from a different vintage. (Or had too much to drink already.) Similarly, I “enjoyed” Garretson’s own description of the Craic, which read like an entirely different wine: “The end result is a Syrah that offers a great deal of refinement and finesse. Aromas of violet, white pepper, anise and earth blend beautifully with fruit-driven notes of blueberry and cherry, with finely-grained tannins and good acidity. The Craic, while very approachable in its youth, always benefits from a few years of bottle age, and drinks well for 7 to 15 years.”

This last point is the interesting one. I opened The Craic on seven years and most of the fruit had dissipated, leading me think I might have enjoyed it more in its youth. But at the same time, it had absolutely developed secondary flavors and this was what saved it; there was something very mature going on in that chocolate soup of a wine, something surprisingly supple and sophisticated for such a heavweight. So, though I don’t see Garretson’s wines often, I’ll continue to support them. I’ll probably just try and ensure I find some a little lower in alcohol…”

Garretson “The Craic” Syrah. A wine for St. Patrick’s Day – packing 16.4% alcohol..

No sooner had I posted this, than someone else posted back to tell me that Garretson had hung up his wine-making spurs late last year. An announcement at his web site (which I had missed, heading straight for the notes on The Craic) headlined “T-T-THAT’S ALL, FOLKS!,” explained,

“as you are no doubt aware, the economy is in a shambles. That means it’s gotten a whole lot tougher to sell high-end wines, and that those folks that are buying our wines aren’t paying us in a timely manner.”

This makes Garretson the first – though, surely, not the last – wine-maker I know of to succumb to the current recession. And there was I thinking that his fame equaled high demand equaled good fortune. Garretson’s resignation confirms just how hard it must be to make a living as a modern wine-maker, even when no less a high-alcohol, high-price wine deity than Robert Parker routinely sings your praises.

I could leave the story there and we could all conclude that the bottom has truly fallen out of the boutique wines business. But Garretson elaborates on his site to what I think is probably the real reason for his resignation, the fact that he has spent too much time on the road, selling himself in a different city every night, and that, like any rock’n’roll star, it gets tiresome as you get older. He wrote this anecdote:

“Before my last big road trip, my son Thomas asked if I’d bring him home a big tube of Krazy Glue. When I asked him why, he responded, “So I can glue your feet to the ground, and
you’ll stop traveling so much.” Ouch. Thom’s now eight, and Jack is nine.
It’s simply not worth my missing their childhoods to go out every Monday and return home every Saturday.”

As the father of two sons myself, I sympathize. I love watching them grow up. I love being with them, even when I don’t. (Parents will know what I mean by that.) And though I yearn for some serious travel, I wouldn’t want to spend my life on the road.

I exchanged e-mails with Mat after reading of his company’s demise. He elaborated on his reason to get out of the wine-making game. “Trying to produce, market, sell and promote 12,000+ cases of wine on your own – and to do it for 12 years – is not something I’d recommend. It took a few years off my life. I liken the whole experience to climbing a very large mountain only to find that I didn’t like the view from the summit.” Having spent some time with his family, he now hpes to get another job in the wine world – “with a bit more stability…not to mention benefits and a steady paycheck!”

At least the sense of humor remains intact. Here’s the poster design for this year’s Hospice Du Rhône.

In the meantime, his Hospice du Rhône continues. The event takes place at the end of April – in Paso Robles, but of course. I once dreamed of attending, but I couldn’t hope to taste that much wine in a weekend and know what I was doing with it. And as it happens, Hunter Mountain will be launching its own Taste Of Wine weekend the same days, featuring dozens of New York State wineries. For instigating the Hospice du Rhône, Garretson deserves much credit for promoting the idea of the theme wine weekend to begin with. He is still the only wine-maker ever to post at the iJamming! Pub. I wish him well in whatever endeavor he embarks upon. And so, if I see any more bottles of The Craic on sale, who knows? I may just keep one the full fifteen years in his memory.

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3 Comment(s)

  1. baby jebus

    17 March, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    Interesting, and likely to be repeated. I’ve never heard of Garretson, but the contradiction inherent in making wine- which is after all just another form of farming- and then being expected to publicise one’s harvest oneself is lunatic. The obvious comparison is authors spending so much time promoting their tomes they no longer have time to write a follow-up.
    Dunno if you came across it Tony, but wine writer Monty Waldin took over a vineyard in the Fenouillades (sp?) in Roussillon and made a few thousand bottles of decent, organic red and, more importantly, a C4 telly series and accompanying and refreshingly unromantic book. The figures added up, just, though even his wine (an old vine Carignan) sold out at £7.50 (i.e. far more than most other old vine Carignans) and will doubtless cost more next time round. Garretson must have been turning over a million plus dollars a year, yet the fact he still couldn’t make it worth the grief seems to prove that eternal cliche- how do you make a small fortune in the wine trade? Start with a big fortune of course.

  2. 18 March, 2009 at 1:35 pm


    Appreciate your reading the whole thing through. IN theory, Mat was pulling in a million a year wholesale, but if it’s true that it suddenly got hard to sell the wine AND distributors/wholesalers were stiffing in, you can imagine that overheads may have been higher than actual income. More and more, wine-makers are being treated like rock stars and constantly put on the road to sell themselves. When I’ve attended industry tastings in NYC I’ve been surprised just how many wine-makers fly (or are flown) in for the event; I have to presume they go to other countries as well. Sometimes this is fantastic: Joe Dressner makes a point (or did, before the recession) of bringing in a dozen or more of his best French producers. being that they’re all organic, mostly bio-dynamic and generally from less hip areas of the Loire and the like, they’re usually semi-peasant farmers who speak very little English but make exceptional wine. I get the feeling from visiting wine-makers in France that they’re happiest left alone to do what they do and let someone else deal with the promotion. in Mat’s case, being a start-up, I guess that was not possible.

    I knew nowt about Monty Waldin – I may get his book when I’m over next week though.


  3. baby jebus

    18 March, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    Obviously turnover does not equal profit. It’s incredible how fashion can so influence the already marginal economics of wine making.
    I think wine makers have always been dragged around to some extent- twenty years ago when I worked in Selfridges a brash Kiwi fella asked me if we sold Selaks wine- heavyweight Sauvignons in a Fume Blanc style, if I recall- just before handing me a card that announced him as Mr Selak himself. (I wasn’t the buyer though)
    Robert Camuto’s book Corkscrewed is an interesting if inessential guide to friendly peasant vignerons. If I catch up with you I’ll slip you my copy.

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