Greenbar’s Grand Poppy Liqueur–California in a bottle

I do not generally devote an entire blog post to a single wine, or a single bottle of spirits (unless it’s just a quickie kind of review).

Greenbar's Grand Poppy Liqueur
Greenbar’s Grand Poppy Liqueur

But this is different.  Really different.

First, a preamble and a bit of a explanation for why I am so besotted with Greenbar’s Grand Poppy bitter liqueur (or “bitter brandy”).  In my work as a nature photographer, my focus for the last year or so has been on my Land/Sea project.  The “land” part of that is centered on California’s chaparral ecosystem.  What is chaparral, exactly?  The technical definition, courtesy of the California Chaparral Institute, is this:

Chaparral is a special plant community characterized by drought-hardy, woody shrubs, shaped by a Mediterranean-type climate (summer drought, winter rain)

It is, in fact, California’s most common ecosystem–and belongs almost entirely TO California.  Chaparral stretches into southern Oregon and Baja California just a wee bit, but it’s almost solely a California landscape.  It’s also California’s most unloved ecosystem–it’s tough and scrubby, too dense to even hike through in many areas, and very prone to fire (always a concern in our drought-plagued state).  It’s strangely beautiful, with a muted rainbow of color, a host of edible and medicinal plants, and home to critical species of birds, reptiles, mammals and insects.  I’ve been photographing this iconic California landscape for a while now, and continue to be amazed by its beauty and diversity.

Chaparral in muted winter colors, Los Padres National Forest
Chaparral in muted winter colors, Los Padres National Forest

So what does this have to do with a bottle of craft spirit?  Greenbar has taken everything remarkable about chaparral that you can taste and smell, and they’ve bottled it.  I’m already a fan of multi-sensory experiences; it’s why I end up photographing the wild areas surrounding every wine region I’ve ever visited.  You can experience a place through every sense–and the idea that I can taste that chaparral ecosystem in this beautiful bitter brandy is pretty exciting to me.

See, smell, tough the aromatics that make up the Grand Poppy right in Greenbar's tasting room
See, smell, touch the aromatics that make up the Grand Poppy right in Greenbar’s tasting room

Everything that I’ve captured with my camera, I can smell and taste in this spirit.  I am instantly taken back to hours spent bushwhacking through sagebrush and manzanita–the aroma of sage and wild fennel and thistle and California bay leaf and on and on.  Those things are literally in this bottle.  And it’s delicious.  As Greenbar describes it:

 

a California-inspired take on classic European aperitives. We made it by marrying the best of California’s bounty — citrus from our favorite Southern California farms, coastal herbs and berries we discovered on our hikes and one very bitter flower, the California poppy — to bring a new taste to cocktail lovers everywhere.

California Poppy
California Poppy

It’s not often (in fact, this may be a first) that I come across a spirit and find it significant beyond its own in-the-bottle merits.  I think this is a significant spirit–it embodies the state it celebrates, and shows off some of the underrated beauty of the chaparral ecosystem.  It’s nicely balanced between bitter and sweet, with a stunning range of herbs and other aromatics both on the nose and on the palate.  It’s delicious on its own, and divine mixed into cocktails.  You’ll find a recipe or three featuring this liqueur on the Greenbar website, and my personal preference for enjoying this remarkable spirit is to mix it with sparkling wine for a sort of champagne cocktail (three parts sparkling wine, one part Grand Poppy).

I would never have thought it possible to bottle the most representative and iconic landscape of California–but Greenbar has done just that.  Highly recommend.

If you go to one wine festival all year, go GARAGISTE!

Wine festivals are fun things to go to–an impressive number of wines to taste as you wander at your own pace.  Who wouldn’t have fun doing that?

But the California Garagiste Festival, which has its 6th annual event in Paso Robles this weekend, is a little different than your usual wine festival.

garagisteWhy?  Story.  Everything comes back to story (stay with me, I’ll explain).  As I’ve mentioned here previously, and as I detail on my “about” page, story is what took my interest in wine from whatever I could pick up at my local wine shop that tasted good to wanting to know everything about wine, and being able to do so with no pretense or intimidation.  By story in this context, I’m talking about the opportunity to find out the who/what/why behind a bottle of wine, the opportunity to talk to the person who made the wine, to hear their . . . story.  Story goes a long way in making wine approachable and engaging.

So if you like that, if you’re intrigued by the “why” that went into that bottle of wine on your shelf, you will find no better event to indulge that than the Garagiste Festival.

What the heck is a Garagiste?  From their website:

GARAGISTES – (garage-east) n, Fr. – A term originally used in the Bordeaux region of France to denigrate renegade small-lot wine makers, sometimes working in their garage, who refused to follow the “rules.” Now a full-fledged movement responsible for making some of the best wine in the world. Who’s laughing now, Francois? Syn: Rule-breakers, pioneers, renegades, mavericks, driven by passion.

The California version of this movement has embraced the name as a way to bring together micro-producers (usually no more than 1500 cases per year production, some produce much less) and use this festival platform as a way to bring their wines to the public in a way they’re not otherwise able to do individually.  Some of the Garagistes have tasting rooms, but some (the majority, I think) do not.  Many of them are new-ish to the winemaking game, but there are some seasoned old-timers as well, who continue to produce wine in small lots and with little interest of scaling up.  They do what they do because they love it, and the wines reflect this beautifully.

I attended the Los Angeles Garagiste festival this summer, and was so impressed with the wines I tasted, and had a wonderful time talking to the winemakers.  This is an up-close-and-personal event in a way that other wine festivals are not.

The Paso festival begins tonight with a wine and (grilled) cheese event in Atascadero–sadly, that’s sold out (but let’s just hope they repeat this particular party for next year’s festival, because let’s be honest–GRILLED CHEESE SANDWICHES).  There are still tickets available for Saturday’s events, which include a pair of seminars, the Grand Tasting, and the after party.  Tickets are available at the door, but in the event of a sellout, I’d highly recommend buying them now via this link.  Your best deal is the day-long VIP pass, which gets you into both of the seminars, the Grand Tasting, and the after party.

I haven’t tasted wines from every producer who’ll be there, but I’ve tried a LOT of them–here are my don’t-miss recommendations:  On Your Left, Pulchella, Caliza, Bodega de Edgar, Vinemark, and brand-spanking-new Garagiste, Serrano.  If you recall my profile of Rabbit Ridge winery, Serrano is RR’s second generation getting into the game (and their inaugural 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon has already racked up some impressive accolades–I’ve had it, it’s TASTY).

The always outstanding Vivant Fine Cheese will be serving cheese and charcuterie during the Grand Tasting, and other vendors will offer their wares as well (think: estate olive oils that will rock your world).

The all-day event runs from 11:00 a.m. (with the first seminar) to 5 p.m., The Grant Tasting is 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and the after party is 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. All events are at the Paso Fairgrounds, 2198 Riverside Ave, Paso Robles, CA 93446