On the Trail

Trust Her Palate: Thursday Tasting in Hollywood with Garber & Co.

domestic, hollywoodKate Soto

“We find off-beat wineries, and we fight the fight for these small producers.”

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Sandy Garber leads with her gut. She trusts her palate. And she wants you to, too.

For over thirty years, Sandy has been a renegade spirit in the wine world. She was one of California’s first female somms--and one of the first pregnant ones, no less (in customized server’s tux and all). Way back then, her son’s palate started its training in utero, and he’s now her partner in crime at Garber & Co, an independent distributor/importer/winemaker team that brings delicious, off-the-beaten-path wines from around the world to California.

They’ve built their portfolio based on her mantra of trusting your palate: she doesn’t care whether her wines have scored big points with the critics or whether she represents the most well-known brands. She finds wines and winemakers that she loves, and she brings them to the California market. Some of the wineries only make a few hundred cases per year. Some of them practice organic or biodynamic farming or low-intervention winemaking. Some of them are growing grapes in Uruguay or Armenia. But she believes in each and every one of them, and you can trust that they’ll be delicious. “We find off-beat wineries, and we fight the fight for these small producers,” she says.

I’ve been intrigued by Sandy Garber for some time. I tend to like her wines very much. But I am also fascinated by the journey she’s been on, especially as a woman, and especially as someone who’s seen the change in the wine culture of this city over several decades. After leading tours at the Robert Mondavi winery and then road tripping through Europe’s wineries, she landed a somm gig at the Beverly Wilshire in the eighties. “It was a long time ago, and shortly after I was hired I was pregnant with Jeremy,” she told me. “There weren’t any women doing it, and there weren’t many restaurants who even had a somm.”

When she started out in LA, California cuisine was burgeoning, and there was a lot of excitement around food and wine. Over time, she saw that early energy shift toward a thirst for expensive Napa Cabs and away from cutting-edge wines. “I worked for Chalone for 15 years, and it was focused on exciting, terroir-based wines at that time. But, when I left, everyone was so driven by the wine press. And to me it doesn’t really make sense. Why trust Parker when you can just trust yourself?”

In her estimation, it’s only in the last five years that there’s been a noticeable, significant sea change. ”There are a lot of young wine buyers now who are super excited to learn about off-the-grid wines. There’s so much enthusiasm from young people, probably because food culture has exploded in L.A. It’s exciting to watch.” Her business has changed as well. The addition of her son, Jeremy, has brought his enthusiasm and perspective into the mix. “He finds a lot of the producers and brings a young energy. Instead of being static, we’re expanding.” She sites cru Muscadets and a Gris de Toul as examples of wines that would have been non-starters ten years ago. “It’s what keeps our industry exciting rather than have the same portfolio year in and year out. We try not to have stuff from regions that are overfished. And there’s a real hunger for it.”

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Garber and her husband also make their own wine from sourced grapes in Paso Robles under the the Topanga Vineyards label. They started with Syrah, Grenache, and Cabernet, then added the Jackhammer.label, geared toward affordable, solid Pinot, Chardonnay, and rosé. You can now find these in a can, making them easy for camping or the Hollywood Bowl, while still maintaining their integrity as seriously drinkable wines.

With the help of a “grape whisperer,” she and her husband farm their own 50 vines of Syrah on her property in Topanga, as well. Syrah, she says, is kind of her spirit grape. It’s the wine she’s always wanted to make. “It has a lot of different faces, it can do a lot of different things. I love the peppery, spicy quality from well-made Syrah. I love the softer tannins and its richness.”

Tomorrow (Thursday, May 24th 5:30 to 7 PM $5) in Hollywood, we’ve invited these good folks to pour us some of their California favorites (with a soupçon of French rosé). They’re all perfect for your Memorial Day barbeque, whether you’re grilling up veggie burgers or T-bones. But don’t take my word for it. Come out and taste for yourself--then trust your palate!

Here's the lineup:

2014 Topanga "Chroma" Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon $19.99
2016 Obsidian Ridge "Obsidian Ridge Vineyard" Red Hills Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon $26.99
2017 Dragonette Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Rosé $21.99
2017 J. Mourat "Collection" Val de Loire Rosé $12.99
2017 Preston "Estate" Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc $19.99

- Kate Soto