Looking for the Next Saxum?

Start with its neighbors in Paso Robles
Nov 19, 2010

Today's blog is a two-parter.

Part 1 is buying advice: Those looking for the next Saxum would do well looking around Justin Smith's neighborhood. West Paso, that is.

In the past week or so we've been winding down tastings for our annual California Rhône report, scheduled for early next year. This is a wide-ranging tasting, covering wines from throughout California. Last year nearly 450 were reviewed. It includes Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah and blends that incorporate some or all of these grapes. Some vintners are adding Zinfandel to the mix, which is a good fit.

The 2008 reds from Paso Robles have been among the standouts. The only caveat is that some of these wines are made in small quantities and your best chance of securing wine is to buy now and take what you can. Vintages may range from 2006 to 2008.

The wineries I'd suggest you consider include Torrin, a 30-acre vineyard that was once part of Booker Vineyard. Booker is another name to focus on. Eric Jensen is dialing into this vineyard, and the ubiquitous Mr. Smith has had a hand in both ventures. All four of the Torrin wines I tasted had fewer than 100 cases. But they were phenomenal.

I was also very impressed by the wines from Epoch: It owns the historic Paderewski Vineyard; has a new winemaker as of 2010 Jordan Fiorentini, late of Chalk Hill; its volume is larger, in the 200- to 400-case range. Paderewski is a large vineyard with lots of grapes, including Tempranillo.

Justin Smith is working on a new wine from that vineyard as well, a return to the old California field blend of reds that focuses on making the best wine possible blending the grapes.

The two other wineries that are relatively new and appear to be on track are Benson, Brian Benson's winery that taps grapes from Denner Vineyard (yet another name to look for), and Caliza, a 20-acre vineyard owned by Hawaii-born Carl Bowker. Terry Hoage is yet another brand worth looking for.

Part 2 doesn't have an easy answer: Why aren't California Rhône reds red hot? There are many amazing wines, yet consumers are still standoffish.

Too big? Too ripe? Too tannic, or muscle bound? Too meaty, or peppery, or with too many unfamiliar flavors? Too expensive? Maybe.

It would now appear that wines made from Rhône reds increasingly carry vineyard or proprietary names rather than go by varietal IDs (witness Saxum James Berry Vineyard).

That's fine if you know what you're buying. But I'm less sure the broader market is ready to embrace this. Nor am I sure that's the problem.

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