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Inspiring New Wines From Saxum

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 12, 2007 1:19pm ET

Saxum has a new-look label, with wood block prints. But more importantly, the new releases are its best wines ever.

Aside from winemaker Justin Smith’s personal achievements, which are momentous, his wines are vital to his hometown of Paso Robles because they show what can be accomplished in this still new and evolving appellation.

Last week I tasted all five of Smith’s Rhône Valley-inspired reds and for me these (along with one tasted earlier) are the best wines he’s made, period.

The Saxum style is still the same. The reds, blends of Syrah, Grenache, Mouvèdre, are bold, ripe, opulent and high in alcohol. Yet the 2005s exhibits greater finesse, elegance, restraint and detail, all part of a conscious effort by Smith to draw on lessons from the past.

For one, he says, “I’m not trying to make [the wines] super big and powerful. We’ve dialed in on the vineyard, we’re not picking as ripe, but still getting ripe flavors and we’re aiming for more finesse … ripeness without excess … purity and freshness.” He has also backed off on wood, aging his wines in 116 gallon puncheons, rather than smaller oak barrels.

While his 2002 and 2001 James Berry Vineyard bottlings earned 93-point ratings, and were rich, potent wines, the 2002 and 2003 wines pursued ripeness too far for me, straying into racy sweet-sour berry flavors. Then having seen how his early wines aged, Smith began to tinker with the wines, and the 2004s were better balanced.

Following are my impressions of the 2005s. (Official notes and scores based on my blind tastings will be published later.)

Booker Vineyard Paso Robles 2005 ($55, 350 cases): This blend of Syrah and Grenache features wonderful aromas of rich chocolaty blackberry and boysenberry with a touch of huckleberry. Dense and concentrated

Rocket Block James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2005 ($75, 250): Rocket Block stays in orbit, with amazing fruit purity and tiers of dark berry fruit. A blend of Grenache and Syrah.

Bone Rock James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2005 ($75, 350 cases): Dense and concentrated, firm blackberry and chocolate flavors show off both the Syrah and Grenache.

Heart Stone Vineyard Paso Robles 2005 ($55, 500 cases): Makes points for its subtlety and finesse, a charming style, with rich layers of dried currant, sage, fresh earth, mineral and light cedary oak. Holds its focus and ends with a complex aftertaste. Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.

James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2005 ($55, 600 cases): The tightest, with a spicy talclike berry and fresh earth mix of flavors. Syrah, Mouvèdre and Grenache.

Broken Stones Paso Robles 2005 ($45, 600 cases): Grapey blackberry and wild berry flavors have a spicy, dusty, cedary oak edge that give it woody mouthfeel, yet the finish is long and persistent. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre.

These wines reaffirm Saxum’s position as one of the best producers of Rhône-style reds in California, and certainly it is inspirational to taste what can be made from great grapes in Paso Robles.

David A Zajac
November 12, 2007 4:00pm ET
Justin has done a fantastic job of refining his style over the years and, to my palate, is now clearly making one of the best Rhone style wines in California, period. I can't wait to try his 2005's and are one of my must purchase wines every year. As an aside, the top Rhone producers have evolved in style are are making, as James said, a more refined style based less on weight and more on pure, intense yet not overdone fruit. As proof, just try a Saxum, Alban or SQN wine, they are amazing.
Justin Smith
Paso Robles, CA —  November 12, 2007 10:20pm ET
I'm glad you enjoyed the new wines Mr. Laube, thank you so very much for the positive words!
James Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  November 13, 2007 8:35am ET
James:I couldn't agree with you more about Justin's wines. I think Saxum along with Denner, Linne Caldo, and Cris Cherry's Villa Creek operation are making some of the most interesting (and delicious!) wines coming out of Paso Robles. Throw in John Alban's phenomenal wines from up the road a bit in Arroyo Grande and you've got a selection of incredibly exciting stuff. Thanks and congratulations to them all!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 13, 2007 11:35am ET
Justin, you're welcome. Keep up the good work.
Howard Sweetwood
New York, NY —  November 13, 2007 3:47pm ET
Justin continues to develop and grow as a winemaker, and these GREAT '05's are evidence of that. Congrats, and keep up the hard work. Salute.
David A Zajac
November 14, 2007 9:57am ET
James, I totally agree with Villa Creek and Linne Calodo, haven't tried Denner's wines though. Couple of others to keep an eye out for are Beckman and Tensley - both seem to be coming on strong lately as well.
Joshua Masur
Redwood City, CA —  November 14, 2007 12:38pm ET
Aaack -- I just went back to my emails and realized that I forgot to order from the fall release. I won't make that mistake again. We got the Broken Stones with the spring release, and your tasting note captures it perfectly.
Ashley Potter
LA, —  November 14, 2007 2:26pm ET
As much as I jokingly rail against all the positive press Paso has been getting the past few years (more positive press = higher prices and/or harder to get your hands on limited bottlings) I can't help but chime in. My wife and I are huge fans of Paso wines. We haven't had a chance to try any of Mr. Smith's wines (so hard to find!) (aside to Justin: do you distribute? I know you don't have a public tasting room b/c I inquired a few weeks ago. How do I get your wines? Is wine club my only option? I hope you wouldn't limit consumers' options to a wine club commitment to try your wines). All that being said, I'm sure I'd agree with Mr. Laube's assessment in the event that I'd get to enjoy Saxum wine. Some of my favorite Paso wineries source from the James Berry and Booker vineyards.My two cents on the best Paso wineries today (only listing ones I've personally tasted)

1. Denner

2. Booker (tasting room now open!)

3. Tablas Creek

4. Dover Canyon

5. Summerwood (new winemaker, Chris Cameron, from Australia has me awfully excited about upcoming vintages, starting with '07

6. Villa Creek

7. Linne Calodo

8. Turley (makes great wine, but I have a hard time getting past their attitude - 3 out of 3 times means I won't visit or buy their wines anymore. Too bad, really, because their wines are fabulous)

If you visit these wineries while in Paso you really can't go wrong. And, while you're there, visit Pasolivo, they make the best artisanal olive oil!

Justin, I'd love to hear how I can get your wines! Thanks.Sincerely, Brian Grafstrom
Doug Wilson
November 14, 2007 5:10pm ET
Justin Smith is a STUD! His wines are the best in the area!Congratulations!Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson
November 14, 2007 5:10pm ET
Justin Smith is a STUD! His wines are the best in the area!Congratulations!Doug Wilson
James Mccusker
Okemos, MI —  November 14, 2007 10:00pm ET
David, thanks for the heads-up on those two. I've heard of Tensley, not Beckman, and haven't tried either. Sounds like a good reason to head back out to Paso for a tasting trip!Do treat yourself to Brian Denner's wines. The Ditch Digger is probably my favorite, though his 2005 Grenache is pretty tasty, too. Cheers!
Donald Sonderling
July 9, 2008 8:27pm ET
Just had the '04 James Berry....OMG! Incredible! Agreed: Saxum,Linne Calodo, Tablas Creek are all incredible!
James Laube
Napa, CA —  July 9, 2008 9:49pm ET
Glad to hear that; not surprised. Both Justin (Saxum) and Matt (Linne Calodo) are pouring for a panel I'm hosting at the California Wine Experience in October.
Larry Varni
Morro Bay, ca. —  October 16, 2009 6:58pm ET
Now look what Justin has gone and done: 100 points from R. Parker for the '07 James Berry Vineyard!Hello Paso Robles!

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