Justin Smith looks and acts a little like The Dude, Jeff Bridges’ world-class slacker from the Coen Brothers classic, “The Big Lebowski.” But don’t let that resemblance fool you. Smith is not the kind of guy to sit around in his housecoat drinking White Russians all day. His small-output Paso Robles winery, Saxum Vineyards, has produced some of the most highly rated wine in America over the last few years.
Saxum’s 2007 James Berry Vineyard made Wine Spectator’s 2010 Wine of the Year. Wine taste-maker Robert Parker was blown away, awarding it a 100-point score. “Utter perfection, and one of the most profound Rhone Ranger wines I have ever tasted,” said the hard-to-impress Mr. Parker.
Here’s how the Justin Smith dynasty started.
Smith’s father James, a San Diego county veterinarian, bought the James Berry property when Justin was 10. He started dabbling with grape-growing immediately. Smith recalls, “My parents originally planted Burgundian varieties,” [Pinot Noir and Chardonnay]. “They were going off what had worked over at HMR (Hoffman Mountain Ranch)”, which was founded by Dr. Stanley Hoffman, a pioneer of Paso’s modern wine industry, who planted his first vines in the early 1960s). “They put in mainly chardonnay here. It did well, but the market for Paso chardonnay was never there.”
In the late 1980s, the Smiths decided to change direction when local winemaker John Alban returned from France with a radical suggestion. “He just got back after spending some time in the Rhone and he was very excited about this crazy idea, that we could grow those grapes here. Rhones were not on my dad’s radar before that. John convinced him that this might be a great spot. So we put in a couple of test blocks of mourvèdre and viognier.”
[Editor’s note: Rhone Valley is a region in France. The indigenous grape varieties that grow in the region, like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Viognier and Roussanne, are often referred to as Rhône grapes. So, regardless of their place of origin, wines made from these grapes are said to be Rhône-style wines the world over. Wine Enthusiast post]
Soon others were following suit, planting Rhones by the acre, and they enlisted the Smiths to help. In 1995 the Smiths purchased another 20 acres in the area, and by this time the die was cast: they planted nothing but Rhone grapes on the new property. “There was no turning back from that point,” Smith said.
Smith’s success is about to go underground — literally. “We’ve been working on this cave for about six years now,” Smith explained as we entered through a still-unfinished door into a large main vault on the estate. “It’s expensive [to build a cave] but it makes so much sense in this warm climate. It also pencils out in the end when you realize that you’re spending thousands every month to chill wine bottles in an 80-degree room.” Smith has been slowly expanding his output, and once the wine cave is in business he will eventually increase production to about 8,000 cases a year. By wine industry standards, that’s minuscule. But for Smith, it’s all about maintaining quality and control – and enjoying himself in the process. “All of our vineyards are within a mile of my house. It’s a magic spot here. All of our production is sold through our mailing list. I’ve scaled back my consulting, too.”
With his cult status assured – Saxum sells almost all of its wine through its mailing list – and his output capped by choice, Smith enjoys the luxury of being able to increase quality in almost any conceivable way. The cave was paid for up front, he said. “We waited a long time to do it; we wanted to save a lot of money first. Early on my wife told me, ‘You can do whatever you want, just don’t put us in debt. Don’t put it on the card.’” Smith laughed. “I didn’t.”