In a New York State of Wine

“The Judgement of Paris” is the title of a 1976 book (loosely adapted into the movie, “Bottle Shock”) about the stunning triumph of California’s Napa Valley wines over the vaunted French First Growths. Many believe this event launched Napa Valley into the ranks of world class wine regions. Last weekend in New York City the venerable wine magazine, Wine Spectator, had its annual soirée spotlighting 264 of the best wines in the world. Paso Robles winemaker, Justin Smith of Saxum, took home the honor of Best Wine… Not best wine of the weekend, not best wine of San Luis Obispo County or the state of California for that matter, but rather, out of 15,000 wines reviewed from all over the world, the best wine on the planet… The award should have been called “The Judgement of Paso”. It is also a story that could have been written by Horatio Alger. A story not only about Justin Smith but also about an emerging wine region.

The annual Wine Spectator Wine Experience weekend is quite the affair… Thousands of wine aficionados descend from all over the world for an elaborate three day weekend of lectures, seminars, wine tastings and discussions about all things wine. It is a really fun event. If you are a wine lover it is the place to be and be seen, it is also the place where winemakers from everywhere show off their best wines to a very large and very adoring fan base. Not just any wine can be here, it has to be invited by Wine Spectator and will only be invited if it is a wine that is of the highest caliber. The highest caliber is loosely defined but is generally regarded as a wine that score 90 points or better on Wine Spectator’s wine quality scoring system. Most wine producers, in their entire careers, ever receive a score over 90, and wines with a score over 95 are really rare. In other words, it is an honor to be invited to this event. These are the super models of the wine world. All of the First Growths of Bordeaux are here, as are many of the best of Burgundy. From Napa the cult wines Harlan, Schrader, Bond, Staglin, Peter Michael, Opus One, and more. From Italy, Gaja, Antinori, Sassicaia, Ornellaia. The best of Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Champagne, Argentina are all here… Only the best of the best. A wine lover’s wildest fantasy dream… In this ridiculously crowded field was a lone representative of the Rhone Ranger movement of the United States. Alone at the end of a long aisle of world class wines, on the lower floor of a giant two floor convention hotel, in an area of no air conditioning, across the aisle from dessert wines from Hungary, was Justin Smith of Saxum. Smiling, pouring his wine, talking up the virtues of Paso Robles wine country…

Here is a quick history of how this all came to pass… Tired of servicing patients who couldn’t talk back, Pebble Smith, a veterinarian, decided to get out of the big city of San Diego, and move to Paso Robles a small rodeo/farm town exactly half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, not far from the Hearst Castle and the Pacific Ocean. He took up farming. The crop he chose was wine grapes. The bucolic life in a rural setting with good people and simple pleasures was a strong driver for Pebble. He found some nice land on Willow Creek Road eight miles due west of Paso Robles that looked good for planting grapes, not too steep, not too flat. Paso Robles like many areas of California was a spot where grapes, and subsequently wines, would grow. Paso had become semi-famous for its Zinfandel wines. Being quasi-famous for Zinfandel, a grape varietal that, although delicious, is not really considered “noble” by wine snobs, is a little like being the tallest midget. Nevertheless, the land was pretty, the soils looked right, it wasn’t San Diego and grapes would grow. Pebble planted grapes that he knew he would be able to sell to the big wine houses, Chardonnay, because that’s what the American wine market knew and bought… Pebble and his wife had a son, Justin, and when he was old enough, as farmers are want to do, put him to work in the fields: driving the tractor, tending the vines, working amidst the seasonal crews, picking the annual crop. Justin loved being a farmer and soon he began playing around with some of his dad’s fruit and started making some wine in the garage. About this time the Paso Robles wine industry, particularly the land east of town was doing quite well, a lot of winemakers were making good solid wines. Justin went off to Cal Poly and studied botany. Really? Botany, who the heck studies botany?

College and idealism go hand in hand… Justin came home from school all fired up. Based on his studies, Paso Robles had world class potential. The unusual calcareous/siliceous soils and the extreme daily temperature swings from cold nights to hot days was ideal for planting grapes that thrived in a similar climactic setting; France’s Rhone Valley. Furthermore, he reasoned, the family farm should produce really good fruit, fruit that might, quite possibly, rival the best in the world.

Southern France, with its Mediterranean climate, produces some of the best wines anywhere. Wines from Chateauneuf-du-pape and Cote Rotie are amongst the most expensive and coveted wines in the world. Grape varietals that thrive there – Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Censault, Coinoise are not well known in America and are rarely planted. You could just hear Justin’s pitch to his dad, “Let’s plant unknown, hard to pronounce, non-recognizable grapes and sell to a market that is, to say the least, small”. How is that for a business model. Truth be known, there was already a budding movement of American winemakers that were staking out this “Rhone Ranger” claim and doing it quite well, Gary Eberle of Eberle in Paso Robles and John Alban of Alban in Arroyo Grande to name two. Justin convinced Pebble to convert some of his land to these “Rhone” varietals and the grapes that came out were just as he had hoped for: the unique calcareous and silicious soils, the extreme temperature swings and the optimal growing season worked like a charm. Justin had some of the best fruit he had ever tasted to make his wine.

Being blessed with great speed and great hands doesn’t necessarily get you into the NFL. A good winemaker with great grapes makes good wine and conversely a great winemaker with good grapes makes good wine. However, a great winemaker with great grapes can, well, you get the picture… As difficult as it is for many of us to admit, even though we can follow a recipe, that doesn’t make us a great chef, likewise and similarly, we might be able to paint by the numbers, however, that doesn’t make us an artist. Some people have “it” and others don’t. The same goes for winemakers. You can go to the best schools and take the best classes and learn how to make wine, however, the ability to make great wines involves some version of “it”.

Justin has “it”. He began making his wines under his own label, Saxum. Saxum is Latin for large stone. Justin’s vineyard is filled with difficult to farm large stones and his Grandmother’s maiden name was Stone, she named her four children thusly: Brick, Sandy, Rocky and Pebble. So the name Saxum was chosen in a very Justin-Iike way as a nod to his family and his land. As the vines began to mature he began making wines that were actually quite good. They began to catch the attention of the wine critics.

Like it or not, wine writers and wine critics are hugely important to small wineries like Saxum. As in a lot of things that involve “taste” the average person feels a little intimidated about knowing what is “good”. Admit it, would you really pick the Mona Lisa or a jumbled up Picasso as being the best paintings. Someone along the way with some training or repute had to say they were “worthy”. In addition, there exists an ocean of wines out there for a consumer to chose from. Thus, the need for wine critics… Critics began to notice Saxum. Many of the big ones: James Laube of Wine Spectator, Robert Parker of Wine Advocates, Steve Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar and Jeb Dunnuck of The Rhone Report, began to pick up on and applaud the virtues of his juice. Along the way he began to help other young, underfunded, hardscrabble, “for love of the game” winemakers that wanted to make equally compelling wines. So many of us in San Luis Obispo county know of the outstanding wines being produced here: Linne Calodo, Terry Hoage, Booker, L’Aventure, Villa Creek, Denner, Epoch. Justin has had a hand in all of these ventures, either directly or indirectly. Likewise, the critics have noticed and have reviewed and scored them accordingly. Like the Napa Valley in the early 1970s, Paso Robles began to hit its stride…

Winning the number one wine in the world for a winemaker is a little like winning the Academy Award for Best Picture for a producer/director. It doesn’t get any bigger or better. Out of a field of 15,000 different wines from all over the world Saxum’s James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2007 won the number one wine in the world (Justin is the youngest winemaker ever to receive this award). James Laube of Wine Spectator described it as “An amazing wine, dense, rich and layered, offering a mix of power and finesse, with concentrated dark berry fruit, mineral, sage, herb and cedar notes that are pure, intense, focused and persistent. Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, Score: 98″… Most of the rest of us would just say it is crazy delicious… Which brings us to the New York Wine Experience.

“Mr. Smith goes to New York”… Justin came to NYC by himself, no entourage or marketing team or general manager. Just there by himself. He had the look of someone who wasn’t really comfortable or sure where he was. After all it wasn’t Paso and he was in the middle of harvest in a difficult farming year. In other words, he was needed, and would rather be, in Paso. He showed up late and found his small booth where he was to pour the world’s best wine. Small, cramped, kinda hidden. The next day he was onstage under the lights and in front of 1200 of the most avid wine fans in the world. The top ten wines were made up of a white wine from Chateauneuf-du-pape, a white and a red from Sonoma County, a Portugese wine, two reds from Napa, two reds from Australia and one from Italy… and Saxum.

Being cool, and not knowing you are cool is the coolest thing going… Justin is, and was in New York, cool. Not cool like Fonzie cool, but cool like knowing your game, being good at your game, not being self-impressed with your game, staying humble and still hungry, kinda cool… While the other speakers on the stage looked all polished and seasoned and prepared and accustomed to the white hot spotlight, Justin had the look of an in-shape, handsome, “oops, I forgot to shave the last couple of days” small town farmer who was not accustomed or comfortable with wearing a coat and tie. With his face plastered on two gigantic jumbotron screens, he spoke without notes from the heart about his love of farming and how great this award was, not for him, but for Paso Robles… Afterwards, he met Dukes, Barons, Baronnesses, Princes (“Hi Prince Robert, I’m Justin from Paso”), gazillionaires and celebrities… and later as he poured (most wineries had their “handlers” do this) his number one wine in the world from the cramped 4′ x 6′ booth in the nondescript un-air conditioned hot corner of the conference floor across the aisle from the dessert wines, he just smiled and chatted with his new and now adoring fans about how special a place Paso is… The whole weekend was, for him and for the few of us there who knew him, fun and really cool…

I talked and texted with him a bunch during the weekend and he just kept saying how unworthy he felt of receiving the award and how heady the whole thing was… Heady, that was a great way to describe it. I was just proud of him… The morning after he received his award in front of the best of the best he texted me that it was all incredible but he couldn’t wait to get home…

Justin and Bill with Justin’s table tent from the Top Ten Tasting panel.

Justin discussing his #1 wine, Saxum’s James Berry Vineyard.

Paso’s home town boy on the big screen in front of over 1,200 wine fans.

Justin and Liz pouring 2007 James Berry Vineyard in the Saxum booth.

Our proud Paso Posse toasting Justin!