We were delighted to be introduced to Justin in 2018 by our good friend in Paso, Guillaume Fabre (Clos Solene), and couldn't be more proud to be working with the Saxum team.
Saxum Vineyards was founded by Justin Smith and his wife Heather in 2002, and their winery is located in the James Berry vineyard which was planted by Justin's father, James Berry Smith, in the 1980s.
Justin has played a massive part in making Paso Robles one of California's most dynamic and exciting regions, and is cited as major influence by a generation of winemakers.
Justin is practically a Paso Robles native. He was born in Northern California, but his parents moved to Paso in 1980 when he was 10.
His father bought a 55 acre parcel and set about planting the white varietals that were popular in the area at the time. He was advised by a friend to replant with Rhone varietals in 1990, and went about taking out the whites to put in Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah. The very early wines showed great promise!
Justin had never intended to follow in his father's footsteps as a vintner, studying ethnobiology at university (where he met his future wife!). After graduating, Justin and his college buddy Matt Trevisan pooled their resourced to start their own wine label - Linne Calodo. Matt gained experience working with some established wineries, while Justin learned to farm the family vineyard which became and important source of fruit for Linne Calodo.
Having made a name for themselves at Linne Calodo, Justin decided to part from Matt to start his own project - Saxum Vineyards. He had been inspired by 2 bottles of great Syrah - Penfold's Grange 1990 and Jaboulet La Chapelle 1990. He began by trying to emulate them, but quickly saw that Paso needed a different approach, and by the mid-2000s he was starting to make serious waves among critics and collectors.
Texture is really what makes Saxum stand out. "It is something that I have always been aware of as a winemaker, but where it comes from is still somewhat a mystery," he explains. "My best guess is that it's about the tannin-having smooth, silky tannins, with weight to them. So it's coming from the seeds being ripe, the skins being ripe, and pulling those tannins into solution. The trickiest part is keeping them. It is very easy to lose them with pumping, racking, ﬁltering, etc. So we try and not do anything that could strip those tannins out."
Once you know that Saxum means "stone" in Latin, the names of the winery's individual bottlings—Broken Stones, Heart Stone and Bone Rock—fall into place. But there's more to the story. "My dad's name is James Berry Smith, although he has always gone by the name Pebble," says Justin Smith. To make a long story short, Pebble's mother, whose maiden name was Stone, gave all her children such nicknames, so besides Pebble, there's Rocky, Sandy and Brick. "Saxum is Latin for stone, so I kept the rock theme alive," says Justin, "but I spared my children being called Clay and Crystal."
Justin received the first ever 100 point score from Robert Parker for a Paso Roble wine with his now legendary James Berry Vineyard 2007. Parker described it as "profound" and "utter perfection".