There are arguably three Kings of Rhone varietals in the New World (which essentially means every place but France). All three reside and make their wines in California. They are (and I know that my selection will be severely challenged by others), alphabetically, John Alban of Alban Vineyards, Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non, and Justin Smith of Saxum.
Alban makes his wine in Arroyo Grande; Manfred in Ventura; and, Justin in Paso Robles. There’s no point in comparing one to another – they each routinely create magic from grapes that others may use but fail to soar to this trio’s heights. But each has his style. Suffice it to say, if you like Rhone varietals (syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, viognier, roussanne, etc.), then your cellar needs to include all three producers.
Last Friday, Terry and I had the great good fortune to meet one of the Kings – Justin Smith of Saxum. Fascinating guy – he never stands still, constant movement. As an example, we spent almost two hours with him, going from barrel to barrel, tasting wine, but never sitting down.
But, he’s not frenetic. He knew how to effectively show off his wine and his winery, both of which he is justifiably proud. He stopped at various points to highlight his uniquely designed wine cave carved out of the hillside and to use the wine thief to provide quite delectable samples. (I’ll cover his wine in the next column, by the way.)
He attributes much of his success to his dad, who possesses uncanny foresight.
Justin’s pop (James Berry Smith, for whom the eponymous vineyard was named) was a veterinarian in San Diego. After about 10 years of dealing with cats and dogs, he decided to move his wife and kid to Paso Robles. I can just imagine Justin’s reaction when he was told in about 1981 (when he was 11 years old) that the family was leaving San Diego’s perfect weather, the beach (which, of course, included the girls on the beach), and his friends to go farming. But move they did, after his dad bought 50 acres.
Then, when they arrived, James put Justin to work, installing the drip irrigation system on the 30 acres of vines that Justin’s dad and uncle had planted. The upside to Justin – he was getting paid bank for the manual labor. “I was the only 13-year-old with a computer.”
In Paso today, there are more than 200 wineries. Back in 1981? Probably less than a dozen. So, this is where Justin’s father demonstrated his foresight. This location that James selected in the Willow Creek sub-AVA is ideal for Rhone varietals and one of the main secrets to Saxum’s success. As Justin told us, “The whole key has been: This has been a great spot to grow grapes. From there the secret to great wine: Get good grapes and don’t mess them up.”
However, Dad’s foresight only went so far. He planted chardonnay. Oh, well, can’t always bat a thousand. But, serendipitously, John Alban (yes, one of the Rhone kings) suggested that the Smith family graft over from chardonnay to Rhone varietals.
James’ decisions provided the foundation for what Justin could use to build what Wine Spectator awarded the Wine of the Year in 2010. Because of the excellence in the location, the age of the rootstock, the minimalist approach to winemaking, Justin can make world-famous wines.
As Justin put it, “There’s no manipulation here. We make wine that is as pure, as clean, as simple as possible. As a result, the purity of California comes through.”
But make no mistake, yes, James provided Justin with the tools to create something good. Justin has made it legendary.
And the wine critics have uniformly agreed. Robert Parker described Justin and Saxum: “Like his colleague to the south, Manfred Krankl, Justin Smith has been moving from strength to strength, building more elegance and nuances into his wines without sacrificing their intrinsic intensity, purity and richness.”
Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker.