Carl Kanowsky | Tales of Sampling a Cult Wine, Saxum No. 2

Carl Kanowsky on Wine

So, yeah, we spent some time with Justin Smith (of Saxum) and drank some of his wine. We’ll discuss what we did when we left Saxum in a later column. End of story? 

NO, not hardly. In my last column I talked about what an intriguing guy Justin is. But that is only part of the story. He really has a way with grapes, a magical way. 

He’s very unassuming, not questing for more publicity and acclaim. He doesn’t need it because he’s already got it. Heck, Wine Spectator picked his wine as Wine of the Year in 2010. That means he topped more than 15,000 other wines tasted that year. Robert Parker has given more than 20 of his wines scores of 98 or better! It would be difficult to be more famous or applauded. 

But glitz and glamour and fame just ain’t him. Those don’t drive him. First and foremost, he’s a farmer and a winemaker. If something else (like becoming a cult winery) comes along, then great, so long as he can support his family. The Saxum website speaks of his priorities: “We respect our land and farm everything sustainably without chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Because our vine’s roots penetrate deep through the fissures in the calcareous soil, irrigation is rarely needed.”  

Justin Smith samples one of his wines from the barrel. Photo by Carl Kanowsky.

But, sorry, Justin, you’re going to have to listen to someone else sing your praises. 

All wines tasted (save one) were from barrel or stainless-steel tanks. That’s important because Justin doesn’t make shy wine. Normally you want to give Saxum at least three to five years of bottle age before cracking them open. But if he can impress you with wine still going through aging, then you know his wine has excellent potential. 

We started with the 2019 James Berry White, a blend of grenache blanc, roussanne and chenin blanc. Barrel fermented and left on the lees for two years. One word — amazing! More words: The stone fruit aromas smack you in the face. Terry also got gardenia. His flavors of pear and peach marry beautifully with the acid for an exceptionally well-balanced wine with a captivating finish. An ethereal wine — I’m going to buy every bottle that I can. We predict that critics will award this a 97-100. I still dream of it. 

We then began our reds session.  

The wine cave at Saxum is carved into a hillside. Photo by Terry Kanowsky.
Justin Smith keeps his inventory of past Saxum vintages in this stack of large pipes. Photo by Carl Kanowsky.

First up, the 2019 Broken Stones, a combo of syrah and graciano. With the chenin blanc and graciano, Justin demonstrates that he’s not a slave to Rhone. He branches out when he thinks it’s warranted. And with this non-vineyard designate, he’s found success combining Rhone and Rioja. A rich wine with great spice (baking spices in aroma and black pepper on the tastes), this wine is for the long game. Buy it, set it aside for three years, then decant for at least two hours — this will open up, to the black fruit, smoke and leather that are hiding behind the significant tannins. Justin explained black pepper will shine when you have a wet winter and a mild summer. 

Next up, the 2019 James Berry. This is the descendant from the 2007 James Berry, which was Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year. It’s 50% grenache, 26% mataro, with the balance being syrah. This is a powerful wine. There may be hints of leather in the aroma but this wine, right now, is still maturing so it’s a little too early to tell. Well-made European wines characteristically possess a flavor profile that sings on a level continuum, from start to finish. California wines are much more fruit-forward, announcing from the beginning loads of fruit that recede as you taste. Surprisingly, the James Berry was more European, with consistent tastes of cherry, white pepper and cedar. Outstanding. 

I’ll finish the other wines in my next column. Two more 2019s and a surprise 2005, which proved my point that patience will reward you when it comes to Justin’s wines. 

Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker. 

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