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SAXUM {deeper roots}

February 16, 2012 Fifty-Two Weeks 1 Comment

SAXUM, it’s obvious right? I am a glory seeker; I am Napoleon, motivated by my own lust for recognition. I search out the best, the finest; I am Alexander, an elitist, a snob, a name-dropper of the worst kind, eager to pat myself on the back, and exalt my own voice. I walk around with a sense of self-entitlement fit for a king and look down upon man as though I were David’s Goliath.

It is the same for Justin Smith you say, the golden boy of California wine, the charmer, the handsome forty-something behind Saxum. He who has schemed to unlock the magic formula that forces the palates of the World’s best critics prostrate in obeisance to his miracle juice. He who influences their pens with his smooth lips to write the shockingly high numbers of their tasting notes, to write the impossible three digit perfection as if they had wine scoring turrets. He has cast a spell on the wine world and his potion is Bone Rock, Broken Stones, and Rocket Block.

In some ways it is true I suppose. I have sought out some of the best in this game, the most interesting, the most passionate, the most gifted. But they are also the most genuine, people of class and substance, people with real stories.

And what an honor it is to tell those stories.

It is also true, Justin Smith is a charmer. You can’t help but like him. But if you strip away the hype and fade the endless praise and criticism into the background, if you stand there with Justin, in his jeans, v-neck, Patagonia vest, and flip flops and if you listen to him talk, to what he really has to say, it all comes down to a simple sentence:

Justin Smith is a farmer.

-B O N E   Y A R D  – T H E   F O U N D I N G   O F   J A M E S   B E R R Y   V I N E Y A R D-

It was while attending Veterinary school at UC Davis that Justin’s parents, James (who also goes by Pebble) and Terry Smith, developed a love for the rural life. Post college, Justin’s parents spent a decade in the more crowded suburban setting of Encinitas north of San Diego, where Pebble was a practicing Vet. But the farm life they came to love kept calling, so they set out on a voyage to find a place where they could get back to the earth. The quest took them all over California before they stumbled upon Paso Robles.

The family had friends in the area and spent time exploring all over Paso Robles before coming across a corner on the west-side crisscrossed with small roads. It was Willow Creek.

“They were just driving around randomly and saw this place, it wasn’t even for sale,’ Justin says of their discovery.  “They kind of saw it and thought ‘wow it would be so cool to own that!’ “

Justin’s parents immediately had their real-estate agent contact the owner, who wasn’t living on the property at the time, and made an offer. They had no idea if it would grow great grapes or not, “it was just kind of speculation” Justin says. “They loved the site, loved the hills and the rocky soils.”

Since it was a cooler area of Paso and some local growers felt the rocky soils were evocative of Burgundy, the Smith’s originally planted Chardonnay. It was 1980, before the Rhône Rangers, before visionaries and pioneers like Randall Grahm hit their stride. Then, a Prophet came calling.

In the late 1980’s, John Alban approached Pebble with an idea. It was an epiphany.

John, fresh from a trip to the Rhône Valley and convinced that this part of the Central Coast was an ideal location for Rhône varieties, persuaded Pebble to plant some test blocks.

“They put in some Viognier and Mouvedre of all things to start with and they liked how they came out,” Justin explained. It was just the beginning.  “We started putting in more blocks, put in Syrah in 1990 and a bunch more in 95’.”

Just as a new breed of Rhône producers like Randall Grahm and Bob Lidquist were emerging in other corners of California, and even before Rhône giant Tablas Creek, the Smith’s saw the potential for something great in West Paso.

“[We] bought another 20 acres and totally committed to Rhônes at that point. The rest is history, so to speak.”

-U N D E R S T A N D I N G   S A X U M-

Saxum {noun} (genitive saxī); n,

1. A stone, any large rough fragment of rock.

2. (by extension) A wall of stone.

“Why is your biggest aspiration to be a cover band? Make your own music.” – J.S. on wines of replication

To say that Smith is a trend setter is an understatement. What he and former LINNE CALODO partner Matt Trevisan set in motion in the late 1990’s quickly gained momentum and spawned one of the most powerful wine movements in the New World. These were not wines of mimicry, proverbial cover wines, these were to be explosive, kick in your front teeth and force you to pay attention kind of wines; wines of character and power. They were Sid Vicious in a barrel, Iggy Pop in a glass. Smith and Trevisan set the tone and pace for their invasion on to the California wine scene, not the trends around them.

Smith has never waivered in this commitment, disallowing himself to be imprisoned by his own creative prowess  or his successes.

“I don’t do a consistent product,” Justin responds when asked about the style of Saxum.

“I’m constantly changing, trying to make it better. Take the James Berry Vineyard 2007. You know it got Wine of the Year and a 100 [point score] from Parker, but in this version [2009], a similar blend, the Grenache is done in concrete. So you would think that after I got all those accolades I would say, ‘oh! I got the formula right I’m going to keep doing that!’ But no, I wanted to bring another layer to it [with] concrete. This stylistically is a little different; it’s definitely a little finer, a little more finesse driven.

So it’s kind of crazy, I’m constantly changing things and I think it’s better because of it.”

Justin doesn’t get hung up on past accomplishments; he doesn’t wear his successes around his neck or hang them on his walls, as if they were his only story. One might imagine driving up to Justin’s winery that he would be waiting for our arrival, a sash around his shoulder that reads “WORLD’S BEST WINEMAKER.” One might expect framed articles about him on his cellar walls. There is none of that. Just a guy in and his flip flops. A disco ball hangs from the ceiling. Old wine labels plaster a door. Instead of his Spectator cover article, there is a framed platinum Beastie Boys record hanging on the wall.

For all of the attention and praise Justin has received, it hasn’t changed who he is or what he does. He remains grounded in his love of Paso and as determined as ever to keep doing things his way. “I definitely want to do what I want to do,” he says with a grin. In all of this, he remembers his roots and where he came from.

“It’s great that we got all of this recognition for Paso,” he says when asked how things have changed for him in the last year.

“It’s great that I’ve got a little bit more assurance that I will be able to sell in the future, but it’s not like ‘oh my god things are going to be completely different now.’ It just let me relax and do what I want to do a little more freely, because I have that confidence. It’s definitely not game changing, at least on the level [of Saxum]. I think it is game changing for the area because all of a sudden we are being recognized on a World stage.”

For Smith, his 2007 James Berry Vineyard winning Wine of the Year is a personal accomplishment, but even more it is an accomplishment for Paso Robles. In an area where many, if not most of the winemakers, are transplants, Justin has a rare distinction of growing up here. It is home and he always believed in the potential of their local terroir.

“That was one of my big things starting out, why I wanted to do Linne Calodo, I wanted to prove what this area was capable of. My Dad taught me how to make wine, we would always make 4 or 5 barrels under his house. I always thought the wines we were making were on par with the best stuff in the World and I wanted to prove that to everybody. When I started with Matt when we were 27…28, that was one of my main goals, I wanted to prove to the World we could do it.

So it’s great, I feel we are accomplishing it.”

-S E T T I N G   R O O T S-

“This is it, this is why it is what it is. If it were an alluvial soil or a loose fertile soil it would definitely be a different story.”

The James Berry Vineyard consists of several sets of rolling hills over ancient sea beds. The fossils found in the soils give way to names like Bone Rock, and the slopes to names like Rocket Block (a block in the vineyard so steep that it “feels like you are taking off in a rocket when you drive up it in a tractor”).

Farmed both organically and dry, it is the earth and soils that most diligently nurture the vines. The light crumbly rock of the ancient seabed layers allow the roots of the vines to penetrate deep into the earth and in the hot summer months access much needed moisture the thirsty rocks collected in the Winter and Spring. It is a game changer in the scorching Paso Robles sun, a dear gift of a thirty-year old root system.

Family runs deep here too.

Justin’s winery is modest, even by small standards, but he wouldn’t trade it for anything. “This is home,” he says. It is more than a warm sentiment and a cute phrase to pass on visitors, it is literally true. Justin’s home, where he lives with his wife Heather and three kids ages 14, 11, and 2 (when we met him), is physically attached to the winery. Barrels and bikes, hoses and skateboards, winemaker, boss, businessman, father, husband, son, it is all connected.

“It definitely means a lot that this is a home ranch,” he explains of his personal connection to his neighborhood of West Paso, “this is where I grew up.” His Grandfather originally built the home Justin now lives in and his parents Pebble and Terry are not far away with their own home on the property.

“My parents are retired but they are still involved in the vineyard and my kids are always hanging out [here]. It’s a family project. It definitely makes you more rooted in the ground of where you are at; it makes a tie to [the land] that is kind of hard to explain. You couldn’t reproduce it. If someone gave you a billion dollars to buy whatever vineyard you wanted, it wouldn’t be the same because of the history, the fact that it’s my family’s sweat and blood [here]. You can’t reproduce it anywhere else.”

“It’s cool,” he says before a pause, as if reflecting on what the future may hold, “hopefully it carries on into the next generation.”

-S O U L   O F   S A X U M-

“Some music is good background music, that you play while you are hanging out making dinner, [then] there is other music that you want to sit down and listen to and play loud. I kind of think that’s what we’re doing here.”

Smith loves music. The reality of winemaking is less romantic then we might imagine, with long hours spent in a damp cold cellar doing rather mundane work. Many winemakers break the monotony with music, lots of it, and Justin is no different. A handful of musical instruments stand stacked up in a corner. He has taken to naming his tanks after rappers, starting in alphabetical order, Ad Rock, B-Real. It is how he came to own that Beastie Boy record in the first place.

“In the Wine Spectator Wine of the Year photo, I am in front of that tank there, it says Ad Rock on it,” he starts to explain when I ask him about the framed record. “So their record company saw that, Capitol Records, and they sent me the platinum Beastie Boys record.”

In a way, it is a fitting symbol to watch over Justin’s cellar, because to him, vintages are a lot like albums. “All the 09’s make up one set,” he says.  “Each bottle is a song, but they are all related, they all make up an album.”

Like the Beastie Boys, who themselves broke new ground with their sound and style, Justin has seen his fair share of praise and ridicule. The best of the praise hails Justin as one of wine’s brightest stars. For others, he is a poster child for a movement in wine towards over-extracted and over-ripe big wines. Just another example of Robert Parker’s overreaching influence on California wine they argue. I have never paid much attention to the controversy, after all, good wine is good wine and bad wine is bad wine and those come in all shades, bodies, and hats. Justin makes good wine, really good wine, and he does it in a sincere and honest way. After all, the banter is subjective right?

Justin thinks so.

“Alcohol [levels] are just like music. Sometime you just want to listen to one genre and you dig it and you get into all the different bands. Then you are like, ‘you know what, I’m going to start checking out hip hop now.’ [Wine] is just like music. It’s not like there is a genre that is better than the others. It’s just personal taste and how you are feeling at the time. You specialize in what you do, but you can’t say all other genres are bad just because they are not doing what you are doing.

Yeah, it really bugs me…that kind of pigeon holding. Yes, we make the kind of wine that we make, but we drink tons of Chablis and Champagne too.”

-S T Y L E   O F   S A X U M-

“I had the inspiration that we could create something great here, that’s not copying anything else, it’s just great as its self.”

There is style…the one that can be put on and created and then there is style, the noun, an act of being.

Saxum, in its design, in its story, and maker has style. It was the style of wine that first influenced Justin. If Syrah from Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage can be transcendent and a place as wild and untamed as Australia can make genuinely intriguing Shiraz, what could be done here? What could they do in Paso? What would this style be?

A common thread Justin found in winemakers he greatly admired like Grahm, Alban, and Lindquist was their ability to take what they were given and make the best of it. “There was no magic formula,” he said of their formidable accomplishments. And so with a spirit of independence and discovery he set out on his voyage.

“I started out with a big open mind which I think has benefited me a lot. I wasn’t trying to make a sound that has already been made. I don’t want to be Led Zeppelin. I want to make my own sound.”

His passion for music has been a positive influence as well.

“We listen to a lot of music and it’s that same thing, you have all of these different bands from different times and they are all making great music and they don’t sound the same. There isn’t one thing that makes them great, that makes any one song great, it’s… who knows what it is, but they’ve found it.”

“It’s the magic factor,” I suggest.

“Yeah exactly,” he replies, “you have to find your own magic factor.”

-U N A P O L O G E T I C A L L Y   S A X U M-

Somewhere between The Beatles recording “Let It Be” in the then inadequate basement of Apple Studios and T-Pain’s Auto-Tuner, we lost our nerve for the sometimes jagged and unpredictable sounds of imperfection in favor of computer manipulated perfection. We took feed-back, distortion, harmonic slips, and the crack of the old tube amp out to the alley behind the studio, thanked them for their time, and then shot them in the head execution style. The Antichrist is here, and she is a Lady, she is a Disney creation, she is beautiful, and controlled, and “perfect.” She is soulless.

Just as in the 60’s, when the cry was “the hair is too long, and the pants too tight, and the music is too damn loud!” today’s complaints are “the oak is too much, and the fruit too ripe, and the alcohols are too damn high!” Some of this of course is true. Big for the sake of big or oak for the sake of oak makes a lot of bad wine. Loud for the sake of loud makes a lot of bad music, but so does playing it safe, following the rules and the formulas, or trying to replicate your own success.

What if Led Zeppelin had turned it down or The Beatles had stopped at Help! instead of going on to write The White Album, or Sgt. Pepper, or everything else for that matter? Where would innovation be? Where would inspiration dwell?

Maybe it is too much, too loud, too tight, too ripe, too hot? But how will we know where we can go, if we don’t even bother exploring what is possible? Maybe it took the decades of decadence that was the 60’s and amps turned up to 11 to help us realize that we can have that alongside the brilliance and beauty of a Sigur Rós, the genius of a Radiohead, or the agony of a Tom Waits. Maybe it is the monstrously good and the monstrously bad 15.5’s Syrahs and Grenaches that let us know we can go too far and not far enough?

Maybe Justin Smith is the Robert Plant of California wine. Maybe it is big, and edgy, and new, and brilliant, and great! No, scratch that. Maybe Justin Smith is just that, the Justin Smith of California wine, his own voice, his own vision, his own true style.

I don’t know about the artists you like, but I don’t paint with a palate of tan and grey. Give me some red, some blue, some yellow. Let me tell you when it is too bright for my liking. Give me some fruit, some tannin, some heat, some acid and minerals, let me tell you when it is too little or too much.

I don’t champion Justin’s style in the same way I don’t champion anyone’s. In the end, he stakes his family’s name on it and he feeds them selling it. But if he loves what he does (and we did too by the way), if he believes in what he does, trusts in it, then I say: turn it on, turn it up, and let everything else be washed away in the beautiful noise!


Recommended listening:

The Black Keys: “Mind Eraser”

The Beatles: “I Am the Walrus”

Led Zeppelin: “Over the Hills and Far Away”

Mars Volta: “Take the Veil Cerpin Taxt”

Fugazi: “Waiting Room”

By the way, this is what Justin and his crew had in rotation this harvest. Check it out, he would want you to:

“New music we have been grooving on at Saxum this season…..Kurt Vile, Destroyer, St. Vincent, Frank Ocean, Weeknd, Tune Yards, and Wooden Shjips.

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