Food & Drink

Wine notes: Saxum Winery

Justin Smith, shown in 2009 with a bottle of his Saxum Vineyards wine, which received a perfect score of 100 points from wine critic Robert Parker of Wine Enthusiast.
Justin Smith, shown in 2009 with a bottle of his Saxum Vineyards wine, which received a perfect score of 100 points from wine critic Robert Parker of Wine Enthusiast.

It’s a 10 in Olympics judging, an 800 when taking an SAT or a 300 when bowling. It’s the perfect score. In wine, that perfect score is a 100 — particularly when judged by the Wine Spectator critic Robert Parker. And it is that perfect score that Justin Smith of Paso Robles’ Saxum Winery received last month for one of his 2007 wines.

“Utter perfection,” is what Parker wrote of Saxum’s 2007 James Berry Vineyard Proprietary Red. Smith’s wines, he added, showcase “just how brilliant certain Paso Robles terroirs can be.”

It is a huge milestone for the Paso Robles wine region. This year Parker gave only four wineries worldwide a perfect score from the 2007 vintage. One was French, and two were from Napa.

It was a first for Paso Robles, and only two other producers on the Central Coast have ever received such a score: Sine Qua Non, which sources fruit from Santa Barbara County, and Alban in the Edna Valley.

For Smith, the score came from out of the blue. “Of course I was hoping for a 100 score, but I figured no way was that going to happen this early,” he said. “We were really blown away.”

Smith, 39, started Saxum just seven years ago. His father, James Smith, started and still owns the coveted James Berry vineyard on the west side of Paso Robles.

Smith grew up there and in 1997 got together with college buddy Matt Trevisan to start Linne Calodo Cellars. Trevisan and Smith built a following for their Rhone-style wines, but in 2002 they decided to part company so each winemaker could develop his own wines.

Smith built a small winery just in time for the 2003 harvest and has since been making wines from his own vineyards, neighboring vineyards and the James Berry fruit. Partly because of his history with Linne Calodo, he had an immediate following and has been gaining recognition around the country with his outstanding Rhone wines. He has no tasting room and little retail distribution. In fact, his production of about 2,500 cases sells out every year without any advertising or promotion.

He had just released his latest vintage the week before the Parker review came out, and they had already sold 75 percent of it. “By the time the review came out, the remaining 25 percent just disappeared overnight,” he said.

But beyond the immediate success of Smith’s wines, the implications this score has for the Paso Robles area are still coming to light.

“When wine critics like Robert Parker make a statement through their commentary and scores, it creates notoriety for Paso Robles on a national and global scale,” said Stacie Jacob, the executive director for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “Achieving a 100-point rating demonstrates the fullest potential of the region, which is good for the entire Paso Robles winemaking community.”

Smith acknowledges the importance: “It’s what I’ve always believed was possible here, but it’s nice to see somebody say it for sure — that we’re the same as Bordeaux or Burgundy or Napa. Paso is now in that same league.”

Even with the potential of selling vastly more wine, Smith sees his small operation staying small. “First and foremost is that we keep the quality as high as possible, and I don’t think we could grow too much more without jeopardizing that. We’ll grow slowly, but not in leaps and bounds.”

Smith attributes his success to “great fruit.”

“There are no tricks or anything special we’re doing in the winery except for doing as little as possible to the great fruit that we start off with.

It’s just a matter of not messing it up in the winery.”

For those wanting to buy and experience a Saxum wine today, they may have a long wait. His wine club of 2,500 members is closed, and has a waiting list. The small amount of wine he had at a couple selected local stores and restaurants is certainly gone by now.

But the good news is that there are multiple other Paso Robles winemakers making wine from the same terroir as Smith, with equally impressive results. It will be no surprise when a Paso Robles winery gets that second 100-point score in the future.

“This is just the beginning,” Smith said. “Paso has so much potential that it’s just starting to be realized.”

Satisfy your wine craving

Millennial wine enthusiasts in San Luis Obispo who want to taste premium Paso Robles wines should consider Crave Oct. 23.

The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is organizing a tasting with 60 Paso Robles wineries, along with music and food pairings supplied by some of San Luis Obispo County’s favorite food establishments. The goal of the event is to introduce Paso’s fine wines to a younger audience.

Crave takes place at the Veterans Memorial Building in San Luis Obispo, 801 Grand Ave., between 7:30 and 10:00 p.m. Rides will be offered for free from the Cal Poly Student Union, Laguna Shopping Center and Downtown SLO.

It is suggested that tickets be purchased ahead of time, because last year’s event sold out in advance.

Tickets are $40 in advance or $50 at the door. Go to for tickets and more information.

Saxum Winery

Owners: Justin and Heather Smith

Cases produced: 2,400 in 2008

Address: 2810 Willow Creek Road. Paso Robles, CA 93446

Tasting room: None


Janis Switzer can be reached at 434-5394 or via e-mail at