Biz Buzz: Paso’s Saxum ranked top wine

A Rhône-style red blend from Saxum Winery is the first from Paso Robles to be named Top Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator magazine.

The honor, said North County wine industry leaders, is sure to put the local appellation top of mind for consumers and wine travelers who may not have been familiar with Paso Robles before.

“It’s just like when Mondavi started putting Napa Valley on the map,” said Alex Villicana, owner and winemaker at Villicana Winery and Vineyard and chairman of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance board of directors. “By them getting that No. 1 spot, readers will be open to trying other wines from the region.”

The Saxum James Berry Vineyard 2007 — a mélange of grenache, mourvedre and syrah — was first among the list of Top 100 Wines of the Year, released earlier this week.

“With its classic quality and reasonable price,” the Wine Spectator feature says, “this wine is a testament that Paso Robles has earned its place on the world stage.”

In blind tastings, reviewers sampled 15,800 new releases from around the world. Their opinions, says the publication, are based on quality, value, availability and “an X-factor we call excitement.”

Two other San Luis Obispo County wines made the 2010 list: Alban Syrah Edna Valley Reva 2006 at No. 13 and Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Paso Robles 2007 at No. 33.

Only one other Paso Robles wine has placed in the top 10. Ten years ago, Justin Isosceles 1997 reached No. 6. The magazine has printed its Top 100 list since 1988.

Last year, Saxum Broken Stones 2006 was at No. 12.

Owned by Justin and Heather Smith, the winery made 950 cases of this year’s winning wine. The Smiths could not be reached for comment.

With no tasting room and a long wait to become a direct buyer, Saxum’s releases typically sell out. Tracking down a bottle of the James Berry Vineyard 2007 may be a challenge for collectors.

Released at $67, online auctions for bottles of the James Berry 2007 had bidding at nearly $300 this week.

James Berry Vineyard was planted by Justin Smith’s father, James “Pebble” Smith, in 1980. One of the earliest commercial growers in the region, the elder Smith worked closely with Fetzer Vineyards, and his grapes have become some of the most sought-after in the Paso appellation.

“Justin Smith is a really conscientious grape grower,” said Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard and president of the board of the Rhône Rangers, an organization promoting that category of wines from American producers.

“He has the advantage of working with one of the older vineyards on the west side,” Haas added. “You can’t make wines from 5-year-old grape vines taste like wines from 30-year-old grape vines.”

The Paso Rhône movement has attracted attention in the past, often from trade publications, Haas said. Wine Spectator, one of the most influential magazines for consumers with a readership of 3.4 million globally, has a greater impact on buying habits.

“It’s sort of an exclamation point that Paso Robles should be on the map for any lover of great wines,” Haas said. “The faster the region’s reputation grows, the higher the tide (that) will lift everybody’s boats.”

— Raven J. Railey

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