California winegrower Justin Smith dazzled the audience not just with his terrific Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2011 (not yet rated), but with a heartfelt presentation full of family photographs and personal stories.
Smith grew up in Paso Robles after his father left a San Diego veterinary practice to become a grapegrower. The family sold grapes to other vintners, but Smith said he was "disheartened" to see their hard work go away after every harvest, so he became a winemaker.
Since then, Paso—halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles—has blossomed into one of California's fastest-growing wine regions. Smith said the secret to the area's success is the distinctive limestone soils, which help the grapes retain some acidity even when they are ripe.
Saxum's name comes from his family's tradition of giving out rock-related names. His father is nicknamed "Pebble" and his siblings are “Brick,” “Rocky” and “Sandy.” Smith decided to give rock names to his wines and vineyards, not his children. Saxum is Latin for "stone." His Bone Rock Vineyard refers to the whale bones found in the soil.
The 2011 vintage was cool, and the grapes were picked late. Though not typical of the ripeness usually found in Saxum wines, the James Berry bottling typifies the vintage, Smith said. "We want to let the vintage show. In cooler years, it means letting the elegant side show."
In the 2011 blend, Grenache adds exuberant red fruit notes, the Mourvèdre structure, and the Syrah spice and pepper notes. As the audience sipped the wine, Smith showed harvest photos of the Grenache that went into the wine—his children picking and "dancing" on the grapes to crush them before they ferment in concrete tanks, where his collection of vinyl records are played to keep the grapes company.
Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2011 (NYR)