Research Trip: Justin Smith of Saxum

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If we could only meet one winemaker in Paso Robles, it would have to be Justin Smith. Yes, there is Saxum’s allure: the waiting list and the 100 point score. But there is more to Saxum than the winery’s reputation – owner winemaker Justin Smith’s discoveries and innovations – and his willingness to share them – have shaped the methodologies of the Central Coast’s highest quality producers.
So when it came time to plan Stolpman’s staff education trip north, I emailed Justin Smith first.

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SaxumSyrah

J A M E S  B E R R Y  V I N E Y A R D
Justin separated from the pack years before anyone else thought out of the box. He realized there was no blanket “best way” for each block exposure. Creativity quickly ousted conventional best practices like Vertical Shoot Positioning.
Perched high on the James Berry property, the Bone Rock Syrah block illustrates Justin’s commitment to experimentation. Yet to be pruned, the vineyard consists only of vertical stakes and tall knotted trunks. Dormant canes sparsely thrust out above the terraces and occasionally block the narrow paths. Justin explained he let the trunks grow tall, even overhead, to allow the Syrah space for its natural vigor while providing shade to the fruit.
Already in outer orbit, Justin next took his space shuttle galaxies away from the small, insular world of Paso Robles vineyard management. He shut off his irrigation. Unspeakable in “hot” Paso Robles; stupid on his inhospitable, steep, calcareous hillsides.
Back in the day, Sashi brought Ruben here in order to convince him to dry-farm Stolpman. It was the only example around.

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S A X U M  W I N E R Y
Justin’s cellar boasts a few beautiful concrete fermenters dating back to 2009. While Rajat and Sashi designed our Concrete fermenters in 2012 based on vessels they found in Patagonia, Justin paved the way for us by teaching a local craftsman the intricate requirements needed for these large, immensely heavy containers.
Hundreds of feet below the current cellar, Justin nears completion on a cave complex that will comfortably house his production for decades to come.

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2 0 1 3  W I N E S
Justin generously poured barrel samples of all 7 of his wines: Broken Stones, James Berry Vineyard, Bone Rock, Booker Vineyard, Paderewski Vineyard, Heart Stone Vineyard and Terry Hoage Vineyard. None of the wines are monocepage, in fact, when it comes to combining high alcohol and high acid Grenache with low alcohol and low alcohol Mourvedre, Justin explains he prefers to co-ferment the two. Fermenting the two varietals together allows for an easier primary (alcohol) and secondary (acid) fermentation. He elaborated that co-fermentation allows for more cohesion in blends as the grapes get more time together; to complete one another.
While we only tried 2013 wines, Justin explained that he backs off whole-cluster fermentation in warmer years as the grapes are already so small and concentrated, they don’t benefit from added stem. He also added that with stem inclusion – it’s all or nothing – either 100% or 0% whole-cluster. When high volumes of juice from crushed grapes are added to whole bunches, the juice absorbs a higher amount of stems than a 100% whole-cluster fermentation.

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In 2014, the TTB published the Paso Robles Willow Creek District AVA, just a year after Ballard Canyon AVA publication. Like Stolpman Vineyards in Ballard Canyon, James Berry Vineyard lies smack in the middle of the new Appellation. No doubt Saxum and its Willow Creek neighbors will continue to own the Grenache blend category just as one day Ballard Canyon might dominate the Syrah landscape.

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Stolpman and Saxum’s Estate Vineyard share a couple central themes in common. Both estates witnessed decades of tireless experimentation to find the best-suited varietals, clones, and vine spacing. And like Stolpman, the scars of tearing vines out and replanting are still fresh; despite a 10 year head start in Paso Robles.

A special thanks to Sustainable Vine Wine Tours & Justin @ Saxum – We’ll be sharing part 2 of our Paso Research trip soon!