Justin Smith Interview of Saxum Vineyards

Saxum Vineyards
What was your first memory of wine and how did you know you wanted to be a winemaker?

Wine was always around. I grew up helping my Dad make a barrel or two of wine from the grapes we were growing at James Berry Vineyard.  The first two wines that really blew me away, and sent me down the path of wanting to make world class wines, were a 1990 Jaboulet la Chapelle from Hermitage and a 1991 Grange from Australia, both syrahs.

Can you share more about the vineyard location and your grandfather and father’s role before you got involved? 

Our winery, Saxum, is located in the Willow Creek AVA of Paso Robles.  It’s only about 11 miles from the Pacific, in an area of Paso that is cooled by the ocean breezes and has a relatively high elevation of 1300 feet.  All the soils are ancient sea bed.

In 1980 my mom and dad bought the 50 acre property and planted grapes. They were grape growers, and sold all the fruit to wineries around California.  Soon after, my mom’s dad joined them and built his house on the property. He was a carpenter.  I later moved into the house he built with my wife Heather and added the winery in 2003.

As someone who has received over 38 scores of 95+ from Wine Spectator how does that make you feel as a winemaker?  What do you want to do next if something different down the road in addition to winemaking?

It is very gratifying!  We have planted some more acreage at James Berry Vineyard, including some whites, so that is our next endeavor.  Also, we recently purchased another property that we hope to plant in the next year or two.

Will we see you add another label to the Saxum family? If so, what varietals?

No new labels planned, just the white from JBV and the new vineyard designates when they become available.

As evident in your new winery where you have a chill lounge like living room with an extensive record collection, you adore not only wine, but music as well. How does music influence your winemaking style?

The cross over in music and wine is pretty crazy.  They go together so well!  The diversity you find in wine is like the diversity in music, there is always something to suit your mood.

When I visited your winery you shared with me that your beautiful artistic wine labels are made by a local artist Joe Kalionzes. Can you share more about his involvement and what the labels symbolize?

Joe is a great dude. Besides being our label artist, he’s a surfer, a world traveler, and a teacher at the school my kids attend. Check out his feed on Instagram @jkalionzes. We like to let him do what comes naturally when designing our labels and they are a great fit with our wines.  The hand crafted nature is paramount in both his artistry and our wines.


With all the spectacular scores you have received, the long wait list for your allocation wine, what is your philosophy on pricing? You mentioned your wines are all $98? Why have you not raised the prices with the high high demand?   Will you ever introduce a lower priced point wine (possibly another label) allowing more wine lovers to experience your wine since at the moment with the small production it’s very very hard to get.

I have held the price steady for a few years despite the high demand because I want to over deliver.  I love how often people say we are under priced!  We have plans for a producing more wine, but the increase will be slow as we wait for the new vineyards to come on line.

What is your favorite wine to drink?

That’s a tough one, like music, it all depends on what kind of mood I’m in.  I drink a lot of California blends, Chablis, Barolo, Champagne, and of course Rhone wines from France, both northern and southern.

What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your winemaking career?

Hmmmm, so far so good!  But there are plenty of lessons learned along the way.

Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?

I’d have to say my Dad.  He taught me to make wine, and to always strive to make things better than the year before.  Never rest and think you can’t do better in the upcoming vintage.

What is something you’d like to share about Paso Robles Wines that many consumers may not know if they’re not familiar with the region?

It is a vast region with many different styles of wine.  There is something for everybody, at every price point.  And it is beautiful here, with the rolling hills and the proximity to the ocean. Paso has also become a wonderful weekend destination. The downtown has great restaurants and bars, and it’s still relatively undiscovered. A complete contrast to Napa 😉

What are some characteristics in your wine that consumers will find that may be your “stamp” or “trademark”?

I like to make wines that are pleasurable, first and foremost.  It has to please the senses.

What is your favorite after work drink?

Beer or chablis!

What is your favorite local spot in Paso Robles?

It is hard to choose just one. Paso has a great old California feel downtown with the park square surrounded by cool shops and restaurants, all within walking distance.  We spend a lot of time enjoying lunch at Kitchenette in Templeton. There’s an area called Tin City which includes some great upstart wineries, a brewery, and a distillery, all awesome. When Paso heats up we like to pop over the hill and roam around the cool little beach town of Cayucos.

Tell us something that would surprise people about you?

I like to hunt wild boar and make sausage!

Saxum Vineyards

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