The February issue of a respected wine industry trade publication gives only one of the world's wines both a rarefied 98 score and the top spot in the "highly recommended" section.
Near perfection came from Saxum - a well regarded but obscure winery in Paso Robles, a one-time California cow town becoming a superior wine-producing region known by few nonaficionados outside the state.
Located on California's Central Coast, the Paso Robles viticultural area's consistent quality and relatively moderate land prices have combined for phenomenal growth.
In less than 20 years, the number of wineries has grown from 30 to 250 and counting, plus at least 600 hopefuls making boutique bottles at custom crush co-ops to hawk at restaurants and local wine bars.
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Most are family operations that make fewer than 5,000 cases a year, which make them impossible for distributors seeking consistent availability to market nationally. Saxum bottles fewer than 3,000 cases, and its wine club has a wait list. (The winery's 2007 James Berryhill that earned Wine Spectator's 98 - and 100 from Parker in October - sells for $67, compared with $375 for a French 98 in the same issue.)
Hugging the coast midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the 666,618 acres of the Paso Robles Viticulture Area is California's largest - three times the size of Napa. It makes up just more than half of the Central Coast wine region that stretches 250 miles from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.
Grapes have grown there since the Mission padres settled in the late 1700s. In the 1980s, the flat and sprawling east side became home to large commercial wineries such as Eberle and Meridian and later Gallo, Robert Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson farming 25,000 acres. But the cooler west side, where 5,000 acres are planted across hilly terrain, is where winemakers are scoring with critics.
With a production of 70,000 cases, Justin Vineyards & Winery has tallied international accolades and become the region's vaunted behemoth and image maker: Its 1994 Isosceles, the iconic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, was named Best Blended Wine in the World at the London International Wine & Spirit Competition. Wine Spectator named its 1997 Isosceles No. 6 in the world.
There is a wait for Isosceles reserve, but prices range from just more than $60 for Isosceles to $18.50 for the winery's screw-top "Orphan" blend of leftover juices from the hand-harvested single vintages.
Justin draws 40,000 visitors a year, many of whom meander the wine trails to discover a new favorite or obscure winemaker. Some are not obscure: Miss America 1957 Marian McKnight owns Carmody McKnight with her husband. Former NFL defensive back Terry Hoage produces 2,100 cases of Rhone-inspired wines nearby.
Paso Robles has half as many wineries as Napa, but like Napa its climate includes coastal breezes and stifling inland valley heat. The wine boom and influx of oenophiles have transformed downtown Paso from an agricultural town of 18,000 in 1990 to a bustling tourist magnet of 30,000 with a lineup of sophisticated restaurants lacking in other cities its size.
Most hand-craft their wines with small staffs, so odds are tasting-room visitors will be served by the owner/winemaker.