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Saxum and Failla: a tale of two pricing strategies


I feel a sense of personal affinity for Justin Smith, the founder/winemaker of Saxum Vineyards, and for Ehren Jordan, the founder/winemaker of Failla Wines.

When I wrote my first book [2005], A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Ehren kindly was one of my chief sources of information about the Fort Ross-Seaview area (now an official AVA) of the Far Sonoma Coast. I’ve been tasting his wines since the 2006 vintage, before he and Failla were well-known, and loving them from the get-go: of more than 50 I’ve reviewed, I gave less than 90 points to only two of them. Ehren, of course, is very famous now, having received all sort of awards and honors from wine writers, and he is very generous in sending me all of his new releases every year for review, which isn’t something he does for many writers.

Justin Smith, on the other hand, has a full chapter in my 2008 book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. I’d been reviewing his wines since the 2002 vintage, and very early on recognized their greatness, so when I wrote the book, I knew Justin had to be in it. Since then, Justin, like Ehren Jordan, has become famous, and Saxum is one of the top wines in terms of prestige, if not the top wine, from Paso Robles. Justin sometimes sends me his wines, if I beg him pretty-please, but not always: he prefers to have reviewers visit and taste with him, a la Screaming Eagle or Alban, which I completely understand.

When I began reviewing both Saxum’s and Failla’s wines, they were priced more or less in the $30s and $40s, not cheap, but not really expensive. Today, that’s completely shifted. Ehren, at Failla, is well known for being reluctant to take price increases, despite his fame and the accolades the wines get: his fantastic 2010 Hirsch Vineyard Pinot Noir is “only” $65, while his 2010 Estate Chardonnay, which I scored at 99 points, costs $44. Those are bargains for what you get.

Justin, on the other hand, has chosen another route. I don’t know what the suggested retail prices are for his current releases, because his website doesn’t say. But various online shopping sites, like this one, and here, show them generally in the low triple digits, more than most cult Pinot Noirs, but considerably less than the top Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons. [EDITOR’S NOTE: A reader subsequently notified me that the 2010 Saxums are $89 from the mailing list, still considerably higher than Failla.]

The similarities between Justin and Ehren are strong. Both are young, personable guys who had a vision and made it come true despite considerable challenges: Justin was in Paso Robles, an area generally considered too hot and a bit of a backwater (although that’s fast changing). Also, Justin decided to specialize in Rhône-style wines, which have never been in high favor, especially among connoisseurs. Ehren’s challenges were in his selection of a site for his estate vineyard: an almost inacccessible stretch of the Sonoma Coast that, when he began his project, did not have the cachet it does now. And Ehren wasn’t known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; he was the winemaker at Turley, where Zinfandel and Petite Sirah ruled. Neither Ehren nor Justin started with a big wad of money: they both put plenty of sweat equity in.

Both men were “discovered” early on by people like me, and both went on to the well-deserved success they enjoy today. Where they differ, obviously, is in their pricing strategies. I wouldn’t blame Ehren if he raised his prices: I think buyers would gladly go along. Well, maybe not gladly, but they would. Nor do I blame Justin for raising his: he believed in himself and in his wines, he figured the market would bear the price, and he was right.

Perhaps Ehren feels that hedging his pricing will protect him from future economic swings in the market and, in the long run, ensure Failla’s continuity. Perhaps Justin feels he might as well take advantage of the opportunity Saxum’s fame brings him right now. I personally can’t say one strategy is better than the other. I just know that both of these guys are making astonishingly good wines. I also know that, while Justin proves that you often have to dig deep for great wine, Ehren is showing that world-class wine can be had at less than stratospheric prices.

  1. James Vineyard says:

    For what it is worth, the Saxum wines were all $89/750ml off the list as of the most recent release (2010 Vintage).

  2. Great wines no doubt!

  3. Patrick Frank says:

    I hope that both producers use some of their proceeds to fund health care for their workers. Especially in the case of Saxum.

  4. Christopher says:

    James, the Saxum wines were listed for $89, but if you are not on their list, that is a lot less than you’ll be paying for them anywhere else. Try to find them in a wine shop or online and you will usually pay over $100.

  5. While I have never been to Saxum, I include Failla on every trip I make to Napa. Yes, the wines are fabulous–some of my all time favorites. That is not the (only) reason I return, however. I feel that above most others, Failla is committed to providing a fantastic experience for their visitors, no matter how much wine you buy. You sit down in a living room and have an intimate conversation while sampling their wines. Above all else, I think what sets Failla apart is the philosophy they embrace and the people they employ.

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