I asked Justin Baldwin what message he would deliver later this month at an awards dinner in New York honoring Justin Vineyards & Winery as Wine Enthusiast magazine’s American Winery of the Year. “Wow” was the first word that came to mind.
He recalled that when he started the operation 35 years ago, it was at a dead-end road on scenic, steep slopes far west of downtown Paso Robles. The nearest neighbor was 2 miles away and there were only five other wineries in Paso.
“And if I, in my wildest dreams, thought that 35 years later that I would be honored with a designation of a winery of the year, I would have never believed it,” he said. “So wow is very much the term here.”
I reached him by phone in Phoenix, where he was on the road as brand ambassador for Justin. He sold the business in 2010 to the Resnick family, owners of Fiji Water and California citrus and nut orchards. He said he is humbled, excited and pleased for the 35 years of work he and many others devoted to getting Justin where it is today. Company officers and members of the winemaking team will be with him to accept the award on Jan. 25.
The accolade comes two years after Wine Enthusiast named Paso Robles the Wine Region of the Year. Baldwin said there is no doubt the latest recognition will further benefit the entire appellation.
Justin is best known for its iconic Isosceles wine, a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. In 2000, Wine Spectator magazine ranked Justin’s 1997 Isosceles as the sixth best wine in the world in a list of the top 100, and the wine has continued to draw high scores from critics.
Other top-priced wines are blends Justification and Savant, also made with artisanal practices from the best estate grapes. Justin’s higher volume cabernet sauvignon, retailing for $26 a bottle, is No. 1 or No. 2 in cabernet sales above $20 a bottle in almost every state, Baldwin said.
Wine Enthusiast recognized Justin not only for its wines, but its status as a tourist magnet with a restaurant and the Just Inn Suites — three units of luxury lodging on the property.
Wine caves, an ideal environment for barrel aging, were completed in 2003 and are used for special events.
Justin Baldwin was an investment banker based in Los Angeles when he bought 160 acres for a vineyard and winery in 1981. He kept his day job while over seven years he drove tractors, planted vines, made wines and allowed them to mature. He drew upon an undergraduate minor in chemistry as well as reading books, working with consultants and, most important, from travels in Europe where he explored many different wines and came to prefer Bordeauxs.
As the enterprise matured with a vineyard and cellar team, he dialed back his winemaking activities and devoted more time to marketing. He continues to take part in blending signature wines.
The business had been successful for many years when he decided to sell to the Resnick family. He said the wine industry had become so competitive — with 11,000 wineries in North America and almost half the wine sold in the U.S. imported — that it would take an aggressive capital investment to maintain the placements and recognition Justin had in the marketplace.
That would take time to achieve on his own, “and the rest of the world wasn’t waiting for us to do those things,” Baldwin said.
The deal gave Justin access to the vast marketing resources of Fiji and the agribusiness expertise of the Resnicks. The new owners have acquired vineyards in Paso Robles, expanding the planted acreage from 120 to 960. The aim is to further focus on quality rather than ramp up production, Baldwin said. The winery produced about 150,000 cases last year. Before the vineyard acquisitions, Justin bought the majority of its fruit — all from Paso sources. Now the majority is from owned vineyards and there can be more precise viticultural control.
The tasting room has been remodeled to serve more visitors and open striking views of adjacent vineyards. A facility on Wisteria Lane in Paso Robles was expanded to add more storage, a bottling line and fermenting equipment. The winery previously had storage facilities scattered around Paso and they are now under one roof.
Baldwin said the award continues the recognition Paso Robles has earned for itself. He said producers have been able to deliver superb quality at a much more value level compared to Northern California wineries, primarily because of lower land costs.
He values the cooperative spirit among vintners.
“That’s one of the reasons that I love Paso Robles so much and the appellation — that we’re all in this together,” he said.
• Contact Tom Bronzini at [email protected]