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JUSTIN – Lions, Triangles, and Goats, Oh My!

July 1, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 1 Comment

When I started A Long Pour I had a few goals. Learn about California wine, become famous, meet the Queen of England, and interview someone at JUSTIN. Now, only the Queen is left.

A big part of my obsession with wine came from the Paso Robles based JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery. Two wines sparked my current passion. The 2006 River Run Carignane from J.P. Pawloski and a Reserve JUSTIN Isosceles that a couple of complete strangers offered me a few years ago. My friends and I passed it around with glee totally immersed with its fruit forward goodness. It was quality we had never enjoyed. JUSTIN makes wines that are as opulent as they are sought after and I was instantly enamored. The shift from drinking $8.00 grocery store Merlot to something like JUSTIN is dramatic and I was determined to find more wines that gave my mouth such a happy feeling. Somewhere over the grocery store rainbow, good wine existed and I was on a mission to find it.

Late last year as I was planning ALP, I would cite and write lists of wineries I wanted to work with: Tablas Creek, Costa Brown, The Ojai Vineyard, Sine Qua Non, Barrel 27, and others. The list grew and changed, but JUSTIN always stayed in the top five.

In some ways, JUSTIN was my Wizard of Oz winery. A far off magical place I could only dream of, with a Wicked Witch of the West 101 and a Wicked Witch of the East 101 (if you know Paso you will understand the reference). A tasting trip to the region in February provided an opportunity to meet a few inhabitants of the wonderful Land of Oz and set the stage for a return. On a mild April morning, I returned to the Land of Oz. I was scheduled to meet with The Wizard himself, the omniscient Justin Baldwin, but a last minute business commitment came in the way. “Not nobody, not no how”, they told me at the front desk. “Oh but I must!” I sobbed. “Oh, I’ll never forgive myself! Never — never — never!” My copious tears moved the girl at the front desk so much  that she finally said “oh, please don’t cry any more. I’ll get you in to see Justin, somehow.”

After a tour of the winery, where a women actually asked “what about rubbing alcohol, is ‘rubbing’ a kind of grape?” I was invited to meet Justin at his Emerald Home (it is white) that overlooks the vineyard. “Oh, we’re almost there at last!” we said in delight. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Just like I knew it would be! He really must be a wonderful wizard to live in a house like that!” We traveled up the long curved driveway leading to his home, climbed the stairs and knocked. Fear gripped me. The door slowly opened.

“Come forward,” the voice boomed!

We took a few steps forward. My voice quivered as I began, “I came here for an interview Sir.”

“The beneficent Justin has every intention of granting your requests! …But first you must prove yourselves worthy by performing a very small task. Bring me the wine thief of the Witch of the West 101!” A fireball exploded before us.

“But Sir…”

“SILENCE! The great Justin has spoken!!!” More fireballs and what sounded like lightening thundered all around us!

After an 8-hour voyage and doing some terrible things to a group of flying monkeys that PETA would be very angry about, we returned. I held in my hand the Wicked Witch of the West 101′s wine thief. We knocked again and again the door opened. We were finally about to meet Justin…and his little dog too!

As in the movie, Justin turned out to be an incredibly gracious and kind man, not a scary Wizard. We spoke briefly and made arrangements to continue the conversation at a more convenient time. Last Friday, as I sat in my car on the side of the road in Santa Barbara I spoke with Justin who was in his office with his little dog Francois (an adorable Lhasa).

I had a misconception about Justin. I knew him and his wife Deborah came from the banking profession and I assumed that this is what financed JUSTIN and their beautiful home on the hill. I was wrong. I can be forgiven for making such an assumption since many all-star wineries were founded this way. Millionaires and Billionaires with an interest in wine have built grand wineries all over California and the World. “How do you make a small fortune in wine?” The joke goes… start with a large fortune. With athletes, tech giants, Twitter CEO’s, and celebrities launching wineries one after another, there are certainly many who buy their way into wine. This wasn’t the way for Justin.

Justin had another joke for me. “What’s the difference between a large cheese pizza and a winemaker?” he asked. “The pizza can feed a family of four.” What Justin has today, he has earned with much hard work, vine by vine.

How did you go from bank sheets to barrel samples?

“I was a banker for many of years. One of things I enjoyed a lot was meeting the different types of people in the different industries [and] I did a lot of entertaining. I did that in San Francisco, New York, I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in Bombay India, I lived in Hong Kong, all different parts of the world. Everywhere I went, food was part of what I was doing and so was wine. I learned early on that wine and food was something I was attracted to and I wanted to be involved with it.  I didn’t see the restaurant thing happening, but the wine side intrigued me. I watched Napa evolve, and Sonoma evolve and I always had that as something that at one stage in my life I would like to get more involved with. But I just literally could not afford it in those says so I filed it away… but it never left me, it was always there.”

Eventually, while living in Los Angeles, Justin made up his mind that he ‘was going to find a way to get into the business.” But, Justin didn’t want to break his first rule of wine: don’t quit your day job. This rule is what lead him to Paso, a relatively unknown wine region at the time. “Napa was just too far away from where I was working. I had some friends whose parents had retired in the area so I came and scouted it.”

Justin was attracted to the physical beauty of the region. It was also close enough to Los Angeles so that he could come up on the weekends and holidays, which he continued to do until moving there permanently in the late 80’s.

He was also attracted by the challenge of it, making wine where few had before. Paso Robles was still untamed. It was a “cowboy type atmosphere” he told me. “Everybody was great friends. We would share equipment as necessary, share stories, everything was shared. It was a very small community, only 8,000 people. Fine dining was the bowling alley; there wasn’t even a Motel 6 here.”

What do you think of the changes that have come to Paso Robles, including growing from a handful of wineries to well over 100 now?

“Well, first of all, there are over 200 wineries in Paso now. In terms of all the infrastructure? I couldn’t be happier about it. I have friends who say, “over my dead body we won’t make this another Napa.” And I say, “hey, if I could make this another Napa, sign me up!” I think a lot of those people are somewhat shortsighted and I am talking about my friends in the wine business. They don’t realize where their bread is buttered I guess. They don’t realize, and this is a compliment, what they have accomplished and how this area has grown in stature. People do want to come and see the area, but what’s holding them off is lack of an infrastructure. Unlike Napa or Sonoma, you can’t drive to San Francisco in an hour and be home. If you’re here you have to be here. I appreciate that growth, because it brings the kind of people who appreciate what we are doing.”

JUSTIN says they use sustainable practices where practical. What does “where practical” mean?

“Sustainable is a two sided sword. On one side there is this real honest desire to practice sustainability from an agronomical perspective. The other side of it is the marketing. To answer your question where practical, there are things you have to do to be certified that from a marketing perspective just aren’t practical.” Although 40% of their vineyards are bio-dynamic and soon all of them will be, there are certain projects that don’t make sense to take on at this time. Some of the end posts are covered in a chemical that prevents them from being certified organic. Justin doesn’t see replacing them all at this time practical. “As much as I would like to be 100% certified, I am not going to rip out all of my end posts just to satisfy a requirement.”

“Another example, we had a whole herd of about 50 goats running around out here for about 4 years. They kept getting out and going out on the roads. They started attracting mountain lions and all sort of crazy things. So one day I said, “that’s it.” I know you need to have this as part of your program, but from a practical standpoint it’s just not happening. There are practical limits.”

What is your favorite aspect of wine making?

“For me it’s really easy, the answer is marketing. I love to share my wine with other people and talk about the wine. This isn’t highway 29 on the Silverado Trail,” he pointed out, referencing the fact that Justin is in a rather isolated are. He enjoys seeing where his wines ends up, it gives him a connection to the entire process, “otherwise I am just sort of off here doing my own thing on top of the hill,” he says. “If I didn’t travel and I do a lot, I wouldn’t be fulfilled. So first I love the marketing.”

There is a common thread among winemakers. Whether they were a Professor or a hippie mountain biker, they all have tremendous ambition and moxie. In some ways you have to be nuts to make wine. It is expensive, it is hard, and nature can be unforgiving. Even with the risks and costs, something drives these men and women to, in some cases, abandon solid careers to chase the fermented grape. The rewards are certainly there for the patient. It took Tablas Creek 15 years to move from the red to the black, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who argued it wasn’t worth it. The same is certainly true for JUSTIN.

What Justin Baldwin and his wife Deborah have crafted in the foothills west of Paso is nothing short of an experience. After I mostly finished this story, I was trying to think of a way to sum up my thoughts on the winery. While a Wizard of Oz parody is fun, I don’t want to minimize the respect I have for Justin and what he is doing. “I love bloggers,” he told me. In the weeks we spent planning a time we both had free to talk, he was always enthusiastic about working with me. Here he is with one of the most respected wineries on the Central Coast and he is excited to talk to me! It is in this excitement that his story exists. He loves what he does. It is the reason he hires some of the most talented tasting and hospitality staff I have ever met. It is why they use sustainable practices and the most exacting of wine making standards. And it is why they invite people to stay at their Inn or dine in their restaurant. They love what they do and they want you to love it too.

As for Justin Baldwin, he is proud of what they have accomplished at JUSTIN and where they accomplished it. While some dream of estates in Napa or Bordeaux, it is Paso that holds his heart.

After all, there’s no place like home; there’s no place like home; there’s no place like home…

JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery

1168 Chimney Rock Road

Paso Robles, CA. 93446

805.238.6932

It is scary to me that I actually look somewhat like the poorly done Microsoft Paint edit I did of Dorothy.

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