April 1, 2022 – At first glance, it may seem incongruous that in 1981, Justin Baldwin, a highly successful investment banker at the time, would purchase 160 acres of undeveloped land along California’s Central Coast to plant a vineyard 10 miles east of San Simeon on the back side of the mountain where William Randolph Hearst built his opulent castle. But the purchase was as congruent as an isosceles triangle.
Through his job in international banking and as a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA), Justin traveled and lived in cities around the world, including London and Hong Kong. He found himself frequently exploring vineyards and wineries in his spare time, an avocation that enhanced his vocation. “In the banking world, I found I had one tool in particular that greatly endured me to the wine world and that was a great expense account. I did a lot of entertaining,” Justin said to Chaîne during a March 11 telephone interview.
While living in London for three years, he spent many weekends across the English Channel visiting vineyards and wineries in Western Europe. “It saturated my palate and my mind with the wine world. I had in the back of my head that at some point in my life, I wanted to at least try my hand at making wine,” he said.
That point came in 1981 when his career had him based in Los Angeles. As a California native born and raised in San Francisco, the logical place to try his hand at becoming a part-time vintner was Northern California where about 40 wineries had opened in Napa Valley. It was the dawn of the American wine industry and the Napa/Sonoma region was its epicenter. He looked at buying an existing winery but on two occasions decided against it. Reality set in. Working in Los Angeles, driving back and forth from Napa in one day was not feasible. He began looking along the Central Coast about 300 miles south of Napa.
In the early 1980s, there were less than 200 wineries nationwide, Justin explained. Today there are 15,000 and every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, has at least three wineries. In 1981 in Paso Robles, there were four wineries. As Justin studied the pros and cons of purchasing 160 acres of land, located halfway between the Hearst Castle and the town of Paso Robles with a 4,000-foot mountain in between, the land checked a lot of boxes in the pros column.
It was a three-hour drive to LA; the soil was calciferous limestone similar to soil in France’s famous Bordeaux wine region; the area had a good differential between daytime high temperatures and nighttime low temperatures; and it was in the middle of nowhere. That last factor had an appeal to his adventurous and pioneering spirit. Finally, as a bachelor in his early 30s, the timing for a deep dive into farming and winemaking was perfect. He bought the 160 acre “piece of dirt.”
“I wanted to do something different. I wanted to be the new kid on the block and not just rubber stamp what someone had done next to me that previously someone had done next to them,” Justin said.
With his new piece of dirt, he quickly got his hands dirty. He hired one worker who helped him plant 160 acres of vines by hand. They each took one side of a 200-foot rope with knots every seven feet. After eyeballing a straight line, they placed a plastic knife in the ground by each knot where the vines were planted. Row by row, vine by vine, the piece of dirt became JUSTIN Vineyards followed by its first JUSTIN Winery release in 1984.
“We’re still getting grapes from those vines 40 years later,” Justin added.
A lot of people thought Justin was crazy as he balanced a high stakes financial career with a burgeoning career as a vintner. But the two did overlap. He brought a financial discipline to his new business so that he always had one eye on the grapes and the wine and one eye on the bottom line. He said he instituted strict financial protocols to which he held himself and his staff. It was a crucial step to minimize the inherent risk in all new businesses. Because of those protocols, the business was able to get through some tough times.
“The winery has been successful because I applied financial metrics to an agrarian industry,” he said.
But how did he learn to be a farmer and a vintner?
He sought advice from consultants, read a lot of books, and leveraged his global experiences to operate. Justin recalls people asking him in the first few years how he knew when to pick his grapes if he never had a winemaking course. Justin replied, “Easy – Saturday” because that was the only day he had free.
The quality of fruit from vines grown in limestone-rich soil on hillside vineyards produces top quality grapes year after year. Limestone is the backbone of vineyards in Western Europe and is unique to California’s Central Coast. Justin said limestone does three things. Those are: 1) adds flavor, particularly to white wines because of its chalky minerality, 2) binds nutrients because of its alkalinity, which forces vines to stretch its roots to seek nutrients and moisture, allowing the vines to pick up flavor nuances, and most importantly, 3) acts like a sponge absorbing moisture and nutrients.
Average rainfall in Paso Robles is about 35-40 inches but since California’s drought began in 2011, average rainfall has been down to eight to 15 inches. However, 2017 was an exception when 52 inches of rain fell. Justin said they had a bountiful harvest that year because the rain had a curative, restorative effect on the vines. They had the luxury to pick and choose the best grapes for their dozen different varietals.
Founded to specialize in Bordeaux-style Blends, in 1987, JUSTIN introduced ISOSCELES, a blend of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon plus Cabernet Franc and Merlot that was styled after First Growth producers of Bordeaux. It evolved quickly into JUSTIN’s flagship premium wine and is their quality benchmark. Today JUSTIN also produces the top selling premium Cabernet Sauvignon in the country, if not the world, Justin said.
By 1990, JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery was performing well enough that Justin became a full time vintner after leaving his financial career in stages throughout the 1980s. In the early 1990s when Robert Parker, the famous wine critic whose reviews could instantaneously move sales up or down, named Justin Baldwin as one of his 10 wine stars of the year, the nascent winemaker and winery had arrived. By the end of the 1990s, Justin relinquished his winemaking tasks to a stellar team of vintners but remains involved in creating the blends for the now 41-year-old winery.
“A lot of things have changed in the 40 plus years since I started but my passion and interest in wine has not abated at all during that time,” Justin said.
JUSTIN now produces more than 100,000 cases of wine annually, sourced mainly from its 1,300 plus acres of vineyards. The original site has expanded to include the eponymous JUST Inn, a hotel; The Restaurant at JUSTIN, led by Chef Rachel Haggstrom, that was nominated for a Michelin star in 2021; and a wine tour that allows visitors to view their 25,000 square foot underground wine cave and ISOSCELES Library. JUSTIN also opened a tasting room in downtown Paso Robles. In addition, patterned after the London Times Wine Society (now called The Wine Society) that was founded in 1874, Justin began the JUSTIN Wine Society, their wine club which enjoys more than 20,000 members and is one of the top five wine clubs in the country.
“We may be 15 miles down at the end of a dead end road but we seat 500 people for lunch,” Justin proudly stated.
Challenges Past, Present and Future
JUSTIN wines have been so popular that before the pandemic, most of their production was sold to domestic and international restaurants, and to their Wine Society members. When the pandemic hit and restaurants closed, they stepped up selling to retail outlets and directly to consumers. Justin notes that grocery stores were particularly innovative in selling meals to go that included wine. During those trying times JUSTIN experienced a significant surge in online sales from individual consumers.
While their on site venues were closed for three months at the pandemic’s peak, they kept all of their employees working. “We had our best year ever the year before last,” Justin said. With restaurants opening back up and new customers who have discovered their wine, the winery has a good problem to solve. “We still can’t keep up with demand. It’s crazy.”
During the pandemic, Justin hosted hundreds of virtual wine dinners and tastings, expanding his ambassadorial role to the virtual environment. A few months ago he appeared simultaneously to more than one thousand attendees at three movie theaters in Naples, Tampa and Palm Beach. Wine lovers can also meet Justin on demand through his CRUSH IT WITH JUSTIN brief, online tutorials with topics ranging from how to decant wine to food pairings and even how to set a table.
Living and breathing the wine industry for the past 41 years and most importantly, learning the business literally from the ground up gives Justin a unique perspective and voice on the future of wineries and the wine industry. He has cause for concern.
Again referencing metrics, Justin explains that according to Silicon Valley Bank State of the U.S. Wine Industry reports, the gold standard in the industry, there has been an alarming decrease in wine consumption in the $20 or less per bottle category but an increase in premium wine sales over $20 per bottle.
A survey imparts clarity to those statistics. Different generations were asked what they would bring to a dinner party. The only generation who said they would bring a bottle of wine was the 60 years and older category. Those in their 50s would bring alcohol or spirits and younger generations answered hard cider or sparkling seltzers.
The decline is a global trend. Justin said Western Europeans are drinking 50% less wine per capita now than they did 10 years ago. But they are still harvesting the same acreage of grapes and producing the same amount of wine. Their prime market for excess inventory is the United States, which for only the past seven years has been the top wine market in the world.
“So not only does a winery in America have 15,000 domestic competitors, it has the rest of the world beating a path to its door trying to sell its wine,” Justin observed. “It’s great news for restaurateurs. It’s great news for consumers but there will be a meeting of the minds, a reality check moment here in the next five to 10 years that our industry will have to deal with.”
Justin suggests an industry-wide sales campaign to rival the advertising force of the beer, spirits and sparkling seltzer market to encourage people 50 years and under to try wine. “I did my part. Both of my children are wine drinkers,” Justin added with a chuckle.
As a long time Chaîne member and the Central Coast Bailli in the late 1990s who dramatically increased membership, Justin worries about this trend and its impact on Chaîne membership. “The more we are able to speak to the younger generation, the better we are,” he said.
There is good news. Many Bailliages share the same concern and are actively broadening their base. At a recent event held by Chaîne’s Toledo Bailliage, more than 40 members attended the dinner at which they were given a choice to pair courses with either wine or cocktails.
An important part of the wine experience is taking time to appreciate the label. JUSTIN’s ISOSCELES wine label graphically speaks to Justin’s success. With three triangles connected to create a beautiful rectangle, Justin’s career mirrors the art and science of that design. Equal parts of financial expertise and learning by doing, with Mother Nature as his silent partner in the vineyards, seamlessly bonded with his passion for wine and food to create one of the top domestic and international wineries. Buying that piece of dirt made all the sense in the world.
Note: For Chaîne members interested in tours of JUSTIN Winery (link below), Justin said some tour guides are Chaîne members and special tours/tastings for members can be arranged.
JUSTIN Vineyards and Winery
JUSTIN Wine Society
The Restaurant at JUSTIN