Did you know Justin Cabernet is good for your heart, cuts the risk of colon cancer, and helps you live longer?
You might soon. Stewart and Lynda Resnick, Justin Vineyards' owners since 2010, are some of the world's savviest marketers of agricultural products.
They made POM Wonderful seem like such an, er, wonderful health-food product that the FDA issued a cease-and-desist order for their advertising. And wine is an even healthier drink!
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The Resnicks also built Fiji Water into a major brand, and now they're using Stephen Colbert to hawk pistachios, of which they are the largest producer outside Iran. We won't even talk about the Princess Diana dolls they sold when they owned the collectibles company, The Franklin Mint.
So it's no wonder that Justin has a new, streamlined bottle design that keeps its iconic triangle logo, in a dignified color scheme more befitting a $60 wine. Marketing matters.
As for the wine, that's now made by Scott Shirley, previously winemaker at the Hess Collection and Napa, and before that enologist at Opus One.
"I trained my palate at Opus One, sitting and tasting with Tim Mondavi and Patrick Léon," Shirley said. "It was a great way to break into the wine industry, actually to have a vote. That's where I learned the artistry of making a Bordeaux blend."
Winery founder Justin Baldwin was an early believer in growing Bordeaux varieties in Paso Robles. The trend was out of favor about a decade ago, as many believe Paso's hot climate is more suited to Rhône grapes, but it's popular again as wineries there realize Cabernet is easier to sell.
Augustus Miller, wine director at Charlie Palmer restaurant in Costa Mesa, says Justin Cabernet is a longtime hit.
"The general public, when they order Cabernet, they tend to gravitate to fuller-bodied wines," Miller says. "The Justins are very full-bodied Cabernets. I think that's an assumption when they purchase Justin. They're delicious wines."
Baldwin liked Château Margaux so he initially planted his vineyard to mirror the percentages of varieties planted there: about 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc.
"He quickly learned the area is too hot for good Merlot," Shirley said.
Baldwin was an investment banker before planting the 65-acre estate vineyard in 1981 and making his first wine in 1987. According to Shirley, he wanted to sell because he realized he didn't have the money to fulfill his wine ambitions.
"He was buying grapes from around the estate," Shirley said. "But he wanted to control the planting."
The Resnicks not only bought the winery, they bought some of the surrounding vineyards. They have more than doubled production to 120,000 cases, but they have far more estate vineyard land, with 300 acres planted on the cooler west side of Paso Robles and another 300 acres on the hotter east side.
"When I came down to visit, I saw the planting going on," Shirley said. "That convinced me to move here. Justin was always committed to quality, and the Resnicks were willing to invest to improve quality."
The winery's flagship is still its Isosceles Bordeaux blend and the 2011, from a cooler year, has a fine balance of ripe California fruit with the characteristic fresh herbs of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
The 2011 Justin Justification, a blend of 59 percent Cabernet Franc and 41 percent Merlot, is even better: aromatic and pretty, with the kind of elegance you don't see often enough from Paso Robles.
The expansion of production has meant the winery now makes much more Syrah than before, as the grape does well in Paso Robles. However, while Baldwin made a Chardonnay as his primary white wine, the Resnicks have shifted the focus to Sauvignon Blanc, because they also own a Chardonnay specialist, Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma County.
Interestingly, Justin Sauvignon Blanc is labeled as Central Coast even though all of the fruit is purchased in Paso Robles.
"Our marketing team thought they want Paso Robles to be perceived as right for Bordeaux red varieties," Shirley said. " 'Central Coast' may seem cooler."
I had the opportunity to taste two older vintages of Isosceles at the outstanding onsite restaurant. How outstanding? We sampled them with Parker House rolls with a kind of "butter" made from Kobe beef fat - basically Kobe beef lardo. Not exactly health food, but that's what heart-healthy red wine is for.
These are big, bold wines, and they're not getting any less fruit-forward under the new regime. "I'm looking for physiological ripeness," Shirley says. "Every picking decision is based on taste."
The interesting upshot, according to Justin winery sommelier Jim Gerakaris, is that Isosceles ages at an accelerated rate. "You get in five years what you'd get in 10 or 15 in Napa," Gerakaris said.
That was my experience: the 2005 Isosceles seems to be at its peak right now, with tannins in fine harmony with the dark cherry fruit. The 2001 Isosceles, on the other hand, while not ready for the nursing home quite yet, is definitely approaching retirement age.
Baldwin now spends more of his time in his 10,000-square foot house in Palm Desert with his art collection, but he still does some winery events, and Shirley still invites him to some final blending trials.
"When I told him this (2011 Justification) blend had 42 percent Merlot, he said Justification has never had that much Merlot," Shirley said. But the taste itself is the justification.