Food & Drink

Justin Winery's sale lifts esteem of San Luis Obispo County wine region

Justin Vineyards & Winery, one of the oldest and best-known wineries in San Luis Obispo County, has been sold to Roll International Corp., owner of FIJI Water, for an undisclosed sum.

It’s the latest large local winery to be sold to outside interests in the past two years — recognition that the area is increasingly known as a great wine region, two local industry observers said.

Deborah and Justin Baldwin, who founded the winery in 1981, will continue to oversee operations and live in their home on the 160-acre site in west Paso Robles.

“This deal was for the kids,” Justin Baldwin said. Although the Baldwins have been regularly approached to sell in the past, he added, now was the right time to do so for their two children and estate-planning purposes. Justin Baldwin and his wife, Deborah, who are healthy and cancer-free after being diagnosed with different forms of the disease in October 2003, said they’re looking toward the future.

“We want to enjoy our lives,’’ Deborah Baldwin said. “Running a business is a lot of work. The last time we took a vacation together that didn’t involve wine was, well, I don’t know. That’s how long it’s been.”

All the assets of the business were sold, Justin Baldwin said.

That includes 82 acres of award-winning wine grapes, the Justin winery, tasting room, restaurant and bed-and-breakfast on the Paso Robles property.

John Cochran, president and chief executive officer of FIJI Water, said the bottled-water company plans to continue to build Justin’s brand and reputation.

“The knowledge of the winery coupled with FIJI’s global sales force is an excellent combination that I’m sure will allow both brands to grow,” he said.

Cochran said Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick, who owns Roll International Inc., FIJI Water, POM Wonderful and other businesses, was interested in purchasing Justin because he has always had an interest in owning a winery and the Baldwins have worked to build a world-class operation with a superb reputation.

“The Baldwins have taken responsibility for every part of the business from day one, and we want to continue to work with them for as long as they would like, which we hope will be a long time,” Cochran said.

He said the 155-member sales team at FIJI Water has joined forces with the “small but capable” team at the winery and will continue to build the brand and reputation Justin has created.

In 2009, Justin Vineyards & Winery produced more than 50,000 cases of wine ranging in price from $15 for a bottle of sauvignon blanc to $62 for a bottle of its flagship wine, Isosceles.

Last year’s harvest was its best ever, surpassing the previous year’s high, Justin Baldwin said. In 2009, Justin cabernet sauvignon was named the 9th most poured wine in the country by Wine and Spirits magazine.

The winery continues to win numerous awards and accolades. It also has one of the largest wine club memberships in the country with 13,000 members, Justin Baldwin said.

Industry experts say the sale helps put the Central Coast on the map as a premier place to grow grapes and produce world-class wines.

“I think it’s exciting that a brand as large and powerful as Roll International has an interest in the area,” said Stacie Jacob, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “With the marketing and financial backing that the company has, it will shine a light on the Paso Robles area and all that it has to offer.”

Fin du Fresne, winemaker at Chamisal Vineyards in Edna Valley, was not surprised to hear about Justin’s sale to FIJI Water.

More and more wineries are selling to outside companies, he said, adding, “I think it’s a good thing.”

“For a long time there hasn’t been a lot of interest from companies outside the area,” du Fresne said. “It’s a great indication that the area is getting recognized as the great wine country that it is.”However, the winemaker was quick to add that he’s always a little suspect of any new company that comes into the area.

“On a local level, there’s always a hesitation that they’ll come in and start mass production and sell Justin for $9.99 a case,” du Fresne said.

In 2008, Chamisal Vineyards was sold to Crimson Wine Group, based in the Napa Valley. Since then, more Central Coast wineries have followed suit by selling to outside companies.

Last month, EOS Estate Winery in Paso Robles, one of the county’s biggest wineries, was purchased by Bill Foley, owner and operator of Foley Family Wines.

Foley Family Wines owns several other wineries, including Foley Estates of Santa Rita Hills; Lincourt Vineyards and Firestone Vineyard of Santa Ynez Valley; Merus and Kuleto of Napa Valley; Chalk Hill and Sebastiani of Sonoma County; and Vavasour and Clifford Bay of Marlborough, New Zealand.

The Baldwins said very few things will change at Justin.

“Everything from the outside will be the same. Our people and our products will remain unchanged,” Justin Baldwin said. “We will continue to create and produce the same great wines that we always have.”