When winemaker Scott Shirley says, "I think this is the appellation for luxury and ultra-premium cabernet sauvignon in the United States," it really means something that he's referring to Paso Robles. Sure, he's been the winemaker at JUSTIN Winery since 2012, so you might think he has to say it. But given he moved to Paso to take the JUSTIN job, leaving Napa Valley after working at both the Hess Collection and Opus One, that claim bears a lot of weight.
Shirley is far from alone in his belief, of course. JUSTIN's signature blend Isosceles, named for its three varietals -- cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc -- has been lauded as a top ten wine of the year by the magazine Wine Spectator, and the 1994 vintage won the Pichon Lalande trophy for Best Red Blend at the London International Wine & Spirits Competition. (Europe paid attention to Paso Robles. Think about that for a minute.)
Now JUSTIN has been tabbed by Wine Enthusiast as a nominee for its 2015 Wine Star Award for American Winery of the Year. "Of course it's a great honor," Shirley says about the nomination. "Justin Baldwin [founder of the winery] has invested close to 35 years in promoting Paso Robles as an appellation for Bordeaux varietals." Shirley also pointed to the purchase of the property by Stewart Resnick of Fiji Water in 2010 as yet another step, fueled by new capital, to lead to improvement.
But it was a walk through new vineyard sites that sold Shirley on JUSTIN. "Just kind of kicking rocks in the vineyard sold me on Paso," he recalls. "The area has all the right conditions to grow cabernet sauvignon," and the chance to be part of this new stage from the beginning was too good for him to pass up.
The two most crucial elements that make Paso prime cab country are the temperature shifts and the soil. "It's not rare for us to have a week of daily highs over 100," he points out. "But since we are close to the ocean, starting at 4:30 or 5 pm a wind comes in and overnight the temperature drops to the 50s. That's perfect for the vines to recover but the heat ripens the fruit." As for the soils, Shirley says with a laugh, "Limestone is good in Bordeaux and it's fine here too."
He admits "it's a big responsibility" to be in charge of an established, award-winning flagship like Isosceles. When he took the job he tasted older vintages and "made sure it was a style I could get behind - we call it a New World appellation with Old World techniques." All the fruit is handpicked, for example, and JUSTIN's wines are aged in small oak barrels.
That doesn't mean Shirley hasn't looked for the opportunity to make small improvements, or, of course, listen to what a particular vintage tells him. For example 2011 was a very cool vintage, so he opted to put "more merlot in the blend as it ripens earlier than cab, and gets ripe with less heat," he relates. "Then while Isosceles normally ages 24 months in new French oak, I shortened that time to 21 months so the oak didn't overpower the more delicate wine. I was very pleased with the results."
Based on the kudos JUSTIN keeps landing, most people agree with him.