Apples to Grapes

The Judd family turns to wine after 150 years of farming



Taylor Sherrill

Shandon may be most well known as the site where James Dean died in 1955, but James Judd (the “& Son” in James Judd & Son Vineyards) expects it to help put his wine on the map.

In the late 1990s, while Judd was in law school in New Hampshire, his father convinced him to grow grapes on land he owned in Shandon, about 18 miles east of Paso Robles. “We come from a long line of farmers,” says Judd, who owns a home in Palm Desert. “We’ve been farming in the U.S. since the mid-1800s.” When he was 10 years old, his father bought land in San Miguel — eight miles north of Paso Robles — to grow granny smith apples and raise cattle. He also grew pears, cherries, and pomegranates. Then surrounding farms planted wine grapes.

“People kept trying to buy the farm,” Judd says. “Someone said, ‘This spot is the very best spot on the Central Coast for cabernet.’ We were among the last people in San Miguel to convert to grapes.”

Thus began the family’s wine business. Judd later bought more vineyard land — in Shandon, about 20 miles east of Paso Robles. After he passed the bar, his father “didn’t want to deal with [the business] anymore.” So Judd came to California and took it over. (Though he doesn’t practice law, he maintains his license.)

For years, the Judds sold cabernet sauvignon grapes to other wineries. The first vintage under their own label (750 cases) is 2002. “I didn’t have any idea if people would buy it,” Judd says. “We sold it all within the first year.” Only 100 cases remain from 950 cases of the 2003 vintage.

Judd recently bought a home in San Francisco and plans to open a midcentury modern tasting room in San Miguel. “I am heavily influenced by Palm Springs,” he says. “I am going to have something designed that is architecturally interesting and blends with the landscape.”

As for grapes, Judd has added tempranillo, malbec, petite verdot, barbera, zinfandel, petite syrah, and merlot. At the end of 2006, he released a malbec-petite verdot blend. He plans to bottle the barbera in March and then the tempranillo. Additionally, he is introducing a lower-priced cabernet sauvignon blend called El Gigante Rojo (The Red Giant).

One of the elements that distinguishes the Judd cabernet sauvignon is its aging in a combination of Hungarian, French, and American oak. “The idea was to put it in all three and decide which is best,” Judd explains. “As it turned out, it’s a distinctly different taste that comes from the different barrels. [The combination] comes out perfect.”

He also attributes the success to the soil. “I think the secret is 20 years of cow shit,” he says, laughing. “But that doesn’t read very well on the label.”

Like other Paso Robles area wine-makers, Judd likes the sense of community there. Noting that several sources have told him Barbra Streisand and James Brolin own land in Shandon (Brolin’s son, Josh, and his wife, Diane Lane, have a spread in Paso Robles), Judd looks forward to an encounter with his rumored neighbor. “I’m waiting for her to pull up in a pickup some morning and ask to borrow my tractor to pull her cow out of a ditch.”

James Judd & Son wines are available at Desert Discount Wines, Jensen’s Finest Foods, Larry’s Wine & Spirits, P.S. Wine, Palm Springs Wine & Art, and Vino 100, as well as Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Wally’s Desert Turtle.

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