“Art is a matter strictly of experience, not of principles,” the late critic Clement Greenberg and champion of Abstract Expressionism once declared. “And what counts first and last in art is quality; all other things are secondary.”
Justin Baldwin not only appreciates this idea, but also lives it. The namesake of Justin Vineyards & Winery near Paso Robles exercises his eye as he grows a collection of second-generation Abstract Expressionist paintings — works by artists who created after Hans Hofmann, Willem De Kooning, and Jackson Pollock — at his Bighorn Golf Club home in Palm Desert.
Baldwin, an investment banker for 15 years prior to leaving the field to tend to his 160 acres of estate vineyards on California’s Central Coast, began collecting with a sharp focus on early California Impressionism. With a home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, he sought canvases by artists who worked at the turn of the 20th century on the Monterey Peninsula, including Charles Rollo Peters, known for tonalist landscapes, and Armin Hansen, who painted thundering depictions of fisherman battling the elements of the sea, a part of local lore that John Steinbeck immortalized in the novel Cannery Row, which became the name of the former sardine canning district now popular with tourists.
While monumental-scale AbEx paintings have no place in Baldwin’s quaint and cozy Carmel property, his 10,263-square-foot Palm Desert house, designed by Prest Vuksic Architects, affords him the space to pursue this wild period in art history. “When I bought this house three years ago, it let me indulge in things I wanted to do for a long time,” Baldwin says of the four-bedroom house. “It’s more conducive to AbEx than the house in Carmel.
“I’m interested in second-generation AbEx — Robert Natkin, Theodore Stamos, and Michael Goldberg,” he continues, adding that he “peppers” the collection with contemporary art, including a large eucalyptus branch painting and two later canvases by Charles Arnoldi and sculpture by John Buck and Bruce Beasley, who was one of Baldwin’s investment clients before he began collecting art. “I thought I’d never be able to buy his work — it’s expensive,” he says. His Bighorn home has two AbEx Beasley sculptures at the entrance.
Inside, the spirit of the collection pulsates in vivid color.
The hero of the living room — across from the double-sided fireplace with stacked quartzite stone — is a classic Gene Davis hard-edge stripe painting, providing a warm, captivating, almost rhythmic viewing experience. The bright red field is cut by equal-width stripes of a darker shade, and flanked by panels of yellow and light-blue stripes. The dynamic composition encourages sustained viewing.
A luminous Synchromist painting by Stanton Macdonald-Wright — based on color scales and rhythmically overlapping shapes — flanks the Davis canvas to the right. It’s an excellent example of the artist’s work, and hints at the excellent quality that permeates the collection. For example, the Richard Diebenkorn print in the hallway comes from the artist’s epic Ocean Park series. The Frank Stella across from it is from the Circuits series. And the large-scale Jim Dine canvas is from the series of iconic Robe paintings.
“Quality trumps everything,” he continues. “That’s true in my collection, my wine, and my whole life.”
Other two-dimensional standouts include Pop paintings by Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann.
Baldwin’s sculptural selections are decidedly figurative, and include works in bronze, ceramic, and cast resin. Among them are an elegant, emotive, and intricately detailed bust by Mexican artist Javier Marin; two large-scale head sculptures, which appear to be in conversation, by Jun Kaneko; and a pair of standing figures by Wanxin Zhang that riff on China’s Terracotta Warriors. Abstract works include a Kaneko Dango and a wall piece by Yayoi Kusama.
He has also amassed a selection of studio glass, with vessels by Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra, a wall installation by Daniel Clayman, a dress in repose by Karen LaMonte, a row of heads by Oben Abright, and abstract works by Emma Varga and Petr Hora.
“I love looking at and living with fine art,” he says. “A large part [of collecting] is personal gratification. It adds a dimension to my life that is very rewarding. The work is here to be enjoyed, just like wine.”
To that end, Baldwin loans artwork to museums, and has launched JUST Art, a company to produce exhibitions. Robert Motherwell & Jasper Johns: Poetic Works as Metaphor, an exhibition of 52 prints drawn largely from his collection, examines visual and literary collaborations with 20th century poets Rafael Alberti and Samuel Beckett. It has traveled to six museums.
“I love to share what I do with others,” Baldwin says, emphasizing that sharing art is akin to hosting wine dinners and tastings.
“Winemaking is an art, not a science — it’s an expression of the winemaker in the bottle,” he says. “It’s the winemaker’s personal taste. It can be wild and crazy, or subdued. It’s interesting, the relationship between art and wine; they seem to be in many ways intertwined. But a winemaker gets one shot to create from what nature provides. A chef, like an artist, can try over and over.”
Justin, a pioneer vintner on the Central Coast, mostly produces reds — Bordeaux-style blends that have earned Baldwin the James Beard Foundation’s Great American Winemaker Award and a place on Wine Enthusiast’s list of Top Cabernet and Blended Wine Producers for the past seven years. Influential wine writer Robert M. Parker Jr. once named Baldwin one of his “Wine Heroes of the Year.”
“Blends are my passion,” Baldwin says. “When you blend, you can highlight portions of a vintage that might go unnoticed. You take the best of what you’re given.”
He strives for food-friendly blends that optimize the dining experience — especially at his own restaurant at the winery. Justin is one of few California wineries with a restaurant, and the only one on the Central Coast with a full-time chef. The restaurant also welcomes guest chefs, including Bernard Dervieux from Cuistot and Jimmy Schmidt of Morgan’s in the desert.
“There’s a social aspect to dinners where you can learn about the wine and meet the growers,” says Baldwin, who appears as a brand ambassador at numerous private dinners, including at Sullivan’s Steakhouse and Morton’s in Palm Desert and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Rancho Mirage. “I like to share what I do with people. It gets lonely doing it at the winery.”
In 2010, Baldwin sold the winery to Fiji Water owner Stewart and Lynda Resnick, whose companies have great impact and influence on Central Coast agriculture and water. The sale infused the winery with capital to grow and thrive, and freed Baldwin to focus on his core passions: blending and marketing the blends.
“[The sale] took us to another level in terms of quality and as a business,” Baldwin says, adding that Justin wines sell throughout the United States and in more than 20 countries.
Baldwin started the company after a career in banking that took him around the world. “I traveled and tried the best wines,” he says. “When I came back to California, I invested in the land in Paso Robles. It was more pioneering than Napa or Sonoma. Back then, there were only eight wineries. It was always a labor of love, but I imposed proper business standards, and after 30 years, it’s very successful. Now there are more than 300 wineries in the area.”
Baldwin still keeps a relentless travel schedule, appearing as a panelist at food and wine events worldwide, and serving on boards of wine organizations on the Central Coast and beyond. His itineraries always include visits to museums, galleries, and artist studios.
The common thread: quality. When you’re passionate, he says, you settle for no substitute.