Saturday, January 28, 2023     Volume: 23, Issue: 48
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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Total devotion to her craft and colleagues sets local winemaker Justin Trabue on a path to icon status

CHERISH WHYTE

Justin Trabue has wine in her veins. She was born and raised in Washington, D.C., but California beckoned since birth, with her namesake being Justin Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles.

“This was my initial spark connector to this region,” she said. 

While in high school, her wine enthusiast parents invited a Black sommelier to her home: “That skyrocketed my interest in wine,” she said, further cementing her future career and destiny in California.

She moved to San Luis Obispo in 2013, obtained a degree in wine and viticulture with a focus on wine business from Cal Poly, then proceeded to work 14 vintages around the world, including New Zealand and South Africa, with harvests and production ranging from 500 to 100,000 cases.

And now, at the age of 27, she is ringing in the new year with the release of her own vintage under her new label, Ward Four Wines.


LESSONS IN LEES
Justin Trabue has traveled throughout the world honing her craft. In March 2022 she learned the importance of lees, or residual yeast, integration while working at Almenkerk Wine Estate in Elgin, South Africa.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WARD FOUR WINES

“I grew up in the Fourth Ward of Washington, D.C.; I come from a family of four; and I am a fourth-generation Washington native,” she said.

Ward is also her mother’s maiden name.

“My mom is the one who found Cal Poly, brought me out for college visits, and ensured my passions are always my own,” Trabue said. “She came to visit for Mother’s Day in 2018. We went to Alta Colina [in Paso Robles] and fell in love with their viognier. I decided my first-ever vintage had to come from them.”

In addition to her Alta Colina viognier, Trabue will be releasing Zachariah’s Block barbera from Mendocino, Grist Vineyard petite sirah from Dry Creek Valley, and Cecchini Family Vineyard muscat and Del Barba Vineyard mourvèdre from Contra Costa County.

She only produced one barrel, or 300 bottles, of each for a total of 125 cases.

Starting in late spring, the winemaker said locals can get these wines direct-to-consumer through her forthcoming website. 

“I will also have a few select bottles at retail shops and restaurants,” she added.

Trabue has high hopes for her debut wines, which were sourced from four American Viticultural Areas along the California coastline over the course of 30 days in late summer, she said.

Get the juice on Justin
Reach Justin Trabue at justin@wardfourwines.com, on Instagram @wardfourwines, or at her soon-to-be-released website wardfourwines.com.

“This was a grueling and educational vintage with both heat waves and unexpected rainstorms,” she explained. “The fruit turned out incredible, and I had the opportunity to play around with skin contact ferments on my white wines, and cool temperature fermentation for my reds.”

The team at Alta Colina is excited to see the end result.

“It has been a real pleasure to watch [Trabue] grow in the wine business,” said proprietor Bob Tillman. “[She] brings extraordinary talent and energy to everything she does. We are happy to help launch this young woman’s wine brand and anticipate great things from our viognier fruit in her hands.”

Trabue’s long trail of admirers, supporters, and benefactors bely her young age. In fact, her impact on colleagues is as much a story as her winemaking skills.

One of her mentors, Nipomo resident Lane Tanner, partner and winemaker at Lumen Wines in Los Alamos, said she has “no doubt that [Trabue] will become a fellow icon by the time she is old and gray like me.”

Tanner recruited Trabue as an intern via Cal Poly’s wine program. They worked together for five years, with Trabue rising to the ranks of assistant winemaker before departing in 2021. Tanner said she was looking for someone strong and smart to intern for her, and one of the applicants was Trabue. 

“I thought she was male because of the name,” Tanner said. “I checked with the head of the program to get a better view of Justin before I interviewed her. Rave review. That is also when I found out Justin was female.”


GRIT AND GRACE
Justin Trabue’s first vintage under her recently launched Ward Four Wines label was “hard and heavy.” Her goals are to craft wines with “no fuss, all joy,” while also spearheading charitable endeavors to increase industry diversity.
COURTESY PHOTO BY RAUL TOSCANO

They first met during a meeting for all the wineries and potential interns.

“I hear this booming voice call my name and I turn around to find this Amazonian warrior woman striding toward me. I was in love at first sight,” Tanner said. “She was not afraid to get dirty, and believe it or not, male or female, it is hard to find someone with that quality. We worked well together.”

As Trabue grew from youth to adulthood, Tanner said, she had winemaking abilities and goals, so eventually she left Lumen. 

“Which is what she should have done. Lumen is a small winery, and Justin is a big personality,” Tanner added. “She would have stagnated if she had stayed. Still, it was hard to see her leave.”

Other Trabue fans include budding winemakers who have benefited from her commitment to providing financial backing for minorities.

According to The Wine Industry Advisor and Wines Vines Analytics, fewer than 1 percent of the country’s 11,000-plus wineries are Black-owned, even though more than 10 percent of American wine consumers are Black. Experts state that financial capital is their primary business roadblock.

“My greatest joy since joining the wine industry has been helping to set up a scholarship program at my alma mater for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] individuals interested in pursuing a career in wine,” Trabue said.

From there she assisted in creating the nonprofit organization Natural Action, “which pushes natural winemaking practices to the forefront while immersing BIPOC individuals in the world of wine,” she added.

She said she wouldn’t have made it this far without her own support network, including Lift Collective, Courier Fresh Fund, Obsidian Wine Co., and The Roots Fund.

“Without these groups I would not have the funding that I do to make these wines,” she explained.

Presently, she is a one-woman enterprise and roving winemaker, splitting her time between homes in SLO and Napa. She specializes in minimal intervention practices and sources from vineyards statewide that follow ethical labor guidelines and sustainable farming methods.

Her inaugural lineup honors the wine region that shaped her career, as well as her parents, “who pushed me to make my dreams reality,” she said. “Each offering will pay tribute to my family dynamics, showing how wine evokes emotions and how moments in time can be captured in one of life’s simplest pleasures, a bottle of wine.”

Contributor Cherish Whyte is all aboard the Trabue fan train and eagerly awaits her first release. Reach her at cwhyte@newtimesslo.com.










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