A heated controversy over a vineyard-development project in California's Paso Robles region took a surprising twist today when the owners of Justin Vineyards and Winery issued a statement apologizing for the uprooting of dozens of acres of oak trees and promising to donate the 380-acre property to a nonprofit conservation organization and plant 5,000 new oaks on their other area properties.
"When we learned of the terrible situation at our Sleepy Farm Road property, not to mention our poor reputation within the community, we were ashamed and are sorry," said Lynda and Stewart Resnick, in their statement. "We were asleep at the wheel."
Justin had received a county permit to build a large multi-million gallon reservoir, which upset their neighbors given California's drought concerns. That concern turned to outrage when it was discovered an estimated 100 acres of oaks were clear-cut, apparently for vineyard development.
County officials issued a stop-work order and started an investigation, citing several potential permit violations. In their statement, the Resnicks say they also started investigating. "Over the last few days, we've been conducting an internal review of the project and learned that while genuine efforts to meet county ordinances were made, unfortunately, there were absolutely unacceptable lapses of judgment." No employees have been laid off, and the Resnicks did not specify what went wrong.
The Resnicks say they were "horrified" by the lack of regard for both neighbor and nature that had resulted. "We hope that the community will accept our deepest and most sincere apologies and find it in their hearts to forgive us. We want to make things right, starting now."
Steven Clark, spokesperson for Justin's parent firm, The Wonderful Company, confirmed that the Resnicks now plan to donate the 380-acre parcel of land. "We are actively looking for the right local non-profit partner and hope to make a determination in the near future," Clark told Wine Spectator.
In the meantime, the Resnicks hope to implement immediate erosion control measures on the property, scrap the plans for the reservoir, restore the land's natural slopes and plant 5,000 new oak trees across their 1,600 acres of land in Paso Robles.
"To me, this is taking a bad situation and doing your best to make it right," Eric Jensen of Booker Vineyards told Wine Spectator. "A blanket apology with no ifs, ands or buts attached, and a complete reversal of direction. Their actions will need to back their words, and that's how time will judge them, but it's a great step forward."
The fallout from the controversy had resulted in consumers calling for boycotts of Justin and restaurants pulling the wines from the list. The Resnicks are promising that the apology and plans for the Sleepy Farm Road property are only the first steps. The statement says they are looking for "other conservation opportunities in the greater Adelaida area" of Paso Robles.
"We want to walk arm-in-arm with our neighbors to ensure the future of sustainable farming in the region," said the statement. "We know that proof of this will be in our actions, not just our words, and we look forward to working together to earn the support and trust of the Paso Robles community."
Their winemaking neighbors seem cautiously optimistic, for now. "I think it's probably the best possible outcome to a bad situation," said Saxum's Justin Smith. "Only time will tell if it's all PR bull or a sincere apology."