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Oak Tree Removal Triggers Controversy in Paso Robles Wine Country

Justin Vineyards and Winery is under investigation after clearing dozens of acres of old oaks; winemaker neighbors are angry and some restaurants have pulled the wines
Photo by: Craig Heaton
Neighbors report that hillsides covered in oaks are now stripped bare at Justin's property.

MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: June 21, 2016

A vineyard-development project by Justin Vineyards and Winery has ignited a firestorm of controversy in California's Paso Robles region, as fellow winemakers and vintners accuse the company of devastating a 375-acre parcel of land, clear-cutting thousands of old oak trees as the company prepared land for vines and a reservoir. Now local officials have halted the work, launching an investigation of the project and saying that Justin may have violated regulations. Area restaurants have begun pulling Justin's wines from their wine lists, as environmentalists call for a boycott.

The controversy is pitting neighbor against neighbor and revealing long-simmering tensions in a growing wine region that has struggled with water issues during California's long drought. "I went to a neighboring property to take a look and my heart dropped out," Saxum winemaker Justin Smith told Wine Spectator. "Complete devastation, nothing but a wasteland was left where there once were forests. The removing of oaks for agriculture purposes is still legal in our county, but it was an unwritten rule that you don't denude the landscape to plant when there is plenty of open land around."

Justin Vineyards had received a work permit from San Luis Obispo County and from the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District to plant vineyards on its 375-acre parcel at 750 Sleepy Farm Road in Paso Robles' westside and to dig a large reservoir on the property, which the company planned to fill from its wells in winter and draw on during summer.

Neighbors were upset when they learned about the reservoir—Paso Robles has been hard hit by the drought, and city residents have been asking if farms are drawing too much well water. "Ponds are terrible for sustainability," said Eric Jensen of Booker Vineyards. "You're building a 6.5-million-gallon pond that will lose 50 percent during the year to evaporation alone."

But the complaints grew much louder when word began to filter out from neighbors about a dramatic swath of tree removal—dozens of acres of oak trees have been cleared. Matt Trevisan, winemaker at Linne Calodo, was flying over the area in his small plane when he discovered barren hills where there used to be oaks. "Dozers moving through forests of oaks like a typewriter moving from one line to the next," described Trevisan.

Justin is one of the wineries that put Paso Robles on the map. Founded by Justin Baldwin, who is still involved in the company, in 2010 it was bought by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, owners of the Wonderful Company, an agricultural empire that includes Pom Wonderful, Fiji Water, Wonderful Pistachios, Wonderful Halos, Teleflora and Paramount Citrus, in addition to California wineries Landmark and Hop Kiln in Sonoma. The Resnicks are worth an estimated $4.2 billion, according to Forbes.

With its various farm operations in the state, their company owns millions of acres of land and multiple water rights, and has stumbled into development controversy in some of its other ventures. The company has also invested more than $100 million in sustainable technologies, and the Resnicks have donated $24 million toward a sustainability research center at CalTech named for them.

On June 9, some neighbors took their complaints to county officials, who promised to investigate. A week later, according to County Supervisor Art Trinidade, the county's Code Enforcement agency issued a stop-work order. Officials found Justin violated the rules for posting and notifying the district when construction began, and it didn't have the special permit needed to grade on slopes with more than 30 percent grade. "We intentionally have given a lot of leeway to agricultural grading, as long as it meets the criteria," explained Trinidade. "One of the criteria is not grading on slopes in excess of 30 percent. In this case, they are 70, 80, 100 percent."

Meanwhile, the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, an organization tied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Conservation, has terminated an agreement permitting the reservoir's construction. Officials say that Justin's managers violated three parts of their agreement: they did not publicly post their work permit, did not notify the agency when the work was starting, and failed to notify that there would be any tree removal. Had the agency been notified, it would have conducted a bird and nest survey.

There currently aren't any policies banning tree removal in the county's unincorporated areas, including this construction site. Now County Supervisor Frank Meecham has asked his staff to draw up a proposal. "I would venture to guess that in a week or so, there will be [laws protecting tree removal in unincorporated areas]," said Trinidade.

Responding to the allegations, Justin Vineyards issued a statement: "We have developed a productive working relationship with the county over many years and, as always, we welcome their feedback and look forward to working with them on any areas of concern."

For now, county officials are investigating, and an appeals and mitigation process is underway. "It could go a variety of ways," said Trinidade. "If it's determined it was intentional or nefarious, it could take a process that would end up with criminal proceedings."

Regardless of the findings, there could be an impact on Justin's bottom line. On June 17, Big Sky Cafe in downtown San Luis Obispo announced on its Facebook page that it will no long pour Justin wines. Some other local restaurants have followed suit. On Justin's Facebook page, users were complaining and calling for a boycott.

Meanwhile, the wine community is on edge. "What Justin has done may be legal, but that doesn't mean it is ethical," said vintner Don Law of Law Estates Wines. "Most of the wineries and vineyards have a deep appreciation for our west Paso ecosystem and for preserving this uniquely beautiful setting."

But Baldwin feels the concerns could have been better handled. "I'm disappointed that none of the community organizers came to talk to me or anyone at the winery about their concerns and took this straight to the press without the benefit of facts or even a conversation," said Baldwin in a statement. "It's sad to see all the good work we've done and are doing—our dry-farming practices, outstanding erosion-control techniques, local economic impact, tourism, jobs creation, preserved land, community philanthropy, planting of 5,000 new oak trees—being maligned."

But others say it was Justin's responsibility to reach out. "If Justin Baldwin and Justin Vineyards had any sense, they would have contacted the neighbors for some insight on growing and farming practices in the neighborhood before raping the land as they did," said JoAnn Cherry of Villa Creek Winery. "Clearly being a good neighbor is the least of their concerns."

Trevisan, who worked with Baldwin at Justin when he first started in the wine industry, wants everyone to find a solution. "I hope that Justin [Baldwin] realizes we are still his friends and neighbors and that he helped build the Paso Robles wine region," said Trevisan. "I hope that he will protect his former friends, colleagues and neighbors by doing the right thing. Plant the land that was cleared decades ago, first. When all the plantable land in the county is used, then we can discuss the need for creating new farmland."

Update: Justin Vineyards owners Lynda and Stewart Resnick have issued an apology.

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