Central California winery's felling of old oaks ferments protests
PASO ROBLES, Calif. (AP) — A Central California winery hailed as one of the best in the country is facing boycott calls and enforcement actions after it clear-cut hundreds of old oak trees to make way for more vineyards.
Justin Vineyard and Winery west of the town of Paso Robles — a name that means "Pass of the Oaks" in Spanish — has been under stop-work orders since June 9 from San Luis Obispo County and a resource-conservation district on the expansion project.
Officials ordered the halt to the clear-cutting after neighbors and at least one pilot reported spotting lumber crews and hillsides newly cleared of oak groves.
In an e-mail statement on Monday, the winery said its felling of the oaks was in compliance with the law, and that it would be planting 5,000 young oaks on its properties.
California billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who also market popular lines of pomegranate juice, almonds and bottled water from Fiji, own the business, which is known for its upscale Bordeaux-style wines. Wine Enthusiast magazine named Justin its winery of the year in 2015, and Wine Spectator magazine has rated some of the winery's offerings among the world's best.
The waves of praise turned to criticism, however, after the winery removed what authorities say were hundreds of oak trees. Oaks can live for 250 years or more, and are known as a keystone species in California, providing food and shelter for other native species.
The company also submitted plans to create a new irrigation pond from underground well-water as part of the project, alarming neighbors in the drought-afflicted area.
Justin Baldwin, who founded the namesake winery in 1981 and remains associated with it, said critics were picking on the winery.
"I think it's unfortunate to watch a few people disparage our work and create such discord over practices that growers in this area have applied for many years," Baldwin said in Monday's emailed statement.
A community meeting on the felling of the oak trees drew more than 100 people. In recent days, at least four Paso Robles restaurants announced they would stop offering Justin wines in protest of the removal of the oaks, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported.
"We just didn't want to show support for what they did," Donovan Schmidt, owner of two of the restaurants, told the newspaper.
Some consumers took to the vineyard's Facebook page to protest the clear-cutting and say they would no longer drink the company's wines.
Authorities told the winery it should have given advance notice of the tree removal so officials could have surveyed for nesting birds, and that bulldozers graded steeper slopes than were allowed.
County officials told the Tribune they would introduce a new ordinance to increase oversight and protection of the area's old oaks.
San Luis Obispo County planning officials could not immediately be reached for further comment Monday.