KCBX News has been following a controversial Justin Vineyards expansion project near Paso Robles that has now come to a halt, and resulted in an apology from the vineyard owners following a public outcry.
The project involved a massive clearing of oak trees, illegal grading, and a huge groundwater retention pond. The Wonderful Company owns Justin Vineyards and Winery, along with Fiji Water, POM Wonderful, and other brands.
It turns out the Wonderful Company has a history of clearing thousands of oaks in San Luis Obispo’s North County. Following is a transcript of an interview with New Times SLO reporter Jono Kinkade, who wrote an article on Thursday that gives some background.
KCBX News: So, the Wonderful Company is receiving attention for recent actions on their 375 acre property at Sleepy Farm Road near Paso Robles, but the company owns over 16-hundred acres locally, on various parcels. What have you found regarding oak tree clearing on their other properties?
Jono Kinkade: I found that on another property that the company purchased within about six months after the Wonderful Company bought Justin Vineyards, they planted a vineyard and, in doing so, they cleared 100 acres of oak tree woodland.
KCBX News: OK, and how many trees was that altogether? Do you know?
Kinkade: This information was available in a lawsuit (in 2012) after the company fired the arborist they hired to cut the trees, mid-contract, without meeting the terms that they had agreed upon. The ruling of that lawsuit estimated that there were 17-thousand trees cut. Fifteen-thousand of them were oaks.
KCBX News: The Wonderful Company owners, Lynda and Stewart Resnick are saying that they did not know of the recent oak tree clearing and illegal grading at Sleepy Farm Road. Did the Wonderful Company know of the 2011 tree clearings?
Kinkade: What the court records indicate is that, because of the lawsuit, the company counter-sued Garl (the owner of A-1 Tree Service, which was contracted to clear the oaks) for about 482-thousand dollars and some change for their own damages. During that process there was one letter sent to Justin Vineyards Vice President Craig Cooper, who's also the Wonderful Company's senior vice president and their top attorney. And there was also an indication that Justin Vineyards' winemaker Fred Holloway knew about the plans to clear the trees to make room for a vineyard.
And so, through those correspondences, it seems apparent that the act of clearing these trees was something that was known at a very high level within the company back during the lawsuit. Whether or not that indicates that the company knew about it before it happened or not, who knows? But it shows that this has happened before, and it was a part of the company's expansion plans soon after the Wonderful Company bought Justin Vineyards.
KCBX News: Has anyone at Justin Vineyards or the Wonderful Company said anything to you about future oak tree clearing or other vineyard expansion projects?
Kinkade: Steven Clark, their vice president of corporate communications, told me that they are going to stop the practice, and change how they do business from here on out.
KCBX News: Currently it’s legal, we should mention, to clear oak trees in San Luis Obispo County.
Kinkade: Right, that said, there's been a push by several people, led by those in Adelaida, a lot of winemakers and grape growers themselves, saying that it's time to come up with one (oak tree ordinance). And the (San Luis Obispo County) Board of Supervisors will be talking about that on July 15th. They're going to have a special meeting next Friday.
There is one important note to make, though, and that's that the County determined that Justin Vineyards violated the County's grading ordinance. And, while there is nothing explicitly banning the removal of oak trees, many of these other ordinances and permits that are required would kick the process into an environmental review, and that would then add, potentially, some restrictions on native tree clearance. And so, the company this time managed to find a hole through that process.