Representatives from Justin Vineyards and Winery on Wednesday said work has begun on a three-phase plan to repair the 380-acre Sleepy Farm Road property west of Paso Robles, where thousands of mature oaks were removed and steep hillsides were improperly graded.
During a visit to The Tribune, representatives said the first two phases will address erosion control and repair the grading by October. But no details were given on the third phase, which could include replacing the trees, restoring the land and maintaining it as permanent open space. Final restoration plans for the 100 acres affected — the remaining 280 acres remain undeveloped — will be filed with San Luis Obispo County in October, they said.
David Ricanati, president of Justin, said he approved the plans to clear the land to plant a vineyard, but wasn’t aware of the grading permit violations or the large number of trees that were cut down. Ricanati manages Justin Vineyards and Winery, Fiji Water and Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma County for the Wonderful Co., the multinational Los Angeles-based agribusiness that maintains the brands.
“I knew that we were going to be removing trees,” Ricanati said. “I did not realize the scope of the tree removal and that these were woodlands. And what we did not understand until we went through our internal review was the mistakes that were made in regard to some of the permit issues and grading on the site. And for that we are sorry.”
Ricanati also said he has “absolutely” heard about residents infuriated by the destruction of oak trees, consumers organizing Justin wine boycotts and several area restaurants removing the wine from their menus. Some Justin wine club members have canceled their subscriptions, he said.
“Has it impacted our business? Yeah, it does impact the business,” he said.
“We’re sorry that former customers feel that way,” Ricanati said. “I understand. Really, our message to folks who are boycotting the wine is … we are very sorry. We are moving forward on a lot of fronts to make it right. And all we really ask is give us a chance.”
Who’s to blame?
After receiving complaints from angry neighbors over the clear-cutting and grading, county officials issued a stop-work order an the Sleepy Farm Road property June 9. The county found workers violated construction permits for an agricultural pond by grading hillsides that were steeper than 30 percent.
The Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District issued a separate stop-work order and cited three violations, including failing to notify the agency of tree removal ahead of time so surveys for nesting birds could be done.
In response to a petition from residents concerned about the lack of an oak protection ordinance in unincorporated parts of the county, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors is considering an emergency ordinance to prevent further destruction of such trees.
Following the uproar, Wonderful Co. heads Lynda and Stewart Resnick on June 24 issued an apology letter in which they announced plans to restore and donate the land. The Resnicks, in their statement, wrote that they weren’t aware of the situation at the North County site and blamed their local team for the tree-razing and grading violations.
Ricanati declined to say who specifically gave the go-ahead for the tree removal or whether that person had lost their job.
Justin Baldwin, who founded the brand and sold the winery and vineyard to Wonderful Co. in 2010, said in the meeting with The Tribune on Wednesday that he “was not aware of the extent of the work that was proposed.”
Baldwin now lives in Palm Desert and works full time as a Wonderful Co. brand ambassador.
“I’m saddened by the degree to which the activities took place,” Baldwin said. “I’m very heartened by the reaction that our owners have taken to remediate what occurred.”
Moving forward, Steven Clark, Wonderful Co. vice president of communications, and Ricanati said Justin is working with the county to develop a three-phase remediation approach. The first phase, a sedimentation and erosion control plan, was approved by the county Friday. Work began Tuesday to install silt fencing around the perimeter of the property to prevent dirt and water from flowing onto neighboring properties should the area receive rain this summer.
The second phase will address more extensive erosion control before the winter rain season and will include removing the pond and restoring the land’s natural grading. Ricanati and Clark said they hope to submit plans for phase two by Aug. 15 and have the work finished by mid-October.
The final phase will involve total remediation of the land. Ricanati said he planned to submit the last proposal in mid-October, by which time he also intended to have found a nonprofit organization partner to take on the land.
The company said it plans to plant 5,000 new oaks across Justin properties, although none of the representatives would say Wednesday where exactly they would be located or whether any would replace the trees that were cut down.
The company owns 1,682 acres on 18 parcels in the North County, with 925 acres planted in vineyards. In addition to the 380-acre Sleepy Farm Road property, the company owns about 377 acres that are not planted, Clark said.
In terms of future land development, Ricanati said there are no plans to plant more vineyards in the North County. Justin is reviewing its environmental policies and won’t “engage in the practice of removing trees for vineyards,” Ricanati said.
“We want this to be sort of an ongoing dialogue,” Clark said, “ ... with neighbors, with the community — to have a much more active role and presence. We don’t pretend to have all the answers now, but we do want folks to know that we are working toward solutions as quickly as we can and as thoughtfully as we can.”