Several SLO County restaurants yank Justin wines after oak tree removals

Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles.
Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles. Courtesy Photo

Justin Vineyards’ bulldozing of hundreds of oak trees has uncorked some disapproval among San Luis Obispo County restaurateurs and wine fans, who are making their feelings known with their wallets.

The vineyard manages land owned by Estate Vineyards LLC, a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Company, and recently cut down the oaks to make room for more grapes on their 750 Sleepy Farm Road property, just west of Paso Robles. County officials ordered the company to stop work on June 9 after receiving complaints from neighbors.

Estate Vineyards will likely face consequences for violating county grading regulations, although San Luis Obispo has no ordinances protecting oaks in unincorporated areas. The Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, a special district created under state law, also said the company violated three regulations, including not notifying the district prior to the tree removal so surveys for nesting birds could be carried out.

Some area restaurauters have decided to take matters into their own hands by taking Justin wines off their menus.

Big Sky Cafe in downtown San Luis Obispo announced on its Facebook page Friday that it will no long pour Justin wines. Owner Greg Holt said the restaurant had previously served many different varieties of Justin wines but was offering only the winery’s cabernet sauvignon when he decided to remove it from the wine list.

Holt said Justin’s wines were always good quality, but he couldn’t continue to serve them after he heard of the oaks’ destruction.

“I’m a native of this area,” Holt said. “... I grew up with oak trees, and I know how long they take to grow.”

Thomas Hill Organics, Fish Gaucho and Pappy McGregor’s Pub and Grill in Paso Robles also will no longer carry Justin wines. Donovan Schmit, owner of Fish Gaucho and Pappy McGregor’s, said he decided to stop selling Justin wines at both restaurants this week.

“We just didn’t want to show support for what they did,” Schmit said.

Debbie Thomas, owner of Thomas Hill, said she’s selling Justin’s sauvignon blanc and Isosceles varieties at 50 percent off to get rid of the eatery’s inventory quickly.

“It’s a good deal right now.”

After the wine runs out, Thomas Hill will no longer offer the brand, she said.

Thomas said some customers — mostly locals familiar with the controversy — have been abuzz about the oak removals.

“I believe there’s a lot of support to not carry their wines,” Thomas said.

Wine fans have also taken to Justin’s Facebook page, with several dozen leaving angry comments and calling for a boycott.

Mark Carmel, a spokesman for The Wonderful Company, said in an email to The Tribune on Saturday that he would try to get a comment on whether Justin wines was noticing a slowing of sales over the controversy. He did not supply any information by deadline.

The controversy generated by the oak removals is especially significant given Justin’s past popularity — Wine Enthusiast Magazine in 2015 named Justin the American Winery of the Year. The publication on Thursday published a story detailing the oak debacle and its implications for the area.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27