Justin Vineyards removed 15,000 oaks from Chimney Rock Road vineyard in 2011

Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles.
Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles.

Note: This story has been changed to correct the location of the property that was the subject of the lawsuit.

When Justin Vineyards removed thousands of oak trees from an Estate Vineyards property west of Paso Robles recently, it wasn’t the first time it clear-cut oak woodlands in preparation for planting vineyards.

According to a ruling in a 2012 lawsuit filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, Justin Vineyards and Winery removed 17,000 trees — 15,000 of which were oaks — from a vineyard property west of Paso Robles.

The suit was filed by Keith Garl, owner of A-1 Tree Service of Nipomo, alleging breach of contract by Justin Vineyards, which resulted in him being deprived of profits from the sale of the cut oak from the property as firewood.

The contract said that Garl would be paid $200,000 and could sell the firewood. The court found that Garl was only paid $60,000.

The case went to trial in May 2013. After the trial, Justin Vineyards was ordered to pay Garl $444,112 by Judge Jac Crawford. The amount was intended to compensate Garl for the payment not received from Justin Vineyards as well as profits he would have made from selling the oak firewood.

Garl was hired by Justin in 2011 to clear 100 acres of a 240-acre site on Adelaida Road near Chimney Rock Road called the Adelaida Hills project. Court documents show that 90 percent of the trees removed had a diameter of 24 inches or more and 5 percent had diameters of 4 feet or greater.

Justin Vineyards said the contract was terminated because Garl would not be able to meet its deadline to clear all 100 acres in 90 days.

However, the court ruled that vineyard manager Paul Kaselionis did not clearly inform Garl of that deadline.

Court documents show that 90 percent of the trees removed had a diameter of 24 inches or more and 5 percent had diameters of 4 feet or greater.

“Justin turned most of the logs into woodchips and allowed the rest of the logs to disappear from the property, depriving Garl of his profits,” Crawford stated in the court’s decision after trial.

Recently, thousands more oak trees were removed by Justin Vineyards from a 380-acre Estate Vineyards property at the end of Sleepy Farm Road, which is some 10 miles southeast of the Chimney Rock Road site. This caused outrage throughout the county and has prompted a boycott of Justin Vineyards products as well as products from Justin’s parent firm, the Wonderful Co. Estate Vineyards is a Wonderful Co. landholding subidiary.

An investigation by county code enforcement officers found that the clear-cutting violated county grading ordinances. This Friday at 9 a.m., the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will hold a special meeting to consider adopting emergency ordinances restricting the clear-cutting of oak woodlands and the construction of agricultural irrigation reservoirs.

The company admitted that it erred and promised to repair the damage from the illegal grading and plant thousands of trees to replace those that were cut. In response to the 2012 lawsuit and the outrage over the Estate Vineyards clear-cutting, Mark Carmel, spokesman for Justin Winery’s parent company The Wonderful Co., said the company will stop removing trees to plant vineyards.

“We are committed to being a better member of the North County community — focusing more on environmental stewardship and increasing our conservation efforts in the region — and we hope the community will give us the chance to make good on that commitment,” he said in a prepared statement Monday.

Justin Vineyards representatives said they knew some oaks would be removed from the Sleepy Farm Road property but were unaware of the magnitude of the clear-cutting. The company has offered to donate the property to a land conservancy.

The company has also proposed a three-phase remediation plan for the property. The first two phases would be to control sedimentation and erosion, particularly in advance of winter rains; Justin Vineyards said it has begun phase one. The third phase would be total remediation of its properties including the planting of 5,000 oak trees.

The Wonderful Co. produces a variety of food and drinks. These include Fiji Water, Justin Wines, Landmark Wines, POM Wonderful, Teleflora, Wonderful Almonds, Wonderful Halos mandarin oranges, Wonderful Pistachios and Wonderful Sweet Scarletts grapefruit.