Cambrian: Opinion

Chainsaws and lawyers whine for the sake of wine

Aaron Wharton, proprietor of Cambria’s 927 Beer Co., brews a fresh batch of IPA in his stainless steel fermentation tank, which holds 217 gallons of beer.
Aaron Wharton, proprietor of Cambria’s 927 Beer Co., brews a fresh batch of IPA in his stainless steel fermentation tank, which holds 217 gallons of beer. Special to The Cambrian

A considerable percentage of California’s socializing public has gone bananas over wine and wine-tasting in recent years.

But peel back the glossy labels and the catchy varietal names.

Put aside the Sunset Magazine-like, bucolic vistas of vineyards — found in San Luis Obispo County as far as the eye can see — and examples of corporate pushiness and arrogance come into sharp focus.

Recent instances of corporate wine’s haughtiness have negatively impacted a North County ecosystem and forced a Cambria brewery to change its well-established name with no small degree of annoyance and expense.

Justin Winery: Chainsaws and a change of heart

The most glaring contemporary example of corporate cockiness: Hundreds of healthy valley oaks in the drought-ridden Adelaide area (west of Paso Robles at 750 Sleepy Farm Road) have been shamefully plundered in a development that lacked proper authority, permits and oversight by corporate owners.

What’s left after the recent chainsaw butchery are ugly scars on the landscape that look more like the 470 mountaintops that have been blasted away for coal exploitation in Appalachia than a healthy North County countryside.

Granted, the county dropped the ball because there is no specific ordinance preventing the cutting of oaks in unincorporated areas.

But Justin Winery’s work permit to build a large pond has been terminated, and the wine company is in violation of several agreements, including failing to notify the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District of tree removal so surveys of nesting birds could be conducted.

After two weeks of public rage and censure from county residents over the carnage their company created, the owners of Justin Vineyards, Lynda and Stewart Resnick, issued an apology for being “asleep at the wheel” while the wanton destruction of this ecosystem was taking place.

“We are ashamed and are sorry,” the Resnicks announced in a news release June 24.

They pledged to restore the land by attempting to undo the extensive grading and by planting 5,000 new oak trees.

Moreover, in a public relations effort designed to improve the “poor reputation within the community” this reckless project created, the Resnicks have offered to donate the 380-acre parcel to a local nonprofit organization.

In addition, their parent company, Estate Vineyards LLC, which owns 1,666 acres on 18 parcels in the county, promised “the oaks on our remaining acres will remain untouched.”

Restoring and donating the 380 acres has a nice ring to it, but the thousands of iconic oaks that were destroyed are gone forever.

And the untold numbers of birds, squirrels, frogs and other wildlife that found homes in those trees were apparently never given a thought.

In the aftermath of Justin’s fiasco, several restaurants in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles have removed Justin Wines from their menus as a way to express displeasure with the bulldozing of hundreds of healthy, iconic oaks without full authorization from the conservation district.

I surveyed 12 restaurants and wine-related businesses in Cambria and found that five offer Justin Wines.

Managers of those businesses indicated no plan to remove Justin Wines from their selections.

Only the Old Cambria Marketplace at the Shell station in the West Village would go on the record.

Manager Eric Johnson said he has several thousand dollars worth of Justin product in stock and plans to continue selling the wines.

He said he figures that if others remove Justin Wines, fans of Justin can certainly find the Justification, Isosceles and Cabernet Sauvignon varieties at his store.

Two others that pour Justin Wines insisted that as a landowner, Justin Wines should be able to do as it wishes with its property; that many existing vineyards have removed oaks; and that the wine industry is a boon to the county’s economy.

Cambria Beer Company and Kendall Jackson

In March, 2013, Aaron and Jennifer Wharton launched the Cambria Beer Company on Cornwell Street in the West Village.

They were growing their craft beer business and doing fine until a letter from a Kendall-Jackson attorney arrived New Year’s Eve 2014, which was essentially an order for the Whartons to cease using Cambria Beer Co. as their business name.

Why would a corporate wine entity headquartered in Santa Maria have the authority to demand that the Cambria Beer Company — which brews and pours beer only — stop using its name?

We could have been buying new equipment; we could have been bottling our beer. So, it set us back a year in finances and production.

Aaron Wharton, 927 Beer Company owner, on legal issues surrounding the company’s former name

The answer was an eye-opener.

Kendall-Jackson operates the Cambria Estate vineyard, and a quirk in federal trademark laws allows Kendall-Jackson to muscle out any other alcohol-related beverages using the name Cambria.

This peculiarity allowed Kendall-Jackson to play the pushy corporate legal game — notwithstanding that wine is as dissimilar from beer as the moon is from Jupiter.

The Wharton family eventually complied with Kendall-Jackson’s demands and changed the name of their brew pub to 927 Beer Co.

Interviewed Thursday June 23 at his brewing facility across Main Street from his emporium, Aaron Wharton said the Kendall-Jackson affair cost his company $15,000, “And set us back about a year. We could have been buying new equipment; we could have been bottling our beer. So, it set us back a year in finances and production.”

However, there was an upside to the situation.

“It was amazing how much positive publicity we got” statewide, Wharton said. “People driving up and down the coast had heard about our story and even if they didn’t drink beer, they stopped in and bought T-shirts.”

Well before the Justin environmental fiasco, Wharton, known for creative brewing strategies, offered a Russian imperial stout that was aged in a bourbon barrel with vanilla and coconut.

Today, that stout — labeled Ghost of our Trees — projects an interesting irony.

Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at johnfitz44@gmail.com.

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