Well, that was awkward.
Cal Poly made a celebratory announcement of a $5 million donation to a new viticulture center that will be named after two major donors, then chastised The Tribune when it pointed out one of the donor’s past environmental misdeeds.
Justin Vineyards and Winery was issued a stop work order two years ago after it clear-cut 100 acres of oak woodlands west of Paso Robles. That prompted a brief boycott of Justin wines and adoption of an oak tree protection ordinance by the county Board of Supervisors.
It also led to more controversy for Justin’s owners, Southern California billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, whose holdings also include Fiji Water, Teleflora, Pom Wonderful, Wonderful Pistachios and Wonderful Halos. The Resnicks control much of the Central Valley’s water supply — Stewart has been described as the single largest water user in the Western United States — and that raised concerns in San Luis Obispo County when they bought Justin Winery in 2010.
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But it was the clear-cutting of oaks that infuriated many locals.
Now, just two years later, Cal Poly is honoring Justin by naming a building after it? Even before Justin has completed the promised restoration and donation of the denuded land?
Memories may be short, but not that short.
Under the circumstances, Cal Poly should have expected blowback and been prepared to explain its decision to name a building after a company that, not that long ago, was persona non grata in San Luis Obispo County.
Instead, when questioned by Tribune reporter Lindsey Holden, this was the response: “We can’t speak to the matter you’re referring to as that didn’t involve Cal Poly.”
Come on, Cal Poly. You aren’t a nation unto yourself. You are a member of the community. Your students and many of your graduates live and work here. Like it or not, you are involved in what happens here, and you should own that.
We aren’t saying you should have turned down the $2.5 million donation from Justin (J. Lohr donated the other $2.5 million and other wineries also contributed).
Nor are we saying the center won’t be a huge asset to Cal Poly. It will be, and we appreciate the generosity of all the donors.
But names on buildings are big deals. They will be around for generations.
When buildings are named for donors, we don’t believe it’s asking too much to expect them to be in good standing in the community; be role models for students; and uphold the values of the university, which should include respect for the environment.
That’s far more important than how many awards a winery may have won or even how much money has been donated.
Justin should not be forever banned from having its name on a Cal Poly building on account of a single incident. But it does have a way to go before it regains the trust of the general community and rebuilds its reputation for environmental stewardship.
Pretending like the clear cutting never happened — or that is was so long ago that it no longer matters — doesn’t help.
This was a blown opportunity.
Justin should have acknowledged its history and reiterated that it seeks to be a good neighbor.
Cal Poly should have helped carry that message, instead of shrugging its shoulders and distancing itself from the real world outside the university’s doors.