President and Founder of Justin Vineyards discuss recent oak-clearing controversy

Jul 7, 2016

It’s been nearly two weeks since the owners of Justin Vineyards issued an apology statement for the deforestation of oak trees on some company property in the Paso Robles area.

Despite the statement, there is still a loud chorus of vocal critics on social media calling for the continued boycott of Justin Wines and other products made by its parent, The Wonderful Company.

In a written statement back on June 24, the owners of The Wonderful Company apologized profusely for the Justin Vineyards and Winery expansion project and the company's disregard for its neighbors.

In addition to halting the clear-cutting, the company said it will work to return much of the land to its previous state and donate it to the county as a conservation area.

Vineyard President David Ricanati said Wednesday that statement was released after the start of an ongoing investigation of the property. 

"The primary goal was honesty and transparency," said Ricanati. "And so we felt like if we spoke in a very honest voice that people would begin to understand what we were sincere in what we said and also then coupling that with some very clear activities that we would then go and pursue."

Ricanati said that the company is working on an internal review to insure the future plans and procedures don't follow the same path.

"And part of our statement and what we're doing now and specifically even on the property today is all about fixing for mistakes that were made," he said. 

Mark Wiberg works in the Paso Robles wine industry and has been an active voice in the social media community against Justin's controversial expansion project.

He told KCBX the statement sounded sincere but the company won't receive any credit until there is visible change. 

"They basically got caught and are offering excuses about being asleep at the wheel, but if they follow through and the land gets transferred over and things are repaired as much as possible then they can get credit for that later, but right now nothing has been done," Wiberg said. 

In addition to the destruction of native oaks, a massive groundwater retention pond was also being build on the property. Ricanati said that will be removed, but many in the community are concerned that there is a water grab on other properties owned by Justin Vineyards.

The president told KCBX that is not the case.

"So our use of water, our intent for water on any of our vineyards is that water is used for that vineyard period," said Ricanati. "That's the only goal we have in regards to water and our goal like any other grower is to find ways to use water as absolutely efficiently as possible."

Justin's founder Justin Baldwin said the incident has tarnished the company's name.

"We've worked very hard to establish a very positive image in the community and in addition to the specifics you mentioned that's something that we're concerned about and want to make right," Baldwin said.

Matt Trevisan owns Linne Calodo winery. He has also been vocal about his opposition to the clear-cutting project. 

"The microscope is on them to do better and make good on all their claims within our community," Trevisan said.

Initially, the Wonderful Company issued a statement saying everything being done followed local and state codes, and no laws were being broken. Now, post controversy, the company line has changed dramatically.

"A big takeaway for us is just because it is legal doesn't make it right," Ricanati said. 

Several restaurants in San Luis Obispo County has dropped Justin Wines from their menus. It's still too early to say whether these recent statement by the company will reverse that trend.