As I ready my first few winery stories on this nascent blog, I want to keep the conversation going here. And a current story out of the Paso Robles area is precisely the kind of thing I’d like to talk about.
When I read the first couple of stories that emerged about this last week, I was thisclose to firing off a scorchingly critical post about the evils of corporate-owned wineries.
I’ve toned that down a bit. But only just a bit.
Here’s the current source of outrage: Wonderful Brands, a large corporation that owns a portfolio of wineries and other food-related businesses, purchased Justin Winery in Paso Robles in 2010, one of the “original” Paso wineries. Wonderful Brands is known for some of their other holdings, one of the largest being Fiji Water. I don’t hold much affection for bottled water producers in the first place (and neither do our overloaded landfills), but (not so) Wonderful Brands has been an especially poor steward of the land. And that’s been driven home in a rather shocking way by last week’s news that they are decimating their land in the Willow Creek district of west Paso in order to increase their acreage of vines. They have been slapped with multiple stop work orders from the city and county after their “improvements” came to light.
They clearcut more than a hundred (possibly several hundred) oaks–and did so during nesting season. Considering this part of the state is home to many birds who are endangered species and species of special concern, this wholesale destruction during nesting season is especially shocking and sad. I am rather tuned into these specific issues via my Owens Lake Project–my biases are certainly no secret–but this was outrageous by any measure.
The clearcutting of trees, which you can see before/after photos of here, will likely create serious issues with erosion, which then threatens local streams and aquifers (which are already threatened enough in central California). It also seems likely to create a heat island in this storied microclimate. Any way you approach this, their land “conversion” is destructive and selfish.
And actions like this, which sadly are not that uncommon among corporate winery owners, are the primary reason I do not like them and will not cover them in this blog. They don’t need me to tell their stories–unless and until their story becomes one of outrageous environmental destruction, and then I’ll be on it faster than a duck on a junebug.
Large-scale grape-growing outfits are rarely good stewards of the land. And you need to be fully aware of who they are when deciding where to spend your wine-buying dollars. Their approach to growing wine grapes is one of quantity and yield-per-acre over quality. It’s very easy to dump tons of water on your vines and increase your yield dramatically–but the end result is poor quality fruit and dismal environmental practice. Water in California is a limited resource. To consider this a viable means of growing wine grapes in California is one of the most blindered, selfish, greedy approaches I can imagine. And the wine sucks as a result, generally speaking.
The multitude of issues with Justin’s/Wonderful Brand’s destruction of the land are still taking shape, and it’s going to take action by the county to safeguard against this in the future–an oak-cutting ban has been considered but not passed in previous years, and that’s something that will likely be revisited after this. What sort of environmental impact responsibilities a property owner must comply with should also get a closer look. California Fish and Wildlife should have been closely involved before a single tree was cut–and there need to be limits on WHEN trees can be cut in any quantity. Doing so during nesting season should see an outright and immediate ban.
Justin’s neighbors are rightly concerned about the impact this has on their water resources. Most, if not all, of the neighboring property owners have well-earned reputations for sustainable farming practices. Most of them dry-farm, which both preserves water and results in much higher-quality grapes.
And those good neighbors–in every sense of the word–are the winemakers I intend to cover here. I want to tell the stories of people who love what they do, and who love and care for their land. You should feel good knowing that you’re buying a higher quality, handcrafted wine, and not giving your money to folks who don’t give a second thought to sustainability.