by Alastair Bland on Dec 07, 2011
Sonoma County provides some of the best wine in California, but some people are questioning the environmental costs.
Oenophiles who consume $230 magnums at Silicon Valley’s top restaurants may be unaware that one “rock star” winemaker currently finds himself in hot water.
This past October, in a rare instance of a local politician speaking out publicly against a member of the North Bay’s influential winemaking community, Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo lambasted winemaker Paul Hobbs for uprooting hundreds of trees in Sebastopol and adding one more open wound to a Russian River watershed already impacted by erosion and sediment. According to several Silicon Valley sommeliers, Paul Hobbs wines are among the most popular in the area’s top-tier restaurants.
Carrillo called Hobbs “one bad apple,” and noted that the globally renowned maker of high-end wines hadn’t bothered to acquire a permit to remove the trees, part of an old Christmas tree farm, which Hobbs is planning to buy and convert to vines.
It was one of three instances this year in which Hobbs has cut down trees to the dismay of onlookers. He leveled 10 acres in Pocket Canyon just east of Guerneville, and eight acres of redwood trees along Highway 116 on land acquired in a court settlement from his neighbor, John Jenkel.
“Paul Hobbs has shown a blatant disregard for Sonoma County, its resources, his fellow vintners and community sentiment,” Carrillo declared in an editorial printed in the Sonoma County Gazette.
All of this comes as a shock to Bert George, an industry expert of more than three decades and owner of one of San Jose’s most popular wine vendors, Joseph George Wine Shop.
“I would think clear-cutting happened back in the ‘50s, when people didn’t care. But people are so environmentally aware that I couldn’t imagine them doing anything like that,” George says. “We’ve sold Paul’s wines for probably 20 years. He’s not only a personal friend; he’s one of the best winemakers in the United States. He’s a rock star.
“If you’ve ever talked to Paul or met him, that’s not acceptable in the wine business. That just doesn’t go on.”
But environmentalists believe that Carrillo’s outburst over Hobbs’ actions needs to be echoed 100 times over. To Jim Doerksen, who has lived in the Mayacamas Mountains for 44 years and has watched local streams sucked dry as wineries near his property have been built, Carrillo’s words on Hobbs only amplify the silence that nearly all Sonoma County officials have kept toward the local wine industry through years of alleged environmental abuse.
“Efren said Hobbs is ‘one bad apple,’” Doerksen says, “but all we have are bad apples.”
Doerksen points straight to his neighbors, whom he charges with illegally cutting down about 60 acres of conifers to plant vineyards.
“These guys at Pride and Cornell [vineyards] are doing way worse things than Hobbs, but no one can see what they’re doing because they’re way up here in the mountains,” Doerksen explains. “Hobbs was right on Highway 116. Everyone saw the trees coming down. Efren had to say something.”
Carrillo tells Metro that Hobbs, who did not respond to requests for comment, showed defiance of law that mandated an objection. “My reaction was just my response to anyone not following policies that we have in place,” Carrillo says.