(From left) Steve MacDonald, Ernie Carpenter and Crystal Shaw protest the Watertrough Rd. orchard conversion by picketing outside of Paul Hobbs Winery in Sebastopol on Monday, July 29, 2013. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A group of about 50 protesters angry at what they say is an environmentally damaging vineyard conversion project demonstrated in front of Paul Hobbs Winery in Sebastopol on Monday.
A week later, the county shut down the project because workers illegally removed creek-side vegetation and failed to prevent erosion.
Hobbs, who was recently called the “Steve Jobs of wine” by Forbes magazine, has become an easy target for west Sonoma County protesters who worry that large-scale grape growing threatens organic agriculture.
“We are not against the wine industry, we are against his particularly toxic practices,” said Shepherd Bliss, an organizer. “He’s greedy. All he wants to do is extract money from the ground.”
Protesters also say the project, next to two schools, will churn up pesticide-laden dust and harm children.
Tara Sharp, spokeswoman for Paul Hobbs Winery, declined to comment on the protest citing the frequency of such actions. There have been at least three protests at the winery in the past month.
Protesters chanted slogans, held signs that said things like “Stop orchard conversion,” and danced to the music of the Hubbub Club, an eccentric Graton-based marching band.
Comments tended toward the vitriolic.
“These fat cats need to go to jail,” said Eileen Morabito of Sebastopol. “We gotta be sick and tired of this. Go to jail, Paul Hobbs.”
Organizer Thomas Cooper, whose son attends a school near the Hobbs site, laid out the group’s demands, which include revoking the Watertrough Road conversion permit, putting a moratorium on new vineyards in Sonoma County and requiring conventional vineyards to adopt organic practices.
Former County Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who joined the picket, said the county should pass rules requiring agricultural projects to include a buffer between neighbors.
“The county needs to adopt a setback ordinance to protect schools and things like that,” he said.
Hobbs has said he is building a fence to keep dust away from the schools.
The winemaker likely faces fines for the environmental damage done during the conversion project, Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar has said. Hobbs is required to repair the environmental damage before resuming the project.
A plan detailing the environmental work has not yet been submitted to the county, the agriculture commissioner’s office said Monday.
Protesters had planned on blocking the entrance to the winery in an act of civil disobedience, but later decided against it. A sheriff’s deputy, who arrived at the end of the two-hour protest just as demonstrators were dispersing, took no action.