The Paul Hobbs Empire Strikes Back

The Watertrough Children’s Alliance (WCA)–mainly mothers with students at schools near where yet another apple orchard is being converted into a chemical vineyard–filed a lawsuit on the afternoon of November 25 against the Paul Hobbs Winery. The next day Hobbs struck back with a press release, promising he “will aggressively fight.”

Hobbs is famous for being aggressive, fighting neighbors, and abusing land. Called “the wine industry’s bad boy,” he regularly breaks the rules and then pays paltry fines—“business as usual” for him. He plans to use toxic pesticides next to five schools with over 500 students, which would also hurt family members, teachers, staff, and neighbors. Hobbs does not follow a “good neighbor” policy.

The lawsuit asserts that the permit issued Hobbs by Sonoma County should be subject to California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regulations. It contends that it poses threats to wildlife and water quality. Filed by attorney Paul Carroll, it seeks state intervention to halt the conversion.

Hobbs “is one of the world’s most influential wine consultants,” according to Jeremy Hay in “Sonoma Magazine: The Heart of the Wine Country.” Sonoma used to be known primarily as part of the natural “Redwood Empire.” It is now the most lucrative wine county in the United States and known internationally more as the commercial “Wine Country.”

Hobbs was designated this year by Forbes Magazine as “the Steve Jobs of wine.” Though he apparently gives careful attention to the quality of his wines, he also develops “prickly relationships” with workers, neighbors, and associates. He can be “a pain in the ass at times,” Hay quotes his winemaker Scott Morrison as saying.

“Hobbs has infuriated officials, neighbors and industry peers by clear-cutting trees,” Hay writes. Hobbs previously was found guilty of violating Sonoma County’s Vineyard Erosion and Soil Control Ordinance (VESCO).

The November 26 article on the lawsuit by the daily Press Democrat, whose owners have holdings in the local wine industry, is biased in favor of Hobbs. It only quotes one sentence from the WCA attorney and none from Hobbs many critics, including the mothers of WCA and activists in the Apple Roots Group that has hosted various protests.

Meanwhile, it quotes Hobbs’ defensive public relations person three separate times, as well as two other supporters of Hobbs. The wine industry and its heroic winemakers tend to rule Sonoma County. The fact that Sonoma County has been transformed in recent years from diverse food agriculture into the monocrop of winegrapes is not mentioned.

Wine baron Hobbs travels the globe from Sebastopol to Latin America, Asia, Europe, Armenia, and elsewhere to oversee his expansive empire. He helicopters over local neighbors and disrupts their rural peace and quality of life in pursuit of his cash cow—wine. At up to $300 a bottle, only the wealthy benefit from his extractions from the Earth’s bounty.

After buying a 48-acre apple orchard, Hobbs ripped out trees and other vegetation that held the soil in place. Then it rained. Members of WCA and the Apple Roots Group of parents and neighbors called regulators, who once again issued a Stop Work order, which halted the conversion for two months.

Apple Roots Group organized a protest at a Hobbs wine tasting. He cancelled when some 75 people picketed outside, rather than risk exposing customers to the public outcry.

“Hobbs utilizes sustainable practices in his vineyards,” the press release boldly asserts. Hobbs describes himself as a “steward of the land.” This is pure green-washing. If he was sustainable, he would not have had his recent conversion declared illegal because it lead to soil erosion and he would not illegally have clear-cut redwoods and other trees three previous times. Hobbs has a long string of broken promises.

Vintners have been reluctant to speak up publicly against Hobbs, but some privately call him “a jerk.” Duff Bevill, who farms about 1,000 acres of grapes, is quoted by Hay as saying that what Hobbs does “is insidious to the entire industry.” Longtime grower Saralee Kunde also points to Hobbs as an example of how not to develop a vineyard.

Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar adds that Hobbs’ Watertrough actions “bring negative attention to the program we have worked so hard to build.” Former Sonoma County Winegrowers President Nick Frey has also drawn a distinction between Hobb’s and the larger grape-grower community.

Local environmental activist Helen Shane describes Hobbs’ way of doing business as the “Whoops” method: “Do exactly as you please, mutter ‘Whoops’ when caught, pay a fine and go on to wreak havoc. Cheaper and more effective than abiding by the rules, as most other business people do.”

“Corporations are waiting in the wings to snap up orchards and parcels of land to develop into more wine grape vineyards,” said grapegrower and neighbor Bill Shortridge.  “It gives the responsible growers a bad name.  The Paul Hobbses have no interest in our agriculture.  They only look at the bottom line, at the expense of our eco-system, agricultural community, and health.”

“This is a watershed moment in our hilly and hazard-prone watersheds,” says geologist Jane Nielson. “The County’s lax oversight of agricultural development has invited abusive agricultural development, such as Hobbs practices. It’s easy to see why rural residents seek better scrutiny of permit applications.”

Hobbs actions–including the most recent press release threatening his famous aggression and “I’ll do as I please” attitude–could trigger stricter regulations for the wine industry. Some even call for a moratorium on new vineyards, contending that “enough is enough.”

Shepherd Bliss (3sb@comcast.net) teaches college part-time and farms. Read other articles by Shepherd, or visit Shepherd's website.