WatchSonoma Watch

Clear-cutting along Gravenstein Highway sparks outcry


A long-running land battle between a winemaker and his irksome neighbor has escalated into Sebastopol-area ire over the clear-cutting of 8 acres along Gravenstein Highway.

The neighbor, political gadfly John Jenkel, said that within days of an auction in which part of his ranch was sold to Paul Hobbs Winery to satisfy part of a $350,000 judgment, Hobbs dispatched tree-cutters and heavy equipment operators to prepare the land for grapes.

What was once a scenic horse pasture lined with redwoods planted by his sons more than 30 years ago was stripped of all natural beauty, Jenkel said.

“It’s a desecration,” said Jenkel, 72, as he watched a bright yellow skip-loader rumble between piles of debris last week.

He’s not the only one upset. Locals are fuming about the denuded property, which Hobbs obtained for a fraction of its assessed value in three sheriff’s auctions. It is highly visible on the road from Graton to Forestville.

Some honked or yelled epithets out their car windows as they drove by. Even people who said they disagree with Jenkel’s in-your-face style found themselves sympathizing with the eccentric man.

“This is breaking my heart,” said Sebastopol pig farmer Al Mathers, who stopped her pickup on the side of the road to talk to Jenkel. “It’s nothing but meanness. This is rape.”

Others faulted the legal system. At the Willow Wood Market in Graton, barista Kelly Siemon questioned how a judge could allow it to happen.

“The whole thing just seems so wrong,” Siemon said.

Hobbs, who founded his winery in 1991, said he didn’t relish the idea of removing trees but defended it as necessary for planting a pinot noir vineyard.

He acquired the land for a combined $61,000 after years of frustrating legal action against Jenkel for destroying a stand of fir with excessive runoff. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more was spent on cleanup and paying off old liens, Hobbs said.

He said he obtained necessary county permits before beginning the work and has planted dozens of new trees to replace old ones.

He denied taking advantage of Jenkel, saying he would transform a “junkyard” littered with abandoned cars and ramshackle buildings into a community asset.

“None of this would have happened if he hadn’t killed our trees,” Hobbs said. “One of the trees fell on our winery. It was not a minor thing. We went through a lot of trouble with our neighbor.”

In a 2009 ruling, Judge Dean Beaupre agreed, calling Jenkel “unrepentant” after illegally dumping water on Hobbs’ grove. He accused Jenkel of making false claims and wasting court time. Another judge awarded damages, which Jenkel refused to pay.

“His actions have been a nightmare for the Hobbs Winery,” Beaupre wrote.

But Jenkel supporters said his behavior doesn’t justify what happened. A local web site buzzed with the developments. Subscribers of WaccooBB.net posted pictures of downed timber and urged people to call elected officials to do something about it.

Some labeled Jenkel’s plight elder financial abuse or railed about the emerging monoculture of vineyards. Others pressed for a boycott of Hobbs’ wine.

“Words cannot express my outrage at this typical vineyard tactic,” one online poster said. “The beginning salvo: chop everything down.”

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose 5th district includes the west county area, said he’s received from 20 to 30 calls or emails about the clearing, which is permissible because the land is zoned for agriculture.

However, Carrillo said the destruction of trees was “ill-advised” and could have been handled differently by moving some of them. He said the project, coupled with Hobbs’ separate timber-clearing operation in Pocket Canyon, shows disregard for “a good working relationship” with local officials.

“When you combine both projects, it does not demonstrate good will in the community,” Carrillo said.

Meanwhile, Jenkel is clinging to his remaining seven acres, despite still owing Hobbs more than $300,000. He vowed court action to set aside the initial judgment.

But whether that could happen is unclear. He said he won’t hire a lawyer because he doesn’t trust them.

“I want my land back,” Jenkel said.

11 Responses to “Clear-cutting along Gravenstein Highway sparks outcry”

  1. Jordan Cadogan says:

    So I can’t help but see some serious irony here – Paul Hobbs Winery group sued John Jenkel over the death of a stand of fir trees on the winery’s property, this sounds to me like Hobbs was unhappy to have trees die on his property, so him and his winery group sue Mr. Jenkel, win and sieze his property. Am I correct so far? And then, promply clearcuts the entire area to plant MORE grapevines??? Sounds like Hobbs Winery group was quite happy to have that stand of trees die because it created a scapegoat they could steal MORE land from to plant more grapes. They appear to be quite happy to have had that row of trees die because it resulted in them getting more land for next to nothing that they could turn a larger profit on.
    Or is it just me?

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  2. D. Devil's Advocate says:

    “The defendant had nothing to gain by killing them.” First, there is nothing in the article that disputes Hobbs’ position in this matter, just that people don’t like the judgement. And guess what, people will do things that don’t directly benefit them out of irrational or spiteful reasons.

    Wineries have an exit strategy?

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  3. Skippy says:

    A Donegan
    What world do you live in?
    Housing is the apex crop?
    You mean those devious winegrape growers are actually part of a silent conspiracy to blanket every arable acre of Sonoma Co. with ticky-tack houses? Really?
    I guess that’s why the last Napa Co. winery closed up this week when they finally paved over the lone remaining vineyard.
    Thanks for clearing that up for us.
    Now we know the industry that keeps our county afloat is actually just a front for evil developers.
    After all, how dare my kids consider owning a home in the State in which they were born and raised?!

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  4. amen says:

    I live just a block away and my heart just broke when I saw the devastation and now I get to look forward to more noise when they start spraying the stupid grape with God knows what. My cats are having respitory problems everytime they spray. Is anyone else sick around here?

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  5. Joseph Donegan says:

    DuPont makes a herbacide call Dowpon, it will killed firs very well, and will appear to be caused by overwatering.
    A very wise person once told me that a persons intent is defined by their action. Wagner is retired from the bench now, but those words ring here. The winery benefited from the loss of those origenal trees, allowing them to expand their planting. The defendant had nothing to gain by killing them.
    Now his land has been taken and leveled to expand the winery yet again.
    We all know that grapes are just a stepping stone toward the apex crop, which is housing of some sort, it has been the exit strategy for wineries across the state for years.
    It will be interesting to see what comes of the land once we are out of this economic downturn and housing rebounds?

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  6. Larry Hanson says:

    Regarding the comment by Dikulis (choosing not to reveal his or real name), there are good and bad businesses as we all know, and it is up to our government to reign in the bad ones to protect the rest of us. The above article does not mention that Jenkel and Hobbs verbally agreed that if Jenkel allowed an easement across Jenkel’s property that there would be no trees cut. So much for an agreement. Hobbs made allegations of cause that may or may be true. Without an attorney, Jenkel did not have a chance. A more astute judge may have recognized this situation better.

    Hobbs bulldozed over Jenkel and then did the same for the land he confiscated.

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  7. Social Dis-Ease says:

    I seems Hobb’s relationship with real estate and neighbors is one of convenience…mostly his. That’s how elitists roll. He’s making quite a name for himself. Wouldn’t ‘wanna put that name on a bottle though. I don’t think it would sell around here.

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  8. Observer says:

    “Words cannot express my outrage at this typical vineyard tactic,” one online poster said. “The beginning salvo: chop everything down.”

    The first salvo was Jenkel flooding out Hobbs property resulting in the grove of trees having to be destroyed. He faught, he lost. He appealed, he lost because he was wrong. He lost a settlement and refused to pay. You are seeing the result of that. After Hobbs bulldozed the condemned shack and trash piles, what did you think they would replace the eyesore with, apple trees?

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  9. Thomas Morabito says:

    I can hardly stop laughing long enough to comment on how Efren is trying to distance himself from big money winery and developer interests. I guess there was no way he could have predicted what a winery would do with prime land in Sonoma County. I apologize to the office for not addressing Supervisor Carrillo by his title but Efren has made it clear over the past couple of years that he does not represent me.

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  10. Riee Dikulis says:

    Since when is Efren Carrillo an authority on anything? He speaks like a demi-god who pronounces his opinions upon his subjects.

    The cold hard truth is Mr. Hobbs provides much needed employment and revenue to Efren’s little empire of dirt. If it were not for the Business people who take risks with their own money, Efren and his peers would be selling pet insurance or hush puppys.

    So it would be “ill advised” to shoot ones mouth off about a subject one knows so little about, it demonstrates ignorance.

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  11. Steve Humphrey says:

    Where was the public outcry when Jenkins killed a grove of Fir Trees on Hobbs property? And let’s keep this in perpective. This was not 8 acres of virgin old growth redwood forest, but trees planted thirty years ago along the hiway to buffer the property from roadside traffic. If Jenkins acted in a responsible fashion, none of this would have happened. You reap what you sow.
    Plant some more trees, and get over it.

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