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Sonoma County innovator mixes wine, ‘green’ building to thwart climate change

Driving a visitor on a stone lane up the hillside of his vast Geyserville wine grape vineyards, Hal Hinkle, a father of four grown children, mused about baby boomers and carbon emissions.

“If you think about our generation, we’ve really messed it up,” said Hinkle, 68, of damage done to the environment.

“We took all the resources, spewed all the carbon in the air, and are leaving it to them (our children) to clean it.”

The retired Wall Street executive isn’t doing anything of the sort. Since a personal epiphany in 2005 about the dangers of global warming caused by human-induced greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and the resulting extreme weather, Hinkle has simplified his lifestyle and transformed his business leadership. Although he’s taking a multifaceted approach, his singular focus is helping to save the planet.

This is a story about a man who grew up in a modest two-bedroom house in a southeast Los Angeles neighborhood with no trees, yet became a self-professed “tree hugger.”

Hinkle is now operating disparate businesses of organic winemaking, with his Sei Querce wines, and homebuilding, as CEO of Windsor-based BamCore, which makes carbon-friendly bamboo wall panels for houses to replace traditional wood stick framing.

“I’m now on these two paths. Both have to do with carbon,” Hinkle said. “Wine is an engaging way to bring the climate story to people. BamCore is the way to make an impact.”

Hal Hinkle, owner of Sei Querce Wines, photographed in a vineyard in the hills above Geyserville on Friday, July 9, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Hal Hinkle, owner of Sei Querce Wines, photographed in a vineyard in the hills above Geyserville on Friday, July 9, 2021. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

His personal climate change crusade was largely inspired by reading “The Climate of Man,” a three-part series in the New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert. He was particularly intrigued by Kolbert’s references to “tipping points” of global warming that, once reached, can’t be reversed, and the fact that people were paying scant attention to this potential peril.

“I thought this is a bad situation. It’s going to get out of control. … What can I do that’s helpful? Then I said, ‘I’ve got to think about climate change,’” Hinkle said.

With a 22-year finance career at Goldman Sachs and his top leadership role in a technology startup called BrokerTec Global, an electronic bond trading platform, behind him, he established the Hinkle Charitable Foundation, partly to alert everyone he knew that the climate challenge is urgent and real. Its mission: boost environmental, musical and nutritional education.

In 2009, Hinkle returned from the East Coast to his native California. A year later, he bought the 140-year-old hillside Fay Ranch in Geyserville, overlooking the majestic Alexander Valley grape-growing region, and subsequently the adjacent Ellis Ranch and house in which he lives on River Road.

His then-partner wanted to have outside space so she could have a horse, so he had been scouting for properties up to 20 acres. However, he “fell in love” with the vineyards and ended up buying close to 600 acres.

He went to work replanting and designing eight sections of grapevines. All farming methods were carefully conducted to be as carbon-neutral as possible.

By 2012, Hinkle was selling malbec, merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes to noted area wineries. In addition, last December he used some of the grapes grown from 2014 to 2016 to introduce his Sei Querce wines.

The wine bottles were made to be lighter than is typical, reducing the carbon needed to make and transport them. “Sei querce” means “six oaks” in Italian, and there are six main oak tree varieties across his expansive property. The oldest is a wide-bodied 450-year-old, one of the oldest oaks of its kind in Sonoma County, next to the Ellis house.

Renew and recycle

Back driving on the stone path winding through the hillside vineyards, Hinkle said the mantra on his farm is simple: Always reuse, never get new, and always recycle.

At that point, he drove over a small metal bridge made from parts of two recycled railroad cars tied together. As trees have fallen in high winds or have been burned by wildfire, their limbs lay there as part of the natural habitat. “We don’t do anything cosmetic,” he said.

As he drove farther up the hillside, there was flat ground with a hulking, unfinished structure of concrete and what appeared to be clay roof tiles.

“There’s my stopped house,” Hinkle said, pointing it out to his visitor in the car’s passenger seat.

In 2015, he imported building materials for his house from Europe, as part of a plan to build a retirement home with a low carbon footprint. But he said a divorce put it on hold and his focus on producing and marketing BamCore’s bamboo wall panels as an eco-friendly alternative to frame houses and apartments has consumed his time.

Although he doesn’t eat meat, Hinkle keeps the vegetation low on his ranch by leasing cattle that eat the grass rather than having a maintenance crew mow, cut or trim it with equipment that releases carbon into the air. And on his property, the workers know the rule is only to drive vehicles when necessary. Leaving them on and idling is a big no-no.

He’s proud his sustainable ranch helped put in place climate adaptation protocols for vineyards in the county, and he also donated money toward that effort. He’s also happy the county has a climate change plan, in place since 2015, and a climate protection agency.

There’s a rich history of farming on Hinkle’s property going back many decades before his ownership. Wine grapes have been the main crop since 1952. Before that, prune trees lined the hillside.

Near the top, which features a panoramic view of Alexander Valley and downtown Geyserville in the distance, the last prune tree fell over last year in a windstorm. Hinkle said the 125-year-old relic will remain unmoved where it keeled over, until the last leaf on it dies.

Winery on hold

Part of Hinkle’s grand plan was to build a small winery.

Then he had an “aha!” moment, realizing building the winery would create too much embodied carbon. It’s overlooked, he said, as people focus on managing business operations to release less carbon.

Embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide emissions associated with materials and construction of a building. Simply, it refers to the carbon footprint of a building or infrastructure project before it becomes operational.

Building permits already in hand, Hinkle halted the winery project because of embodied carbon concerns.

“I said I can’t do it, and I froze,” he said. The winery remains on hold until he can figure out a greener way to build it. “I kept coming back to: It’s embodied energy that’s killing us.”

Fabrication Specialist David Campos checks the paint nozzles that will make precise ID codes and nail markings on the bamboo-based walls produced at BamCore in Windsor, Calif. on Monday, July 12, 2021. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Fabrication Specialist David Campos checks the paint nozzles that will make precise ID codes and nail markings on the bamboo-based walls produced at BamCore in Windsor, Calif. on Monday, July 12, 2021. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Sourcing bamboo

With his new house and winery mothballed, BamCore CEO Hinkle is working 80 to 100 hours a week on the most ambitious venture of his lifetime to expand the upstart operation he took over in January 2017 from company founder William McDonald.

The long-term goal is to revolutionize U.S. residential construction using natural fibers to sharply reduce the building industry’s massive carbon emissions and spur vast global bamboo growing to support that.

Dr. Howard Leonard, a retired clinical psychologist in Palm Springs who has known Hinkle since they were undergraduate students at UC Irvine in 1974, wouldn’t bet against him achieving that ultimate objective.

“If anybody can do it, it’s him,” said Leonard, a founding trustee of Hinkle’s private foundation. “He’s both the student and the teacher.” The student earned an MBA and doctorate in neuroscience from Columbia University and was a graduate research fellow at the National Science Foundation.

At BamCore’s factory in Ocala, Florida, timber bamboo often grown in less-developed countries is fabricated into wall panels of varying sizes. In Windsor, the panels are cut to precision to fit around windows, and the locations of a home’s plumbing and electrical lines are denoted on them for customers.

The customers, from Washington, D.C., to Hawaii, are residential developers of structures up to five stories and homeowners.

The Ocala factory is the first in the world making the bamboo wall panels, Hinkle said. It takes about 200 on average to build a house. The company’s short-term target is to be able to produce a million panels a year to make 5,000 houses.

To do that, BamCore has been arranging a chain of bamboo suppliers in Asia, Africa, North America and Latin America.

As director of supply development, Travis Hargett has been building the company’s crucial global supply chain from scratch since October 2016. He’s traveled to 22 nations and secured 35 bamboo producers, including in Ecuador, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and Ghana.

“We are building a supply chain that never existed outside of China,” said Hargett, 32, who is based in the Los Angeles area when he’s in the states.

Hargett was speaking from Ghana, in West Africa, where he’s trying to forge a relationship with two prospects to grow timber bamboo. He thinks each in a year could harvest enough to ship 10 containers a month to BamCore’s Florida factory. There, each container of 60,000 slats of 10-foot-long bamboo pieces would be fabricated into wall panels.

In the last five years, Hargett said, hundreds of people in emerging nations have derived indirect economic income selling bamboo to BamCore.

Director of Fabrication Jack Forese, left, and Fabrication Specialist David Campos check the paint nozzles that make precise ID codes and nail markings on the bamboo-based walls produced at BamCore in Windsor on Monday, July 12, 2021. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Director of Fabrication Jack Forese, left, and Fabrication Specialist David Campos check the paint nozzles that make precise ID codes and nail markings on the bamboo-based walls produced at BamCore in Windsor on Monday, July 12, 2021. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Turning buildings into carbon sinks

Buildings generate about 40% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, and the majority of that is in the construction, Hinkle said.

“Buildings have to be the carbon sink of the future,” he said, explaining that can’t be accomplished with continued heavy use of concrete and steel.

Through research on embodied carbon in construction, Hinkle said he learned that wood along with bamboo can “suck carbon out of the air and store it for hundreds of years in buildings. I’ve never seen an opportunity as impactful environmentally.”

Also, the fast-growing natural fiber can be as hard as concrete, and like steel, bamboo can’t be pulled apart. He said growing bamboo, harvesting it and using it to replace some wood, concrete and steel in construction is the best way for nature and human activity to sequester carbon dioxide in buildings.

BamCore’s wall panels are designed to eliminate 80% or more of the cavity of structural wood frames, including studs, headers, foam insulation and beams. The panels, which comply with international building codes, improve the thermal environment of homes and the acoustics by reducing sound transmission through exterior and interior walls.

They also meet California's strict new zero net energy building standards.

“I was so reluctant at first that I was going to lose my shirt on some ... kind of experiment,” Sonoma homebuilder Daniel Bowen said, when he first used the bamboo panels on a house in 2017.

“Now, I can’t wait to do the next one.”

Still in startup mode, Hinkle expects BamCore, which received a national award last month for its innovation supporting housing affordability, to turn its first profit late in 2022. That would be a swift rebound from the gut punch the pandemic delivered, forcing the company to restructure.

In five years, Hinkle hopes the business is a big enough fabricator of walls, floors and roofs to stimulate a global focus on growing timber bamboo.

He would like to make more money, too, but profiting from this venture and his climate mission with it are inextricably linked.

“This decade is it,” Hinkle, the entrepreneurial climate crusader, said of the dire need to slow global warming.

“It’s probably pathological in my case, how serious I am about this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Bomberger at 707-5215246 or paul.bomberger@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BiznewsPaulB

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