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.”
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.