Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dominari Drama

I decided to venture out today to some wineries -- not too far, though. In fact, not far at all! There are two wineries I have never tried, both within a few hundred feet of my home (basically across the street.) One of them is Hyde de Villaine, who apparently take "a French approach to California wine" (but it's not the first time I've heard that line).

I had occasionally seen the winery sign for it, but hadn't really noticed the tasting room before... and with good reason! It's a tiny little place, basically the family home with a little crush pad/storage building and tasting room out back. I discovered this because, rather than calling them to make an appointment, I decided I would just walk over there (less than 5 minute walk away) and check it out. The reason why is because, even though many Napa wineries require an appointment, they are often more than happy to take you in and pour for you if you're just one or two people and you show up unannounced. However, this is only the case for some of the larger wineries that have someone pouring at all times. Sometimes the appointments are due to the wineries getting overbooked and swamped, but what I've come to realize is that the appointments are often a cost-efficiency measure; they won't have somebody there to pour for you and give you the tasting unless you make an appointment. I suppose that really makes sense for days like today -- a weekday after the holidays are over, in the dead of the non-tourist winter season. Sure enough, when I showed up, there was nobody there. Let me correct that: there was somebody there, you pulled the living room curtain aside and gave me a curious glance out the front window of their home as I walked up their driveway... I meandered back to the work/tasting room area, but all doors were closed and no sign of anybody. Then an older man came out of the house, got in his PT Cruiser, and exchanged a wave and a smile with me as he drove to his mailbox to get the mail -- there wasn't much interaction. I didn't ask him for a tasting, figured I'd save it for when I actually make an appointment.

The day soon got a little more interesting. I walked up Trancas, past the Chevron station to a brand new tasting room for Dominari. I had often noticed the large patch of empty land right there on the corner across from my local shopping center, and over the past year I watched as this large wooden building was constructed, and finally opened to the public in Summer 2010. I simply never really took the time to go check it out, so I decided today was the day.

Again, I skipped the phonecall and just walked over. The gate was open but there was only one car in the whole lot, and I noticed their usual "Open for Tasting" sandwich sign was folded up and not out in the open. I ventured inside anyway, to find a man (who didn't look like a pourer) behind the counter washing dishes. He gave me a quizzical look and I informed him I was just curious and was there to check it out, which I did (to see what they were pouring) and then asked permission to take some photos. I finally inquired about tasting, and he told me that it is by appointment and costs $10 per person (which is applied to a purchase) -- this is a much more reasonable policy than most of Napa, but I'll save that rant for another post, because something interesting happened next.

I took some photos and then left, but as I was leaving I saw a man and woman suddenly at the entrance, hammering some picket signs into the ground just outside. I looked at them and they read "Dominari CEO does NOT pay back loans!" and "Dominari Wine CEO owes growers, WILL NOT PAY" Oh boy, Napa Valley drama! (I don't know what it is, but there is a lot of local drama and politics in Napa Valley. I've seen it in my school district, with the town hall overflowing with people divided over removal of the high school administrators; it happened even more significantly in St. Helena where the town had a divisive split and ousted the entire school board; it happens with zoning, with the Fagiani bar building permits... all sorts of fiscal and political things.)
I talked to the woman (didn't get her name, but she said she's from Atlas Peak), and she said that the Dominari CEO simply refuses to uphold contracts and pay people she owes money to. This woman was there because she said she had given them a loan to get off the ground 6 years ago, and it has never been repaid (even after taking them to court over it) -- several people have been given checks, but they all bounced. She said the CEO owes $70,000 to a grower she bought grapes from; that they also owe money to bottlers, and even the architect who designed the new tasting room. I found it intriguing that this would be possible, unless somehow Dominari is simply in the red and has no way to do so. So I asked her: is it because they can't pay? No, she insisted, they have plenty of money -- they just refuse to pay their debtors. So that is why she has taken this last-ditch drastic measure to inform the public, maybe get a lawsuit lawyer interested, dissuade contractors from working with Dominari, etc.

Now, I'm not trying to slander Dominari here. I don't know how much of this is true or accurately represented -- I find it odd that, even after going to court, Dominari would not have been forced to repay loans in writing, especially if they are so profitable as I was told. However, I also find it unlikely that somebody would go to this measure if there wasn't some truth to it.

If, on the one hand, Dominari is simply having trouble staying afloat, then I would have no qualms encouraging you to go ahead and stop into the tasting room and give them a try (and I myself would like to do so) -- after all, supporting their business would allow them to pay back their debts. If, on the other hand, Marie Schutz is truly just being a deadbeat, then I wouldn't want to support her and can't blame these picketers for trying to prevent people from doing so.

For now, I'm going to remain neutral, but I thought I would share this glimpse into some of the "behind the scenes" business side of things in Napa Valley, and some of the major politics and feuds that are far more prevalent here than you would at first realize!

UPDATE (1/28/2011): The Napa Valley Register finally picked up on this and made it a story... you can click here to go to that article to read more about this picketer (Karen Menicucci) and other snubbed workers and business associates.

Needless to say, I have decided not to visit this winery and pay them any money, not even for a tasting.

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