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Something is Rotten in Denmark

Paging Julia Flynn Siler – a Shakespearean tale of familial conflict and vengeance is within our midst.

Siler, the author of family saga The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, should be taking notes for the next wine country tale of business, scandal, money and family intrigue because a story is darn near writing itself quietly in Guerneville, CA.

I have seen recent news reports from the Sonoma County’s newspaper, The Press Democrat, about Korbel and ponderous legal moves they have been making to have anonymous commenters on Internet site Craigslist revealed.

Under the premise of libelous comments in a very small sub-section of an Internet site, Korbel is maintaining that comments about bribery, sexual harassment retribution and the cutting of redwood trees are injurious to their $160M a year business.

You can get caught up on the news at the following three links from The Press-Democrat presented chronologically based on publication date:

September 28, 2008

February 24, 2009

March 5, 2009

Oddly enough, two things that you might expect from a story of this nature HAVE NOT happened.

1) This story is picked up by other news outlets nationally
2) The Press-Democrat does an investigative piece to go beyond the straight reporting

Internet-based libel cases are still very much on the edge of legal rulings.  There is not a whole lot of precedent.  For that reason alone, you might expect that this story would be picked up outside of Sonoma County with national business press or, at the least, niche Internet technology press.  Yet, that has not happened.  A search of the Internet reveals nary a press mention for this Korbel legal wrangling outside of The Press-Democrat reporting.

Secondarily, you might expect that The Press Democrat would be taking this story much further than the “just the facts” reporting approach they are demonstrating, hewing to this story just as it presents itself.

Taken at face value, a winery suing to have the names of anonymous commenters from Craigslist revealed because they are damaging to their business is head scratching. 

The Press-Democrat articles citing Korbel and the legal wranglings have to exceed the small amount of people who may have viewed potentially libelous allegations against Korbel on the Internet.

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The Korbel web site was last overhauled in 2003, so it is not as if Korbel is on the bleeding edge of understanding and utilizing the Internet.

So, why bother?  Simply put, it just doesn’t make any sense.

To paraphrase Shakespeare from Hamlet, his revenge themed masterpiece, Something is Rotten in Denmark.

Perhaps, the mainstream press is smart for not picking up this story and maybe The Press-Democrat is playing this one straight because the truth and the motives behind Korbel’s sudden interest in protecting its interest online has yet to fully play itself out.

Alternatively, maybe the back story for Korbel and their sudden interest in the Internet and libel is coded into the “just the facts” approach with their recent reporting.

In the first Press-Democrat story detailing this legal wrangle, the reporter, Steve Hart, almost haphazardly tacks on a mention of Korbel President Gary Heck’s estranged daughter, Richie Ann Samii.

Quoting The Press-Democrat article from September 28th:

Some of the postings cited in the lawsuit make veiled references to Richie Ann Samii, estranged daughter of Korbel owner Gary B. Heck.

Samii and her husband are named in a lawsuit filed by two former Korbel employees accusing the couple of sexually assaulting them at the winery in 2006. The wine company has not been named in the suit, and the couple deny the charges.

Samii also has fought with Heck over a family trust fund and rights to a company-owned ranch where she raised horses and zebras. Samii moved from the Guerneville ranch in April following a partial settlement of the dispute.

Some of the Craigslist posts allege the winery has prevented Samii from retrieving her animals since she left the property.

Another search on the Internet reveals a 2,400 word investigative article published on May 18th in The Press-Democrat that exhaustively details a battle over money between Heck and his daughter, Samii.

Included in this article is the following juicy tidbit:

Heightening tensions in the current dispute are Samii’s threats against her father and other Korbel officials, documented in court papers. They culminated in the restraining orders, which also required Samii to surrender any firearms in her possession.

Court records from the civil case say that in March 2007, Samii threatened to shoot any Korbel employees who came onto the ranch, and in August a message was posted on her MySpace page, calling her father a vulgar name and displaying an image of a kitten sighting down the scope of a rifle pointed out a window.

Korbel’s motion for protective orders said that Samii’s threats of violence, including a threat to burn down the ranch if she was evicted, “evidenced profound instability and indeed craziness.”

Superior Court Judge Gayle Guynup issued the protective orders in September, saying there was “clear and convincing evidence” of Samii’s threats.

Zitrin said he did not dispute the judge’s decision, but called Heck’s pursuit of the order “an attempt to paint Richie in a bad light and to paint her into a corner.” The MySpace posting was “very foolish,” he said.

I want to choose my words carefully as libel and slander are not things to be taken lightly.  But, in my best “speculative-columnist-opinion-based-on-conjecture” stance, I think the guardians of freedom of speech on the Internet can rest easy.

This story is not about Korbel going after any random anonymous commenter on the Internet because it is injurious to their business.

What this story is about is Korbel going after a random anonymous commenter on the Internet who very likely has very, very close, perhaps a blood relationship, to Korbel President Gary Heck.

What this story is about is the same thing Shakespeare wrote about some 400 years ago.  It’s the same thing that Julia Flynn Siler wrote about in regards to the Mondavi’s.  This is a story about family, business, in fighting, jealousy, estrangement, money, and vengeance.

This is really a story about Gary Heck, Korbel and his daughter, Richie Ann Samii, with whom there is a trust fund, a lot of money and a restraining order.

It is too bad, too.  I almost wish Korbel was simply going after anonymous negative commenters.  Sadly, I think there would be less collateral damage if that were the case and certainly, nobody is going to pop a cork on a bottle of bubbly.



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Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (3) |


Comments

On 03/07, Dirty wrote:

Thanks for some real info on this—

It seems like this spun itself into a frenzy in the twitterverse and came across that Korbel was attacking bloggers/commenters for slamming their juice and brand.

Now it is about mutant Zebra’s, couples gettin’ frisky on employees, a myspace cat w/ gun pics, and stacks o’ paper!

On 03/07, Jeff wrote:

Which, in my estimation, is a heck of a lot more interesting than an assault on Freedom of Speech, you know.

I lived through 8 years of Bush, I’m numb to loss of privacy, but love a good scandal.

Jeff

On 03/07, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Though not as sordid but just as potentially calamitous, the principals of Schramsberg have also been snared in a web of greed and jealousy.  It seems as though there’s more than just love and joy in those bubbles.

It’s commonplace for siblings to fight over million dollar wine estates ( Charles Krug, Mondavi, Sebastiani etc).  Kids feuding with parents over their cut while the parents are still living personifies evil mean spiritedness.  Best of luck to Gary Heck as he continues to spank his ungrateful bratty child.


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