Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Problems with the California Vintners Hall of Fame Nominating Process

September 21, 2010  By John Olney

For those of you who may not know, I have been a member of both the Nominating Committee (NC) and the Electoral College (EC) since the inaugural year (2006) with the selection of the Class of 2007. I offer the following observations, conclusions and recommendations about the current procedures related to the recent California Vintners Hall Of Fame (CVHOF) nominating, voting and selection process. 

To read about those who have already been inducted, click here:; http://amerwine.blogspot.com/2010/09/inductees-thru-class-of-2010-calif.html

I would like to point out a number of errors, misstatements, and obvious personal observations contained in the most recent CVHOF nomination ballot abstracts that I believe are inappropriate to what we are trying to accomplish. The abstracts coversheet has no qualifying caveat stipulating that they were not written by the NC but rather by it's chairman, or perhaps some other single member. Thus, the other EC members probably assume the abstracts are essentially generated by the NC or at least are approved by that committee, which is not the practice.

It is my opinion that our job is to evaluate the wine business contribution(s) made by nominees to the California Wine Industry and not the legal issues that happen between an owner and a winemaker (or other employee/agency), civic contributions and charity donations that are certainly noble and commendable but not directly related to contributions to the California Wine Industry.

The presentation that follows represents a few of the abstract examples of what I personally feel contain false information, statements not germane to the subject of contribution(s) to the California Wine Industry, and/or are personal beliefs about the nominee as opposed to supported factual information. I took great exception to the abstracts on a number of nominees. I complained to the CIA sponsor representatives on three separate occasions seeking a revised ballot to be send out to the Electoral College members. Although they indicated amendment was being considered, they made no such transmission before the close of balloting on September 17, 2009.

I encourage all to make comment and provide feedback about the nominee abstracts contained in the ballot of the Class of 2011 as well as my observations, conclusions and recommendations contained herein. I also want to add that none of these are not made out of malice but rather in an effort to better the process for the nomination, election and meaning of induction to the CVHOF.

Incidentally, I voted favorably on the nominations of Steele, Franzia. Dunn and Sebastiani -- of the five discussed below-- plus a number of others listed on the full ballot. But my reasoning for my vote was not based on any of the abstracts presented on the ballot but rather my own knowledge through research and interviews of the contributions made by many of those nominated, including those listed above and my own lengthy interviews of four (Dunn, Steele, Trinchero and Sullivan) and phone conversations with one (DeLuca) for my wine industry books (Nevada and Napa Counties) in draft at this time.

TO READ ABOUT ALL OF THE CANDIDATES AND THEIR FULL ABSTRACTS, CLICK HERE:; http://amerwine.blogspot.com/2010/09/nomination-ballot-abstracts-for-class.html

Observations and Conclusions

Jed Steele
“….He left K-J in 1991...and lost a lawsuit to K-J involving "trade secrets" about winemaking. So you won't see many interviews from Steele, but he has continued to make good wines…… . Steele continues to play a necessarily quiet role in crafting quality California wine.”

I am interviewing Jed Steele for my Nevada County Wine Industry book, “Empire Gold: Mines to Wines -The Past Meets the Present,” focused on 17 wineries. I am doing this by phone and e-mail in part while Jed was recently in travel status and when I sat down with him on September 13 for an extended in-person interview. Earlier I asked him about the Kendall-Jackson/Jed Steele lawsuits. His description of the results of the suits are vastly different than what is presented in the abstract and I quote Jed below:

“I didn't ‘lose’ my lawsuit against Kendall Jackson. This legal action had four separate elements. The judge ruled that I prevailed in two matters and that Kendall Jackson prevailed in two matters. As part of the verdicts, I actually received a cash settlement from K-J. The only restriction placed on me was that I was prohibited from making Chardonnay according to a ‘supposed’ formula used at Kendall Jackson.”

I also asked him if he was restricted from giving interviews because of the lawsuit and he immediately fired back the following:
“John, first of all I have given numerous interviews, etc... over the past 19 years to all sorts of publications. Consulting all over the western USA for 15+ years, really wouldn't be considered keeping a low profile!”
Later in the conversation, he indicated he was under no such restrictions that result in a “necessarily quiet role“ in the California/American Wine Industry!

If any of you attended the 11th Annual Lake County Wine Auction event this past Saturday evening, you would have seen and heard speaker after speaker praising the efforts and commitment by Jed Steele to the growth of both vineyards and wineries and quality of wines produced in Lake County. Those efforts were also recognized and rewarded by the U.S. Congress issuing Jed a commendation plaque presented to him personally at the auction by local resident U/S. Congressmen Mike Thompson.

Fred Franzia
“…Franzia introduced Charles Shaw wines, varietal vintage wines in bottles for just $2. ….which allowed low income people to have a bottle of wine on the table with dinner. ... He has done as much as anyone in the 21st century to make California wine a part of American daily life. “

Since legal issues are addressed in the abstract for Jed Steele, I cannot help but wonder why the fact that Fred Franzia in 1994, pleaded guilty to federal felony charges for fraud for intentional false grape grading/pricing, was not also included in the Franzia abstract? Then he lost his case to use central valley grapes under former Napa Valley labels he purchased and with that loss, the ruling aids in guaranteeing the protection of AVA and the wine in that bottle. There is no mention of this fact which is as monumental, if not more so, as the protection of alleged “proprietary winemaking formulas.”

If we are to bring up legal issues on one nominee then we need to bring up the same on all other nominees. Otherwise don’t bring up legal issues at all!

The abstract stipulates that Franzia “…introduced Charles Shaw wines, varietal vintage wines in bottles for just $2. ” This is incorrect. Franzia bought rights to the label from the former wife of Charles F. Shaw . The winery operated in the 1980s producing Beaujolais styled wines in upper valley Napa County between St. Helena and Calistoga. Mrs. Shaw gained rights to the label in the 1990s through divorce settlement of the joint property.

Additionally, it was not Franzia per se who introduced “Two Buck Chuck” wine but rather the retail outlets of Trader Joe’s who exclusively presented the wine directly to the consumer public. It is true that Franzia/Bronco produced the wine but Bronco did not sell it directly to the consuming public. The production was a joint business effort of the two separate companies.

Without a retail outlet as well known and patronized by wine and food consumers, the wine in the bottles of what became “Two-Buck Chuck’ would most likely have never become so popular. There were a number of factors that came together to make the success of the wine:

First of all is the extreme popularity of Trade Joe’s stores. It took awhile for the average consumer to even know that it was Franzia/Bronco who produced the wine.

Second was the innocent nicknaming of the Charles Shaw wine as “Two Buck Chuck” by a non-participating party in Los Angeles area and that name has not appeared as a wine label name. That catchy and very marketable nickname greatly helped launch the success of the wine.

Third is the fact that it can only be purchased at a Trader Joe’s outlet, making it exclusive, unique and therefore more interesting to the consumer market.

Fourth was the price of $1.99, which by the way, was only available in California outlets. It sold for $2.99-3.99 elsewhere.

The concept that the wine “allowed low income people to have a bottle of wine on the table with dinner,” is, in my opinion, an unfounded editorial comment that lacks any credible evidence since the wine sells in all economic groups. I doubt seriously that the owners of Trader Joe’s will appreciate such an evaluation of their customer base. Cost Plus, $/dollar stores, supermarkets, etc have also offered wines in the $1 to $4 price range. Before these “new marketing methods” were many wines made by large companies that were affordable to almost all income levels of America - Virginia Dare, Italian Swiss Colony, etc. just to name a couple.

The following is a unfounded editorial comment about Fred Franzia by the author of the abstract: “He has done as much as anyone in the 21st century to make California wine a part of American daily life.” This is simply a lobbyist-like statement, an opinion only, not the result of market assessment or survey. It is the type of comment most appropriate to an induction ceremony but not a nomination abstract.

Randy Dunn
“... An iconoclast who has never joined Napa Valley Vintners or participated in Auction Napa Valley, he has nonetheless led fund-raising efforts for Howell Mountain schools and fire-fighting. ……Dunn is also an advocate for preserving forest. He owns more than 200 acres on Howell Mountain, but has planted only about 30 and has donated 63 to the Napa Valley Land Trust.”

Not joining the NVV is a completely editorial comment by the author of the abstract. Dunn is not the only Napa Valley winemaker/owner who has not joined the NVV, or participated in the auction. Only about 45% of all Napa County CABC Type 2 - winegrower licensed wineries are members of NVV. Almost all vintners, regardless of AVA, contribute wine and/or cash to fund-raising efforts in local communities. Are we to list all advocacy and charity groups for all nominees? These statements has no place in our abstracts. How do they relate to Dunn’s, or any other candidate’s contribution to the California Wine Industry?

Preserving forest? Others do the same, and it is a noble act, but this is not a contribution to the California Wine Industry.

Not planting all owned acres to vineyards? There are how many wineries and growers who own large amounts of land and for a number of reasons do not plant all to vines? If the author was trying to say that Dunn held off planting more acres to vineyards to preserve forest land then the author needs to rewrite the last two sentences to ensure that will be the readers conclusion. But more importantly, how does this make a contribution to the California Wine Industry?

I was privileged to interview Randy Dunn for my book in draft, “The Essence of the Modern Napa Valley Wine Industry - A Trilogy of Contributions by Individual and Team Greats.” I can truly say that there is much more to the man and his contributions to the California Wine Industry that could have been mentioned than what the abstract contained.

Robert M. Parker, Jr.
“…– if Parker gives an unknown wine a high rating, it can sell out without any trouble from the three-tier distribution system that blocks the success of many small wineries….”.

Is the author of the this abstract the PR man, lobbyist, etc for Parker? How does this portion of the abstract qualify as a contribution to the California Wine Industry? Why are we singling out the three-tier distribution system? I thought that our Electoral College is not suppose to be a political organization. It serves no useful purpose to take on those big businesses!

August Sebastiani
“…He played a major part in the economic development of the town of Sonoma, and was a significant philanthropist whose charitable gifts included the property for the Sonoma Valley Hospital…”

Again, I do not believe this type of comment applies to the credentials for nomination to the HOF for contribution to the California Wine Industry. If we make this kind of comment for one nominee then we must make similar comments for all other nominees for they too do good citizenship efforts in their communities. These type of comments are appropriate to a biography on the nominee and certainly if elected, in the presentation speech on his life accomplishments.

Conclusion and Recommendations

I thought we were evaluating what the nominees contributed to the California Wine Industry? Abstract comments like the donation of wine to charity auction events, or land to trusts or avoiding planting of vines reads like we are electing nominees because of good citizenship and their donations to the community. The aforementioned comments in the abstracts have nothing to do with contributions to the California Wine Industry! These type of comments are appropriate to a biography on the nominee or in a speech introducing an inductee at an installation ceremony.

The abstracts written on the Nominees have legal implications in that in some cases they are highly editorial, opinionated and could be deemed derogatory and possibly represent defamation of character. In some cases they could be construed as sabotaging the prospects of the nominee gaining sufficient votes to be inducted in the CVHOF.

The Electoral College should:

1. Develop a set of written guidelines defining the purpose, goals, missions and operating procedures for the process of nominating candidates for presentation on a ballot. These guidelines should be provided to each member of the college.  hings like how committee members are considered, and then appointed to serve and how long they serve, etc. should be spelled out.

2. Establish a review committee to ensure that abstracts are “politics, bias” free as possible and/or run them by the nominee to ensure that the abstract is not going to cause a problem. Since the list of nominee names is published on the internet, there is no reason why the abstracts should not also be published to the nominee and the wine consuming public so they know upon what the Electoral College members based their votes,

3. The nomination ballot should contain an announcement of who wrote each of the abstracts and it should also include a disclaimer provision holding all of the other Nominating Committee members harmless and indemnified from lawsuit due to the contents of the abstracts.

4. Require the publication to the members of the Electoral College the vote count for each nominee prior to the announcement of the “winners” so that the body understands how candidates were finally selected for induction. In this manner there is no secrecy or chance of errors going unnoticed.

5. The Electoral College should send out a receipt e-mail or letter to each member upon the receipt of that members’ completed ballot just as we receive receipts for proof that we voted in public elections.