Part Three: (updated below relating to Zack living in in one of Casey’s homes in Traverse City, Michigan after leaving Maison Ilan)
I met Casey Cowell in 2014. My wines were being stored in a beautiful Cistercian-built Abbey in Burgundy. I’d received a call from a middle-aged woman that had visited the Abbaye, learned of my wines and reached out to contact me. She introduced herself as being a manager of a high-end canal barge company that would lazily glide up and down the various routes along the rivers in and around Burgundy to Lyon.
At that time, I’d been open to new ways to show my wines, and so when she asked to come by to discuss doing tours for her wealthy clientele. I was open, it couldn’t hurt. We hit it off immediately. What was supposed to be a thirty-minute meeting turned into a three-hour tasting. By the end of it all, she asked if she could share my story with a colleague of hers that ran a similar barge. I shrugged my shoulders and within seconds I was on the phone with someone captaining this other barge.
“Your colleague wanted me to speak with you about tours.”
I didn’t know exactly what to say.
“Sure. You make wine?” He wasn’t too impressed, why would he be? I was just another small winery. He’d seen plenty of them. “Tell me about your winery.”
I threw out a few lines about what I did, where I was from and was going to get into the types of wines I made before he cut in.
“Is your name Ray?”
That was a first. With a bemused look on my face, I replied, “how the hell did you know that?”
“Well, we have this guy on the boat. He’s loaded. And we’ve been looking everywhere for you, for your wines, anything.”
I couldn’t stop smiling at the idea, but pulled it back out of embarrassment. He continued, “He’s got this book, and he’s telling everyone about you…” He cut off, “Hey, can we come for a tasting tomorrow?” It didn’t matter what time they wanted to come over, I had to meet this guy.
The following day, a man, in his mid-sixties climbed out of the limo van along with his fiancée, Dana. He was squat, with a full head of white hair, along with a well-manicured matching goatee. He had a big smile, like he really meant it. I reached out to shake his hands and he gave me a sort of bear hug. My first impression of him was that he was an amazingly genuine guy that was happy to be meeting with me. I was immediately impressed. Dana was a few years older than Casey, she was impressive in her own way. She was instantly sweet, charming with a country girl vibe that defied her otherwise elderly look. She had the personality and vigor of a twenty-five-year-old, with a sharp and immediate sense of whit.
We made our way to the veranda that looked out on Mont Blanc in the distance. I placed four bottles of wine on the table, to which Casey remarked, “Guess we’re digging right in”, as he clapped his hands together and then rubbed them in anticipation. He was from Chicago, and every word that he muttered out rode upon a thick accent that was reminiscent of the old Saturday Night Live routine, featuring “Da Bears” fans.
He didn’t have an air about himself. He was calm, easygoing. They both were, really.
As we tasted through the wines, Casey and Dana were generous with their praise of my having set out to make wine in Burgundy, saying that it was a dream of their own. Casey had what was almost a fanatical energy to him. He was hugging me after tasting each of the wines, slamming his heavy palm into my wooden table, “…that’s a fucking wine!” But it was all done in a way that instantly made you like him. What could I say, it seemed like we were instant friends.
As the bottles continued to be emptied, stories were being told about places we had all traveled. Finally, I had to give in to my curiosity.
“So, Casey,” I shook my head, still reeling from another one of his jokes, “what do you do, exactly?”
Dana’s eyes searched the ground in a true moment of humility. Casey shot me the most serious look he had given that night, his blue eyes sharpening until the sides of his eyes loosened up before his now-familiar smile tugged at his goatee. “Ever hear of U.S. Robotics?”
I thought I had. I think. Well hell, with how he was looking and all, I sure wasn’t going to steal his point by saying I had no clue about what he was talking about. “I…I think so….”
Yup, I was still lost.
Still nope. But I was searching my mind.
“Wait, the tech company?” Casey pushed a dry smirk to the side of his face.
“Yeah, well…yeah. Man, modems.”
“Got it! Alright. So, you worked with them?”
He sat back in his chair and folded his arms around his chest, “I built it.”
My mind was blown. I remember hearing something about the company, knowing that they were a big tech company, but honestly, I didn’t know much more than that. Seriously though, it didn’t matter what kind of success he had made of himself or in a financial sense, I thought Casey was a solid guy and someone that had been overwhelmingly supportive.
After speaking for a while, the conversation went towards business. Placing his fist inside of his right palm, he leaned in and further across the table.
“So, you gonna buy one of these fucking things or what?”
“Buy what?” I was doing alright at the time but having been recently squeezed by Camus for barrels of wine that didn’t materialize had left me with a nearly 45,000€ hole in my pocket that was making things a bit tight.
“A vineyard.” He said it in the same manner someone else might suggest buying a bag of popcorn. He leaned in toward me a bit more, separating and then re-clasping his hands, “My friends and I have a decent amount of money we can put together.”
I leaned in a bit as well, looking him in the eyes. “It isn’t a matter of money in Burgundy. The issue is not getting the chance. Even if you had all the money in the world -” Casey cut me off.
“Say you did have all of the money in the world.”
I went on, “Even if you did, you might never see an opportunity to buy.”
Casey shook off the idea, “I’m sure with the right price…” His head swaying from side to side.
“I mean, I would love to have a crack at a vineyard. But, a lot of people have a lot of money and they still don’t have land.”
As quickly as he had seemed to show his interest, he was just as quick to seemingly cool on the conversation.
The next fifteen minutes dragged on. I figured I’d never see Casey again. But, I had an idea.
“If you were interested in investing, I could definitely use the help in making a few changes for the winery. Would you potentially be interested?”
Pursing his lips up towards his nose, his eyes pressing toward a careful slit and he slowly nodded, “I would, actually.”
The next few weeks would see Casey asking me for every piece of financial information that I could find for Maison Ilan. Once the financials were sorted through and all of the detailed ins and outs of the business were related to Casey he asked how much capital I was looking for. He also asked if I would be willing to give up a percentage of the business, I said I wouldn’t. I told him that I was looking for around 60,000€ to help with fruit costs and various bills for the winery. Two days later, Casey contacted me giving me a heads up that I would be receiving a term sheet for the grid note for his investment. But before he released the sheet to me he had to ask again.
“Are you sure you don’t want to give up any of the business?”
I thought about it. I was already worrying about what would happen if I had someone as wealthy as Casey with his hands in my business, what was he capable of. I liked him a whole lot. He was funny, great to be around, and he was especially alright with me if he was going to loan me $60,000. But to give him some of the business? I couldn’t do it.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. It’s meant to be a family business. I need it to be intact for the kids.”
“I understand. Alright, kid, lookout for Tim’s email coming your way.”
Not ten minutes later, I received the Grid Note agreement that I was to sign. We hadn’t gone over numbers, so I had no idea what details would be awaiting. Scanning over the page, I looked for numbers to stand out amongst the rest of the terms. I called down and read line by line. I didn’t need to go far before seeing it.
ONE MILLION DOLLARS
I needed $60,000 and was given a line of credit for $1,000,000. The interest rate was 10% annual starting in the third year. I asked if this could be a lower percentage, to which he replied that it was just a placeholder, a starting point, and that we could work on the interest rate over time.
“Either way, you’re going to be making so much money that it won’t make much of a difference. Besides, you’ll get everything shipshape with the winery and get everything paid back quickly.”
I trusted him.
The deal was that I would borrow against this line of credit. I would put in a request with Tim Hauber, his accountant, detailing what the funds were for, and Casey would either accept or decline the request. Things added up quickly as Casey later demanded that all previous investor lenders be paid off. I needed time to gather the information, and with Tim barking at me to respond quickly all the while suggesting subtly that Casey could pull back the line of credit at any time, I made errors on my math of who needed to be paid off.
I viewed the spirit of their asking about investors in a way that suggested that there would be other times to revisit the investors, and what was owed as this was assured to me to not be a final count. But, as it would turn out, it was exactly that. Due to my error, there were several investors that had not been paid back fully when there was every opportunity in that instance to make sure that it had been handled correctly. It was a gross error on my part. At the time, I didn’t imagine that there would be any issue in simply paying back investors from proceeds of my wines sales, as I had previously done prior to knowing Casey. Due to my accounts being strictly controlled by Casey through an ever-growing bombardment of my business (which was leveraged through the quickly intensifying threat by Tim and Casey to pull the plug on the line of credit if I didn’t fall in line with their demands over my business) I wouldn’t get the chance again to allocate funds to paying back investors that weren’t covered through the initial payout, but there was another round of payoffs leaving a much smaller amount to pay off in the end. This is a note of importance as there are still people that have invested that were not entirely paid back.
As harvest neared, Casey toyed with the idea of coming along and lending a hand. Dana jumped into the fray as well. She wasn’t just anybody body when it came to moving cases filled to the brim with fruit. Having been a state champion in more than three sports, she kept fit and was much stronger than her average height and wire-like stature would suggest. She was moving stacks of cases much taller than she was, with the speed to match or better that of the men on hand. They got in there and worked just as hard as the rest of us, sorting grapes, dumping fruit cases onto the sorting tables, everything. They really loved getting their hands dirty.
As months went by, there would be several instances that we similar, but I grew to simply view that as Casey’s personality. I didn’t assume he meant specific disrespect by it. Besides, I didn’t think he would be open for the discussion on how behavior like his looked to others. He had set up shop to run his own business dealings out of my accountant Thierry André’s office in Beaune. The accountant had been seduced by Casey’s fortune. Casey got an entire conference room that he was able to make his personal office to use anytime he was in Burgundy. In doing so, he became quite close with my accountant.
This accountant represented a lot of Burgundy winemaking families, most notably, the Camus family, of which I purchased my most cherished (and dear) grapes from. It was Casey’s plan for us to talk up his wealth to the Camus family, and to make sure that they knew that Casey was always at the ready to make an offer on the Camus valuable vineyards. The reputation of the domain was widely known about the practices of the Camus family selling the best of their grapes at high prices while keeping the other grapes for themselves, even tossing in less ripened grapes into huge garbage bin-sized containers. These grapes would be thrown into otherwise cherished bottles, arriving at wines that struggled to reach the reputation of even the most middling wineries in the region. It was Casey’s desire to purchase these vineyards, as there was a question of who the heirs to the domain might be in the future. But the secret was out, and many had the domain in their crosshairs.
Over time, the Camus family grew to become quite close with Casey, having maintained contact through my attorney that we both shared. These conversations were held privately, without my consent, where the state of my financial situation and the status of sales were openly discussed between my attorney, Casey and the supplier of my grapes. Eventually, with my relationship in decline with him relating to the situation with Zack and the deleted laptop, phone and business email account, Casey made it a point to remind me of how important it was to get the wines out to clients that had prepaid for their wines. At this time, the temperatures during the summer were hot enough that shipments from France to many parts of the World would not be advisable.
With that, I communicated through Instagram, Facebook, my blog and by email that I would have all wines that were due to clients once weather permitted. While in Hong Kong, on business, selling and showing my wines to some of my top clients, I received a reply on one of my Instagram posts from Clive from the Abbaye de la Bussiere telling me that my wines were being seized. Rushing home, I got to the Abbaye only to find out that the wines had not been moved, the doors of the Abbaye had merely chained by a bailiff representing “Grand Coup”, a company with a play on words that was created by Casey, of which I was an assigned executive which was started for the sole action of buying land and vineyards.
At the suggestion of Tim Hauber, Casey’s attorney, the interest payment due on the amount owed on the grid note was to be rolled into the principal, increasing the amount that Maison Ilan owed Casey. Both Casey and Tim argued that with cashflow being as tight as it was, it made sense to just roll over the payments and consider them paid through the borrowed amount. Sounded fine to me, I didn’t have the cash anyhow. It was either that,or borrow from a different lender to pay the interest on the loan. However, Casey attempted to block me from getting outside loans and had dictated a pace of sales that let us build inventory, while unfortunately reducing cash flow, which made Maison Ilan dependent upon borrowing more from him.
It was this detail, Casey alleging that no interest payments were made, that allowed him to request and receive a lien on the wines that were prepaid by clients of Maison Ilan and promised to be sent out within the time-period that was quickly approaching. It was well known and understand by Casey, Zack and myself that the reputation of Maison Ilan and our ability to sell more wines rested in our ability to deliver wines to clients, as agreed. Literally having chains placed on the doors, with keys changed for the other locations made it impossible for me to deliver on my promise that I made to clients.
I had lost contact with Casey for about a month, but after hearing this news, I contacted him directly, some of this conversation was through email.
“Casey! My wine.”
“Well, it’s Grand Coup’s wine now, we have a lien on the wine and they’re going to auction soon to pay back the debt of the grid note.”
I was furious, but figured he was positioning for something.
He spoke up again, “I suggest we renegotiate.”
“I’m not renegotiating.”
With a slight laugh, “We need to renegotiate.”
I hung up with him but called back a day later. I didn’t know what else I could do. I was outmaneuvered by a multi-billionaire businessman on my first business. I felt hustled, cheated, but what could I do? I already had clients and bystanders alike online calling me every name from a crook; liar; thug; two-bit hustler; gangster; fraud and anything else that I could be accused of. In attempting to explain the situation to clients and those that literally had never purchased a bottle from me, my attempts were met with nothing but sheer skepticism. (More on this and Wineberserkers later this week)
I was given an email with Casey’s demands. Included in these demands were roughly:
RW (that’s me) can only make the wine. He is not allowed to sample the wine, nor give samples, not have unauthorized tastings with clients.
RW will also be allowed to promote the wines as is seen fit by Managing Director
RW will not have any access to the winemaking facility nor barrel room without being accompanied by Managing Director
Managing Director will be chosen unilaterally by Casey Cowell.
Basically, I would be a wine slave. But that’s not all. When I called Casey and refused, while mentioning that I had a good idea of who he had for the managing director position, it didn’t take long for my nightmare to become a reality.
“Well, naturally I was thinking Zack. He seems to be the only one that knows anything about how to run this business.”
Keep in mind that I had proof that Zack and Casey were working together against me. Proof that Casey was working with my attorney and my top grape supplier and that Zack had destroyed my records for thousands of transactions, emails, and other documents. I told him that it wouldn’t work. He called Zack to tell him the bad news, and Casey said that he would continue the conversation with me soon enough but that he heard there was something of note that was proving to be an issue for Maison Ilan at the Customs office. Replying to him that I doubted it could be anything, especially after I was told as much when I called to verify with Customs myself, Casey expressed his doubt.
On top of this, when attempting to secure my fruit from the Camus family for the 2016 vintage harvest, I was told by the family that they would need a personal guarantee from someone in case I met any difficulties in paying myself for the upcoming vintage. They assured me that it was nothing personal and that they were asking this of everyone. Some people, they said, had lost their grape allocations for not having this letter of support to present them.
Speaking with other investors, I was able to receive a letter of intention of an investor, attesting to his interest and ability to support the winery should any financial situation occur. Upon receiving this, the Camus family shot back that they needed Casey himself to be involved, no one else would be accepted. At this time, the cat and mouse game picked back up with Casey, though we had difficulty in finding mutually beneficial terms. They basically shot me their demand list, I countered every single point of the proposal, and they replied saying it was non-negotiable. I had to take it. Two months had already gone by. By the time that we had a deal that was pretty much worked out, harvest was closing in.
Two of my three fruit providers had done well enough over the past three to five vintages making money from selling Maison Ilan grapes that they had improved their wineries so that they could make more of their own wine, so they kept what normally would have been sold to me. Camus was my only shot left.
Speaking with François Pauchard, my courtier in Beaune, he lamented having lost around 70% of his contracts due to a lack of fruit or vineyard owners choosing to keep their own fruit. At the same time, I had the Camus family intentionally being secretive about when harvest was going to be. I’d learned from their attempts to cut me out of my harvest by changing pick dates and times or stacking pick times with multiple vineyards leaving no time to process the fruit, to be watchful of them. My courtier, Dominique Javouhey is the one that warned me of their history of similar attempts which were orchestrated to shuffle grape allocations to other grape buyers for the sake of getting more money or ending relationships with those that they grew to dislike. Doing it this way, tricking someone out of their pick date or time made it appears the negociant or buyer was in the wrong, and therefore lost their contract through no fault of the Camus family.
I was nervous. The daughter of the Camus family changed the pick date eight times in a matter of two days. Her final statement was that the fruit would not be picked before Monday since they would not pick on the weekend and to simply sit tight and don’t worry. I was assured that I would be alerted for when my grand crus would be picked.
I spoke with Jerome Prince, my courtier for Morey Saint Denis vineyards since 2009, the president of the national association of courtiers, and he said that he too lost a lot of contracts for the same reasons mentioned by Mr. Pauchard. While telling him the story of Camus and Casey, Jerome adopted a worried tone to his voice.
“Get to the vineyard. I think you should check.”
“I just checked the last two days.”
“Ray, just go. Get in your car and drive there. I hope you will see your grapes on the vine still.”
Arriving at the vineyard, the place was a mess. Grapes had been crushed into the soil of Chambertin. I’d literally cried in this vineyard at different times having realized the significance of my having been blessed to make wine in such a historic vineyard. Photos of the photos I’d taken of my children played in a loop as I struggled to make sense of how something like this could happen.
I was gutted. I called Jerome, doing my best to stay calm, to force some sensation of air into my lungs. I couldn’t feel myself breathe. I just felt sadness. I tried to grab towards anger, coming up with nothing but some of the deepest pain I’d ever felt in my life. That was it. I was out. After everything. The sacrifices, the fights to retain in my grasp the last thing I had as my own, everything else having been stripped from me. I felt like dropping to my knees, but I couldn’t.
I called Jerome back, and told him I couldn’t believe this happened. He suggested without provocation that I shouldn’t go over to the Camus family winery, which doubled as their house. These people had known my kids since they were either newborns or one year old when it came to Bella. They picked up each and everyone one of them as I made my stops to their offices. They’d displayed Bella and Siena’s sketches on their office walls for years. I thought these were more than people I worked with, I foolishly thought that they were my friends.
Answering the door, all the words I had collected to say to her tumbled to the ground. They fell right out of me, and I felt nothing but sorrow and betrayal. As soon as I saw her face, I told her that she betrayed me, and I turned my back on her before she got a word out. I raised a finger at her. Lame as I was in that moment, attempting to shame her for essentially burning Maison Ilan to the ground, I didn’t have the heart not stomach to wave a different finger at her.
She yelled at my back in French, “This is what happens when you cannot secure the right investor. If you have a problem, call Casey.”
I walked as slow as I could to my car, my legs threatening to buckle beneath me. I had parked outside of the gates of her home, across the street. She managed a pace I previously would not have thought her capable of maintaining. Clutching her phone in her two hands outstretched towards me, she was seemingly recording me as I sat in the seat of my car. I quickly closed my eyes as tightly as I could before driving off in a daze, below the speed limit.
One of the things I didn’t mention before was that, in the end, I wished to go after Zack Velcoff legally. In doing so, information was given to me that showed Zack Velcoff moving into one of Casey Cowell’s houses after leaving Burgundy and his position at Maison Ilan. Read into that whatever you will, but it is a fact.
I’ll touch more on the Camus family in a later passage.
Stay tuned for more…..