Part Two: Let’s cut to it, Maison Ilan is finished
I’m not proud to say that one of my life’s most precious accomplishments is now something that I look back on as something that is now destroyed. I’ve been most proud of my children and my winery, and to have both taken from me is something that had for so long placed me in a position of sadness, anger and disappointment. I’m mentioning thins not to get a sad vote from anyone, but rather to say that no possession, no goal, nor accomplishment would ever compare to what my children and winery mean to me. These two aspects of my life were my identity. No, they weren’t on the same level, but each of my three children and the winery served as a reflection of myself that I could be proud of having done right.
In following passages, I will shed more light on how things played out the way that they did with Maison Ilan and my wines. But for now, I’ll dive in with a bird’s eye view that will be clear enough for everyone to understand.
France’s wine regions, especially Burgundy, are without a doubt some of, if not the most admin-heavily wine regions in the World. I can tell you now after living through it that documents are required from every aspect of making wine. Amongst the necessary documents are those needed to show that a Broker (from this point, I will refer to them as they are referred to in French, Courtiers) is engaging a transaction for fruit or wine in barrel or bottle from a producer and buyer (negociant); another document showing how much fruit or wine is being purchased; an entirely different one for when the move will take place between the parties; another still for the day of for the receiving party of fruit or wine to carry on them through delivery; during harvest a form needs to be filed with Customs (as do the others) showing how much fruit is being taken from a specific vineyard as well as who the parties are and how heavy the grapes are in total; a different document needs to be turned in to Customs after the fact to show how much wine was made from these grapes; forms need to be filed each month showing how much wine is in inventory in barrel and in bottle as well as how much came into and went out of inventory that month; and another form is required at the end of the fiscal year to show what these totals are.
Simply put, I wasn’t always proactive on these forms. Through my relationship with the French Customs, they took me under their wing to call me into the office to refill out forms the proper way or if something was turned in twice or in rare cases when I was late in turning a form in. Keep in mind that during the time that I started, forms that had been previously done by hand in triplicate, were now required to be turned in electronically. This caused countless well documented issues for farmers that were used to the previous system, many of which weren’t set up administratively to handle the entire documentation system to be revamped. Due to others having issues as well, I hopped on the chance to show the Customs officers that I wanted to always be in touch with them to provide all necessary documentation, and for it to be filled out correctly.
Documentation was never an issue for me. I completed; filed; and received countless paperwork at every step of the process of buying grapes and making wine. I had the paperwork. However, I struggled with being organized. Someone that I personally admire, David Clark, told me from the start that the easy thing in Burgundy was to make and sell great wine. The hard part was the paperwork. I wish that I would have better headed his words.
There are details to this next step that I will purposefully leave for an upcoming passage that I am quite excited to write. This involves certain details of this story that I have previously left out due to previously respecting others enough to keep their factual involvement out of the official story. Well, that’s about to change.
The way that it was told to me by Customs, it is all simple, really. Simplicity as a descriptor doesn’t quite cover the sharp feeling that I have of a heavily-weighted object being bashed upon my chest. Nor does is capture the essence of something that grew to define me and my work ethic and what I wished for in life being ripped from me. But let’s go with “simple” for the sake of brevity.
There needs to be a paper trail for every aspect of the winemaking process which includes some of what I mentioned above. This paper trail establishes a wine’s “existence”. The main aspects that create this “existence” when it comes to my situation as someone that buys grapes and makes wine from it are roughly as follows:
* Document prepared by the Broker showing the grape buyer and vineyard owner agree to a changing of hands for grapes from a specific vineyard, and how much weight they will weigh. This is turned in to Customs by the broker and copies are sent to the buyer and seller.
* Document created by buyer showing a date and time for the transportation of the grapes prepared by the buyer and turned into the Customs office. This document is stamped and needs to be with the driver at all times during delivery.
* After harvest, once the wine is in barrel, estimates are made and given to customs showing the vineyard, amount of wine in liters was produced. This quoted amount is given by the buyer of the grapes that made the resulting wine to the Courtier (grape broker) and in turn to the producer. They, in turn, make their own documents, containing roughly seven lines of information (vineyard owner, grape buyer/winemaker, grape broker, vineyard, how many hectares of land were exploited for the quantity of grapes (in kilograms) to be produced resulting in the resulting wine specified in liters and lees (which is an estimate showing how much of the contents of the barrel are solids). This is the same information given by all parties.
Well, there were two years where I could not find my triplicate copy of the resulting wine that I made from the grapes. It didn’t matter to Customs that both the vineyard owner (who had presided over one of the region’s most respected wine regulatory organizations of Burgundy and been in the region for at least four generations and he himself having made wine for over fifty vintages in those specific vineyards) or that my courtier was one of the oldest and most respected in the region, having had his father and grand-father work with the grower’s family for several generations on these same vineyards, my missing documents which had no other missing information would prove enough for them to reject my wines as “being in existence”. They argued that if these documents provided existence and I didn’t have proof of my having turned in my copies, the wines couldn’t very well exist. In short, they made the argument as if the grapes and wines in question that I was in contract for, confirmed by several tiers of documentation provided by all three parties, that I was documented as setting up as planned for transport and having been confirmed by the paperwork of the broker and courtier did not exist because I couldn’t show my copies of the paperwork.
It doesn’t stop there.
The fiscal reporting that I needed to do had only been done on five out of seven vintages, and I had been late a few times showing my monthly inventory. Understand that I wasn’t buying wine in the middle of the year like so many of my peers. They fall short on production due to a lacking crop load or losing contracts or otherwise wish to augment their stock and add these wines into their inventory. The only time I had movement on inventory was during harvest and shipping. Every other period of time, my monthly inventory sheet would have only zeros filled in indicating no change.
Here’s the thing. I have to take responsibility for having a pattern of reacting to need relating to paperwork, rather than being proactive. This was my pattern that I settled into having myself gotten used to having too many irons in the fire, at times relying on reminders that were given for necessary paperwork. Regardless of my tardiness, things would be taken care of as I would be able to track down my paperwork and turn it in.
Something changed in 2016 when I was asked to furnish the documents which I referred to above. These were documents that I should have had, but I didn’t have access to them.
The documents were gone. Not many documents were needed to establish this traceability. I just simply didn’t have them. It didn’t matter that the two other parties had the exact same information showing my name, the vineyard, weight of the grapes how much wine was made and what was paid for the grapes. The documents hadn’t been lost, in some situations documents had been thrown in the trash by the Gouges family from my home office while I was away in California. Due to disagreements between us resulting in my refusal to pay rent, the home was prematurely emptied. Items that they thought of value were placed aside, everything else was tossed.
It gets worse.
I had an intern, Zack Velcoff that I was pressured to hire by my previous multi-billionaire lender Casey Cowell (who held no interest in the business…Much more on him and Zach later). He was given the role as Admin and Logistics Manager. Casey loaned capital to Maison Ilan, without any ownership in the business, this is a Debt Position, wherein he is set to receive his capital plus interest at different times throughout the life of the loan. From the beginning, I told Casey that I didn’t want to sell him any of the business. One afternoon, he again approached me in a dismissive manner, telling me that I needed to allow him to convert his debt position into an Equity Position, which would convert the funds he invested an ownership stake of the business. Again, I refused, citing my unwavering position since prior to his initial investment.
This created a tense moment where I was seven days from a payment deadline of over 140,000€ for a quarterly fruit payment, Zack refused to send a simple document to Casey that was being requested in order to send funding. Zack had informed my several weeks before this incident that he and Casey decided amongst themselves that Zack would be paid directly by Casey, instead of being paid from the proceeds of the sales of wine.
**This story is telling, and I’ll sweep back upon this in full detail soon in a follow up, but for now, let’s move forward.
I decided to fire Zack for his lack of competency (which Casey as well as numerous clients and vendors often had complained about). Part of his incompetency was with erroneously charging clients two to three times more than what was to be asked for shipping. It is a perfect example. Clients were asked to pay $400 for shipping $800 worth of wine at times. It was a mistake that occurred due to him waiting until the last minute to prepare shipping invoices to clients. While he had months in advance to work on these invoices, and my constant requests for progress, he decided to do over 300 invoices in the span of two days. His formula for charges was wrong. I had asked to see progress on what he had done early on, but he refused to share his work. The result would be hundreds of clients around the World receiving invoices that made absolutely no sense as he emailed the invoices out to clients without telling me he was doing so. I would be taken to task over this publicly. When I fumed at Zack for not having listened to my directive to show me his work prior to sending to clients, he gave a hapless shrug. It didn’t matter to him in the least.
Within minutes of his firing, I was met with shock. Casey called me, furious about Zack having been fired. When I reminded Casey of the times that he had cursed at Zack and otherwise verbally abusing him for mistakes that he had made, and how he himself Zack would serve in a temporary role, his reply was direct,
“He may be a shit-show of a horse, but he is the only one we have. We can’t get rid of him until we have someone else.”
He said that he couldn’t see investing the funds that were earmarked for paying for fruit in the coming week without Zack on board.
I had just told Zack at that time to hand in the keys to the company car, the new Apple laptop that was purchased for around 4,000€, his company phone and anything else that he had from the business. I told him that he could keep the clothes that I had purchased for him, after all, I didn’t have it in for him. I just couldn’t understand the brazen disrespect on top of him seemingly deciding to a substandard job. He had agreed to return everything, and it had been left as it was. I quickly changed out the passwords to all of the accounts the online boutique’s Paypal account to my own business and personal email accounts (which he previously had access to), along with his email.
Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Casey emailed me saying that he spoke with Zack and told him to keep the company laptop. I had never heard of someone receiving parting gifts after being fired. I left Casey and voicemail and receiving a text back saying that he would call me in the morning.
Morning came, and Casey made good on his word by giving me a call.
“I can’t do it.” He was serious, in a matter of fact sort of way.
I didn’t know what he was saying. “You can’t do what?”
“I can’t pay anything unless Zack gets put back on.”
I couldn’t understand why. But I was desperate. I had counted on his investment in order to make the payment. We had intentionally stopped sales on wines in order to ship out the wine that was owed to clients before attempting to restart sales. This was a strategy that was created by Casey, with my approval, but it now put me into a delicate situation. With five days to come up with over 140,000€, I didn’t have any other options.
I agreed to rehire Zack. Casey suggested that it should be me that gave Zack a call to say that he was back on. I did so, and while Zack made an effort in explaining his attitude, I pressed to move forward with no hard feelings. Shortly after, I received an email from Casey directing me to reinstate all of Zack’s credentials, especially email. Not completely trusting Zack, I decided to give him access to his email, but not to Paypal or my email accounts. Mind you, all the receipts, a good many documents relating to harvest and other information were all in Zack’s possession as he handled all the admin side of the winery. We had made sure that all contact with clients and vendors were ran through his email account.
Zack then sent follow up email requesting my email credentials. I refused and then called him saying that I didn’t completely trust him and that I wouldn’t be giving him my personal and company email access. I told him squarely that I didn’t see why he seemed so adamant to have it in the first place. Casey had previously requested a conference call so that we could all be on the same page for the following day. We were all in agreement.
That following morning, I didn’t receive a call. Hours went by with neither Zack nor Casey returning calls or emails asking about the status of the conference call. Three hours after the missed conference call, I got nervous. My stomach had tightened up. I called Zack again and he picked up.
“What happened to the meeting?”
Zack chuckled a bit and nonchalantly replied, “Oh, I spoke with Casey, we’re good.”
“We’re good? What’s good?”
“Me and Casey. You. We’re good.” He chewed loudly on something on the other end of the line.
I was shocked. “So, you called him?”
“Before you called your boss, you called Casey, blowing off the conference call?” I waited for his response, in disbelief that he was again acting like this with me.
“Well, in all due respect, but I figured my boss was whoever was paying me.”
I had had enough. “You arranged that deal behind my back.” I was done. I fired him again. I called Casey and he didn’t pick up for the third time.
I thought about how Zack let it slip out that he visited Casey at his Palm Beach residence while he was in New York, suggesting he was just in the neighborhood while visiting his ailing Grandmother who lived nearby. He didn’t get any work done while in New York. I thought about the way that Casey spoke to Zack at times privately on calls under the guise of helping him get squared away at using Excel. Seemed odd that an Ivy League graduate would need such substantial hands on mentoring on a basic program. I thought back to his attitude that he just had with me.
I had to lock down the emails and other accounts again. I quickly changed the emails. Just then, something reminded me about the suspicions that I had waved away regarding Zack and Casey somehow working together. I logged into his business email account, hoping to sort through the emails to find some trail showing them secretly working together.
It was all gone. Not a single email was in the inbox.
I called Casey and he finally picked up.
“Casey, since you seem to know more about what’s going on with my employee that I do I guess I won’t need to tell you what he did.”
Exhaling deeply on the other end, “Yeah. I wish he wouldn’t have done that.”
“The emails?” I couldn’t believe that he knew already.
“Well, what did you expect? You fired him.” He let out a knowing chuckle. I was speechless. “Things happen.”
“Things don’t just happen. That was property, he destroyed my property. I’m going to go after him.”
Without missing a beat, “Well I guess I should go after you.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Well, you don’t have any way to pay me back everything you owe me.”
He was just a few weeks removed from telling me after having crunched my numbers every way possible that the business was doing exceptional to saying I wouldn’t be able to pay him back on his loan.
“Well, I’ll tell you that I’m getting my laptop from him.”
“No, you’re not.” He was serious.
“Well, if I don’t get the laptop back, I want it off of the grid note (the document that showed all transactions that would be used to tally the current amount that was owed by Maison Ilan.”
He argued that that laptop was going to stay on the note, as something Maison Ilan needed to pay Casey back for, while gifting the laptop to Zack. I was curious about something.
“So, are you going to hire Zack?”
He laughed strongly into a wheeze,
“Zack? I don’t even like the guy. With the way I’ve heard him talk about you these past weeks I can’t say that I’d want him for anything. If you knew what he was saying you’d probably want to belt him one.”
“You’re sure about that.”
We decided to go to our separate corners and get off the phone call.
Weeks went by with my pleading to get the company laptop back from Zack, along with everything else. I went to the local police and finally upon informing Zack and Casey of this, Zack said he would return the car, laptop, phone and everything else back. His one stipulation was that he didn’t want to see me in person, he would only return everything back to someone else, and only if I was not around. I complied.
Days later, Zack dropped off everything to my friend Said’s house. The phone couldn’t turn on, it was essentially wiped. The laptop had been returned in similar condition. Attempting to power on the device sent it into the “Welcome” screen, later revealing a completely wiped hard drive.
Someone might say that I was upset. Actually, I was a whole lot more than that, really.
Fast forward a few weeks, I had to give a call over to Will over at Adventures in Wine in Daly City, CA. They handled all of the importation of my wines from France for my private client list which entailed them receiving the wines in bulk and then shipping on to the clients that had prepaid for their wines.
I had some clients picking up from their facility and asked Will if he could set an order up. I mentioned in passing that Zack was no longer in my employ.
He wasn’t surprised in the least.
“Oh yeah, I know. He works with Casey, right?”
As much as I had theories about their secret involvement, I couldn’t have hoped for more of a confirmation…. until I got an even better one, that is.
He continued, “I got the email. Want to see it? I’ll shoot it to you.”
I couldn’t check my email fast enough.
In the email, Zack writes to Will that he no longer works for Maison Ilan. He goes on to say that he has sent off six cases of Maison Ilan wines to be sent to Casey Cowell’s private residence and closes the email in saying that he works for a holding company for Casey Cowell.
Some of you curious readers might be wondering when this email was written? Great question.
The email was written on the exact same day that Casey was coercing me to hire Zack back while directing me to provide Zack with his company business credentials that were used to destroy company the company email account that he managed, as well as the same day that Casey confirmed Zack as being gifted a company laptop that was merely several months old at his firing.
Now let me be crystal clear about this. It was my winery, my choice to back the recommendation to hire Zack, my failure to better organized, my choice to not hire someone else, and my lack of being proactive that contributed to things going the way that they did. That is irrefutable. What I am wishing to get across in communicating the facts are simply to give you, the reader, information that has previously been kept from you.
Due to not having this paperwork, my choices were presented from Customs as either having around 3 Million euros of my wine destroyed or go to Customs Court. Topics that were included were facts about me having placed marbles in my barrels to prevent the wine from spoiling. I chose to do this instead of using “topping up” wine, which is generally any type of wine (regardless of whether it matches the wine already inhabiting the barrel) that is placed in a barrel to keep it topped up. I also had investment payments that were sent to me through Casey to pay for fruit. I was accused by Customs and by local tax authorities of receiving these payments as income, even though these funds would sit in my account a maximum of one week after having been transferred from Casey into my business account prior to being used for fruit payments that were truly highly documented information. The upshot is my wines, your wines, our wines were to be destroyed due to what I described earlier relating to paperwork. I was railroaded in court, not having a lawyer, and not given a chance to share with the court all the documentation that I had prepared in the seven months lead up time to the hearing.
It’s true that I lost everything in all of this. I lost my family, my winery, the wines, many people that I thought were my friends, and the respect of many. I lost what mattered to me in one mark of a pen. And yes, after leaving France, having had my grape contracts taken from me due to two situations where the growers stopped selling grapes to make their own wine and one grower cheating me out of my Grand Cru contract, I returned to California, with nothing.
I do have plans to make things right with people that are awaiting to be made whole.
Much more to speak about on this topic….. stay tuned!