Part Three

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.
“U.S. Robotics….m-o-d-e-m-s…”
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. 


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. 

I signed. 

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….. 


Part Two

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!