Russian River’s Once-ler & a Phoenix from the Ashes

One of my favorite books as a child — and subsequently an adult reading to my own children — is Dr. Seuss’s cautionary tale, “The Lorax.” A parable about greed and environmental indifference, it concludes with the main character, the Once-ler, having followed his insatiable greed as it plowed through a forest of Trufula Trees, alone in his Lerkim beneath the “smoke-smuggered stars,” wallowing in regret.

What follows is, too,  a cautionary tale about entering into deals with the devil, as well as a touching tome on the triumph of persistence and good over evil.

Or, maybe it’s just a shitty story with a happy ending.

Dr. Seuss' Onceler, lurking in his Lerkim

Dr. Seuss’ Once-ler, lurking in his Lerkim

Many years ago, my mother moved from suburban southern California to the northern California woods — taking along with her, her music industry boyfriend.

There was no music in that dark grove of redwoods save the trickling creek and the descending call of the varied thrush. So Bruce — music industry boyfriend — decided he better find a new gig. With a background in sales and marketing, he opted for wine distribution.

Fast forward a decade of successful work as the “Wine Guerrilla” representing small wineries, he decides to create his own wine under that same moniker.

The view from inside the empty Wine Guerrilla tasting room

The view from inside the empty Wine Guerrilla tasting room

Working with his friend and former client, David Coffaro, Bruce began making wine. The first Wine Guerrilla offerings were bold and fruity, a sensational example of the Dry Creek and Russian River Valley zinfandels he had decided to focus his attention on. Several of the wines received ratings of 90 and above from influential industry publication, Wine Spectator. The bottles featured my own lushly colored paintings of women, and the refined contemporary design of my talented wife and business partner, Leslie. Our design firm would be tasked with the ongoing development of the Wine Guerrilla brand.

In need of financing, Bruce took on investors — family and friends initially, contributing amounts in the tens of thousands. And then came something bigger, a wealthy former business associate, whom for the purposes of this post and our desire to avoid further legal entanglements we shall call The Investor — and the “deal with the devil” part of the story begins.

Like a knight in shining armor, The Investor swooped in with funds to not only keep the company running but also move it to the next phase. But we must always beware of shiny objects. All he wanted was a partnership share in the company.

Wine Guerrilla wines at a tasting at our Topanga home

Wine Guerrilla wines at a tasting at our Topanga home

Soon, there was a beautiful new tasting room and offices in downtown Forestville, with The Investor’s meek, shifty-eyed son installed as mole. The wine was doing well. Bruce was on top of the world — but working as hard as he ever had to develop and nurture relationships with distributors, wine shops and restaurants, often traveling the country to personally pour at Winemaker Dinners.

There were disagreements between Bruce and The Investor over which direction to take the wine. Bruce wanted to expand distribution and focus on the wine’s quality; The Investor wanted to produce cheaper wines and focus on the tasting room, a formula Bruce knew was destined for failure.

One morning, Bruce arrived at the tasting room to find the locks changed. His computers had been seized, his accounts blocked, his email disabled and Wine Guerrilla clients informed that he was no longer with the company — his company.

Working with the help of a lawyer friend of mine, I immediately sent a “cease & desist” letter to The Investor and his representatives warning them against further usage of my imagery. I had always done the art for Bruce on good faith, there were no contracts, no money had ever changed hands. My lawyer assured me we were holding all the cards. A nasty response from The Investor’s mob-style lawyer assured us they had no intention of ceasing or desisting. “Your move,” they basically taunted us.

Meanwhile Bruce, sensing the direction things were going and inspiringly tireless in his mid 70s, immediately began contacting important business relationships and putting the wheels in motion for a series of new wines.

The new wines

The new wines

“You’re in the right,” my second lawyer now on the case assured me as the process dragged on into months and months. “We could pursue this, and maybe come out with a little money in the end. But it’s going to cost a lot of money and get really ugly.”

He suggested we settle. And I was reminded of an article I had read about a large polluting agro-business that had simply kept throwing money, lawyers and lobbyists at the citizens trying to get them to clean up their mess until they eventually won the war of attrition. The Investor, we subsequently learned, had already spent time in prison for fraud. He had no morals whatsoever, and this wouldn’t wind up being a case of what was right.

I hadn’t really wanted money anyway — only that they stopped using my artwork on “their” labels. And to avenge as best I could my mother and Bruce, both in their 70s, who had spent 20 years building this business. But we settled, got most of what we were hoping for, and turned our sights to the future.

I had thought about other creative responses — hiring Chinese hackers to erase their customer database, for example. But then I put my faith in the old “You reap what you sow” idea. Karma would return to The Investor. He no longer had Bruce producing delicious and award-winning wines; he no longer had me producing artwork for the label nor our company crafting and shepherding the brand. All of our talents would be turned toward the future — beginning with two new labels, Equivinity and Bruce Patch Wines.

And what was left of Wine Guerrilla? The Investor, sitting like the Once-ler, in an office above his empty tasting room on Hwy. 116, his son idly texting and watching television below. He makes feeble attempts to carry on, promising wine list members new offerings soon, and attempting to reach out to accounts.

(A particularly satisfying footnote came when the new Wine Guerrilla distributor contacted a popular restaurant in the Russian River Valley familiar with the situation, asking if he could drop by and pour some of their “new” releases, and the wine buyer said, “Are you kidding!?” and hung up on him.)

The Investor still had the name — Wine Guerrilla — which I had always found clunky and inelegant (If you have to explain a name, it may not be the best option) and distributors had bristled at. And that was pretty much all he had. Everyone in Sonoma knew the story, and nearly to a person, everyone lined up behind us.

This post has also served as a catharsis for me — an opportunity to expunge the last few sticky bits of black matter left in my soul from the whole unpleasant chapter by way of the pen. I appreciate your patience bearing through it with me, and I hope you will have a chance to taste our superb new family wines. Stay tuned for a new post with more on that soon…

 

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21 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lori Koefoed
    Dec 11, 2015 @ 14:59:42

    The new wines looks gorgeous. Good triumphs over evil once more 😉

    Reply

  2. Jo Ann Brown-Scott
    Dec 11, 2015 @ 17:03:36

    wow what a story…loved hearing about all that and now I wish you the very best, because you deserve it and Karma will settle all this once and for all.

    Reply

  3. laura
    Dec 11, 2015 @ 17:23:32

    Sean,
    That was wonderful. I loved remembering that particular Dr Seuss book – and I love how eloquently you support Mom and Bruce. You’re a great guy, Bro.

    Reply

  4. Mom
    Dec 11, 2015 @ 21:29:12

    Bruce loves it, says I should send it to meek, mealy mouth,

    Reply

  5. Jessamine in PDX
    Dec 11, 2015 @ 21:42:17

    We nearly had a very similar thing happen at my job where a millionaire offered to invest in the company and it turned from silent partner stuff to very forceful manipulation to try the company into his vision instead of what it had been for more than 20 years. Thankfully we escaped while still in the wooing stage but it was really an eye opener on how some people do business. I truly hope karma bites the Investor in the ass. What a jerk. But bad things aside, I LOVE the Bruce Patch labels. Great art work! Looking forward to hearing more about the new wines as well.

    Reply

  6. Patty Colvig
    Dec 12, 2015 @ 02:01:43

    I have always admired the inspired work your Mother and Bruce took on so successfully. The quality of the wine and your artwork helped the branding of Wine Guerrilla achieve an unique place in the world of winemaking. You have every reason to vent – for those of us who have had the pleasure of meeting your Mom and Bruce and tasted their wine, we stand behind you! Karma is indeed the best revenge.

    Reply

  7. apriljulianne
    Dec 12, 2015 @ 17:14:14

    Leo & I loved meeting Bruce last year at the tasting room and feel so fortunate to have had that experience! So sad that we live in a world with Once-lers. However, you guys are a shining light and it’s so great to have community. Perhaps you will look back a few years from now and find that some good came from all this as well. Love & blessings to you & Leslie, Bruce & your mom!!

    Reply

  8. thejameskitchen
    Dec 13, 2015 @ 07:42:08

    Sean, you are right, karma is a bitch. But a part of me (the one that’s just rereading The Count of Monte Christo) is also quite fond of the Chinese hackers idea. Anyway, I wish I would still be living in the Bay Area, I would make it a nice Sonoma trip and get some of these fabulous sounding new wines (instead, I will send our friends … but where? Don’t be so humble, include a link!). Anyway, to make a good wine is such a gift (f the Once-ler), say hello to your family. By the way, here’s that dark chocolate cake with the Single Malt glaze we were talking about a while ago, I should go exquisitely with a well rounded red: https://thejameskitchen.wordpress.com/2015/11/29/chocolate-espresso-whisky-cake/
    Nicole

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Dec 13, 2015 @ 15:01:44

      Thanks Nicole, if you ever make it back California way, I will send you for a taste! 🙂 We are working on getting the website up right now, I’ll do a post on that when it happens. Cheers to you and your family, and the chocolate cake looks delicious! I’m going to make the little bars which my children will devour, whisky or not! (Maybe it’ll appeal to their Irish genes.)

      Reply

      • thejameskitchen
        Dec 13, 2015 @ 16:54:51

        Looking forward to a tasting and the sequel to the story, already send a round mail. Thanks a lot and about the whisky: our grandmother always gave my cousin and me brandy-frilled chocolates. Those were the seventies… by now we’ve upgraded to better quality booze. 😉

  9. Bobby Mahaffey
    Dec 14, 2015 @ 02:56:12

    Great post! Winner, winner, chicken dinner!!

    Reply

  10. Priscilla Chang
    Dec 14, 2015 @ 19:32:52

    So very happy about the happy ending for you and the fam. Happy holidays and new year!

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Dec 14, 2015 @ 23:48:29

      Thanks Priscilla! Hope you are well. I think of you every time I drive by ROC Kitchen on Sawtelle (which I STILL haven’t been to!! 😮

      Reply

  11. Trackback: The New Wines | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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