Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thoughts on the Wine Advocate suing Antonio Galloni

The front page of Galloni's new website
The Wine Advocate sued Antonio Galloni in federal court yesterday, accusing him essentially of stealing intellectual property, most of which he created.

The lawsuit alleges:
"After repeatedly ignoring plaintiff's request for certain of the articles and tasting notes that defendants regularly provided, and were owed, to plaintiff, defendant's fraud was revealed when they informed plaintiff they were no longer working for plaintiff and would be retaining the aforementioned articles and tasting notes for their own benefit."
It also alleges:
"As a result of defendants' actions, plaintiff has lost, and will continue to lose, subscribers to its publications for, among others, two main reasons:
a. First, plaintiff has not received from defendants the highly anticipated tasting notes and articles regarding wines that subscribers expect to be in The Wine Advocate. The absence of certain scheduled tasting notes and articles has resulted, and will continue to result, in lost subscribers.
b. Second, as a result of defendants' improper use of plaintiff's confidential subscriber information, defendants have been raiding plaintiff's subscribers and directing them away from plaintiff's publication and toward defendants' website."
I'm not a lawyer, so I can't say whether the suit has merit. But it does raise a few interesting issues:

* When I interviewed Galloni earlier this year, he said more than once that the business structure of the Wine Advocate was such that he and Neal Martin worked there as independent contractors. The quotes didn't make the final article -- Galloni had a lot of interesting things to say, and that didn't seem as significant then. But it will be the center of his defense. Moreover, he won't be saying it again anytime soon as his lawyers will tell him not to talk to the media.

* The crux of the suit is apparently Galloni's unpublished tasting report of Sonoma County wines, which he started working on while at The Advocate. A note on Galloni's site reads:
It has never been my desire to intentionally withhold the Sonoma article.  Out of my deep respect for Bob, our joint readers, and in the spirit of collaboration, on February 15 I offered to make the Sonoma reviews available to TWA readers for free, on my new platform, once the article had been written and posted. TWA declined.

* It's worth noting that the Advocate -- not Robert Parker -- is suing Galloni. However, he did post this on erobertparker:
We have taken appropriate action to retrieve the report Antonio was paid to produce. It’s a disservice to you and to the vintner associations and winemakers who put in massive efforts coordinating tastings for this report in hopes of getting a Wine Advocate review. At the time of these tastings, Antonio was a reviewer for The Wine Advocate, so it stands to reason the report he was paid to provide should be submitted.
* Can Galloni legally put the Sonoma notes on his own site, without offering them to the Advocate? I've looked at his contract, and it wouldn't seem so, but I'm going to assume Galloni's lawyers have a different interpretation. Regardless, by offering them free to Wine Advocate subscribers on his new site, which presumably will cost money for everybody else, he's trying to steal away customers. Not hard to see why the Advocate would object.

* Galloni told me he has ownership of all his old published reviews from the Advocate, and his contract appears to support that.

* A difficult allegation to defend is that Galloni raided the Advocate's subscriber base. If true, it's hard for me to see how this won't cost Galloni money. That said, it's not the sort of issue that goes to trial; it's the sort of issue where somebody writes a check, and the lawyers get half.

* A big question now is, what happens to Galloni's new site?

Galloni may be safer for the moment not using the yet-unpublished Sonoma County ratings. Those would seem to be legally different from writing he has already published on the Advocate.
But lawsuits can drag on, and if too much time passes, a new vintage could come out and the ratings lose their value. However, if he publishes the notes and the Advocate prevails in court, he might have to fork over a lot more because the Advocate can claim those initial reviews were the foundation of his business.

* What happens to the Advocate? We were wondering this already. Would getting legal rights to Galloni's reviews help stem subscriber loss? It's hard to see how.

* A corollary: What does the Advocate want? What if Galloni offers a settlement: all the unpublished reviews, for the Advocate's exclusive use? Maybe I watch too many lawyers in the movies, but that would seem like a great chess move. If the Advocate publishes the reviews, it publicizes Galloni.

* For those who missed it, Parker announced earlier this month in a blurb behind his paywall that he will be reviewing California wines again. We'll see. Just last month he was injured and unable to travel. Right now, he's in Bordeaux. At 65, does he still have the drive to follow his punishing schedule of previous years? Personal rivalries are strong motivators.

* While the newsman in me finds this fascinating, this story makes me sad. Galloni was Parker's protege. This lawsuit must be personally painful for both of them. Maybe Parker's not very involved in it, and maybe one day they will bury the hatchet and enjoy each other's company. I hope so.

Wine brings people together. Wine ratings apparently have the opposite effect.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

So Bob is saying to the producers of Sonoma you paid all this money (time+effort+wine=money) to us and we at the TWA didn’t produce sales for you because of this dastardly rotter................

“We have taken appropriate action to retrieve the report Antonio was paid to produce. It’s a disservice to you and to the vintner associations and winemakers who put in massive efforts coordinating tastings for this report in hopes of getting a Wine Advocate review. At the time of these tastings, Antonio was a reviewer for The Wine Advocate, so it stands to reason the report he was paid to provide should be submitted.” RPjr

I would think this is s stupid statement, shouldn’t the new controlling interests of TWA be vetting words from Bobby’s fingers. I’m not a lawyer but as you pointed out giving the report on Sonoma to TWA would make it all go away, but publishing for free for TWA subscribers, on his new site would be stealing subscribers.

The fact that TWA is losing subscribers is much deeper than this one issue and if he was that much of a star they should have kept him.

Anonymous said...

It's funny because after the "Pay to Play" Sonoma Vintners debacle you reported on last year, now we have another drama regarding the annual Wine Advocate/Galloni Sonoma issue.
This time (Jan 2013), they didn't tell anyone, and held it at a "secret" location (Red Car Cellars), and yet still no transparency, and now a very public, and rather messy lawsuit.

Courtney Richards said...

The second that I heard about the lawsuit, I immediately came to the Gray Report to see what you had to say about it, Blake :) I thank you for your fair, balanced commentary.

Let me know anytime you come back to Tampa!

Unknown said...

Two thoughts that have little to do with wine, much to do with people:

(1) The clearly ambitious Galloni assumed, with some justification, his role as heir-apparent at the Advocate when Parker decided to retire. His learning that Parker was selling and the purchasers were installing a new editor effectively blocked any future path. Hell hath no fury like a climber scorned.

(2) Parker's golden palate may be matched only by his tin ear staffing judgments. Rovani, Miller and, now, Galloni. And to that I'd add Squires, whose persona has kept the e-site from living up to its potential.

Unknown said...

Your last line is very interesting. Very interesting indeed.

Anonymous said...

I also was impressed by that last line.

And I think WBG is correct that if Galloni were to give the content to WA right now, he wins due to the press and WA looses. People from WA will wonder what is going on over at Galloni after this PR and have a look at his site. Getting people to land on his page is worth $'s.

Skyscraper said...

As long as you're offering legal analysis, I was wondering if you had any opinion about today's indictment of Punxsutawney Phil?
What are the chances we'll see that varmint put down for good?

Anonymous said...

Another point in reading all the material on the TWA vs Galloni stuff is the claim by the TWA of his use of their “proprietary” 50-100 point system. Shouldn’t this have all the world’s wine publications quaking in thier boots and wondering when the lawyers for the TWA will come knocking with cease and desist orders and/or licensing agreements in hand, I wonder if the guys over at The Wine Enthusiast and Decanter (which just started using the 100 point scale) are nervous. I guess they can just say WHAT??? Our scale is from 1-100 ;)

Maybe the guys in Singapore see this as a new revenue stream.

Robert said...

What does the Advocate want? They want Galloni and his website to die. Think Goodfellas and what Joe Pesci's character was doing to the guy in the trunk of the car. When Galloni left, Advocate was left with egg on it's face I think this is a good lesson for everyone to remember. When you work for somebody, they own your brain. Forever.

Wine Walker said...

If Antonio Galloni is to allow TWA subscribers to see his Sonoma report for free on his website, how does Mr. Galloni confirm the viewers are TWA subscribers?

Wine Walker said...

If Antonio Galloni did not take TWA subscriber list with him, how will he know who to allow for free to see his Sonoma Report?

W. Blake Gray said...

Robert: Now you have "Goldfinger" in my head. Bond: "Do you expect me to talk?"

WW: He could accept it on faith. Even so, it looks bad.

CCDV: Perhaps we'll see a rash of 49 point ratings? Agreed on the subscriber-loss issue; this won't help.

Skyscraper: Didn't I answer this comment yesterday ... and the day before?

Christophe: As you know, I don't hang out with people who drink 100-point wines ... except TOMORROW, when I'm presenting a Parker 100-pointer at Taste Washington. Do I have to post your mugshot at the door?

Unknown: That's a very deep point and worthy of its own story. Galloni is not the same as Miller and Rovani, though: he's the most ambitious, thorough, productive person the Advocate ever hired.

Courtney: Thanks, and can't wait! Readers, if you've never been to Berns Steakhouse, your life is not complete.

Frisco: Thanks, Guy, I hadn't even connected those dots. True, Sonoma County has become a trouble spot for the Advocate. Theory: It's bigger and more important than the Advocate leadership is willing to acknowledge.

Chris Wallace said...

Not being a lawyer, I cannot speak to the legality of either parties actions. But I think I am qualified to speak to their ethics. If my employer (whether I am a contractor or regular hire) has paid me to do a job, then I must furnish them with that product. If you paid a contractor to build you a house, surely no one would accept the contractor keeping it for themselves, claiming it was the fruit of their labor, would they?