Monday, August 10, 2015

A brief history of wine libel cases

Riedel's threat last week against Ron "Hosemaster" Washam and Tim Atkin will never reach a courtroom. Anyone can hire a lawyer to send a letter threatening action. I've gotten them; they're scary. But they're easy to send; going to court takes a much greater commitment.

That said, in the past some Europeans have been angry enough to go to court, and it has ended up being expensive for the Americans.

Atkin and Riedel announced Saturday that the case was resolved when Atkin added this disclaimer:

In this piece, US-based wine writer Ron Washam pokes fun at Riedel, the wine glass company, a brand that I respect and use personally. This is a piece of satiricial writing. No offence is meant to be caused either to Georg Riedel or to his business. Please note that no interview with Georg Riedel took place in the creation of this article and that all quotes are fictitious and do not represent the personal views or business practices of Georg Riedel or his company. Tim Atkin

I don't know what Georg Riedel was thinking. One would think pursuing legal action in this case might hurt sales. One might also think suing the world's most powerful wine critic over a single nonsense word in a review would backfire. And one would be wrong.

Wine libel cases were more common a century ago, and mainly involved misrepresentation: somebody claimed to be selling a certain brand of Champagne which in fact was a much cheaper wine. Those are criminal cases now.

Here is a brief history of the only three wine libel cases I know of in the postwar era. If you know of more, please tell me in the comments.

Faiveley vs. Parker

In 1993, Robert Parker's annual Wine Buyer's Guide had a very positive 4 1/2 page review of Faiveley's wines from Burgundy. But at the end of the review, Parker wrote, "On the dark side, reports continue to circulate that Faiveley's wines tasted abroad are less rich than those tasted in the cellars -- something I have noticed as well. Ummm ...!"

Parker told Elin McCoy, author of "The Emperor of Wine," that he was talking about shipping and storage; that he had been telling Fran├žois Faiveley that his wines were being damaged by being stored in un-airconditioned warehouses, like one he visited in Texas on a 90-degree day.

But Faiveley and others read that "Ummm ...!" as an allegation that he was providing Parker with different bottles to taste on his French visits than the wines he was selling in America.

Faiveley sued Parker in French court. The lawyers settled, and the settlement could be said to have gone in Faiveley's favor, mainly because he didn't want money: he only wanted 1 French franc (worth about 16 cents). The offending lines were removed from future editions of the book and distribution ceased of the then-current edition.

McCoy reported that the case cost Parker more than $100,000 in legal fees, but he sold more books in France, Switzerland and Belgium because of the publicity, so though it took a while, eventually he made money on it.

Subsequently, Parker and the entire region of Burgundy, which largely supported Faiveley, had a near 20-year divorce; Parker wasn't welcome so he didn't go, and he didn't rate the wines. Early on in that period, it seemed like the silence from the Wine Advocate was hurting Burgundy, as it lagged behind the rest of the world's top wine regions in price escalation.

That's not the case now, though. In fact, one could argue that being ignored by Parker forced Burgundy to develop an entirely separate market of wine buyers who don't like Parker's recommendations. That took a while, but the effort has paid off; unlike Bordeaux and Napa, which still are beholden to Parker's points, Burgundy sells its wines with prices based on its terroir classification system, as it has always wanted, and Parker's opinion cannot touch it.

One might call this case a win-win. But if he had it to do over again, I'll bet Parker would have left out the offending phrase and saved himself the legal headaches.

Agostini vs. Parker

Parker's former assistant in Bordeaux, Hanna Agostini, faced criminal fraud charges of forgery and "profiting from a breach of trust." As the keeper of Parker's tasting schedule, she wielded power over wineries. In January 2003 she was taken into custody and released on bail.

Parker did not make his annual tasting trip that spring (Bordeaux must have been in panic over how to price its wines). He said it was because of the Iraq war, but Agostini told the New York Times in August he feared being arrested if he set foot in France. There is no evidence this was true; the following month, Parker visited Bordeaux.

Parker supported Agostini for years, apparently not seeing that she was bad for his image. But in 2007 he wrote an unthinking post on his website, as he has been wont to do in recent years, saying she could "end up stagnating in prison." Seems mild, but Agostini sued him for libel in French court, saying he had overstated her potential punishment, and she won a judgment of 2000 Euros.

That went well for her, so she filed criminal libel charges against Parker, about whom she had written an entire tell-all book, over that one phrase. How do you say "chutzpah" in French?

Parker responded by suing Agostini for using his letterhead for false purposes.

They made some kind of deal; Parker dropped his suit, and Agostini dropped the criminal libel charges. Agostini was convicted of fraud in 2009 and got a suspended sentence.

Parker was the clear loser here. It cost him 2000 Euros and unknown legal fees, all over a phrase that doesn't seem extreme at all. Mainly he paid for his bad personnel judgment, and hopefully it was a price he could afford.

Still, let this be a cautionary tale about libel in French court. France's definition of venue scares me. How the hell could French courts rule against Parker in a libel suit -- and even consider criminal libel charges against him -- for something he published on his website in Maryland?

If somebody knows more about this case and can explain it, please do. This case scares me.

Broadbent vs. Random House

Benjamin Wallace, a financial journalist, wrote the excellent book "The Billionaire's Vinegar," about counterfeit wine. Random House published it in 2008. I'm a big fan of this book, and once put it on a list of 9 Great, Fun to Read Wine Books.

Michael Broadbent, a wine importer, was one of Wallace's main sources in the book and was interviewed and quoted extensively. He had imported and sold some counterfeit wines, but IMHO he doesn't look bad in the book; wine forger Hardy Rodenstock was great at fooling everyone. But Broadbent sued in the UK courts for defamation of character.

The case was settled out of court, but this was a loss for Random House because the amount it reportedly paid to Broadent was "substantial." Nothing in the book was changed for its editions worldwide -- unlike in Faiveley's suit against Parker -- but the book is no longer distributed in the UK.

This seems like it might be the kind of libel tourism case that the UK changed its laws in 2014 to prevent. The book was written and published in the US, but Random House does have UK offices and did publish there, so it was vulnerable. It's also perhaps the closest analogy to Washam's case, in that while he writes in California, the post was published on Atkin's site in England.

The upshot of this brief look at wine libel cases is a reminder that European courts are much different than American ones. All three of these cases would be laughable if pursued here, but in all three cases, the writer lost in Europe.

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

1 comment:

  1. Hey Blake... just tagged you on my Facebook post from this morning about my Riedel moment...