Thursday, March 26, 2020

Thank You Heitz, you are so generous! Please don't call me anymore

Many companies are stepping up to help their community during this pandemic. Some are doing it quietly.

Not Heitz Cellar. Its PR firm called me at 6:30 am on Wednesday after I said I wasn't interested in giving it publicity for its charity.

Well, you win, Heitz. How can I resist the entreaties of a company generous enough to not fire anyone in the FIRST TWO DAYS of Napa County's lockdown. Heitz is still open for business on the Internet, selling wines at $250 a bottle. But the company wants praise for not canning its tasting room staff at the first opportunity. 

Thank you, Heitz! Thank you for not firing anybody this week! You're so great!

Let me back up a bit and tell you how this started.

Like everyone on the planet, I have been deluged by emails lately from businesses telling me about the steps they're taking about the pandemic. Nearly all are worthless corporate speak and I'm not responding to them.

Heitz's email of Mar. 20 was arrogant, but I ignored it like all the others. Let me post it here in its entirety, since that's what they want.

Hi W. Blake ,

I hope you are well and staying safe (and sane) during this time uncertain time. I wanted to put my client Heitz Cellar on your radar in the event that you are working on any COVID-19 related stories on what businesses are doing to support their staff and the community during this time. Please let me know if you are working on anything fitting or need further information.

In Napa Valley, Coronavirus (COVID-19) has led wineries and tasting rooms to temporarily close, with residents ordered to shelter in place. St. Helena’s Heitz Cellar, an iconic boutique winery established in 1961, is committed to ensuring not only the safety and security of their staff by paying their salaries in full indefinitely, but also providing relief to the community by donating an estimated $10,000 of beef to local charity partners.

The hospitality industry has felt devastating effects nationwide, with the temporary closures of bars and restaurants leaving workers unemployed and uninsured. An industry veteran and former wine director at Aspen’s The Little Nell restaurant, Heitz Cellar President and CEO Carlton McCoy, MS pledged to continue to compensate all 40 employees, while complying with government mandates to shutter the winery and tasting room indefinitely. “There are many families in northern California who are not in the financial position to weather this tremendous storm. Supporting our employees during this difficult time wasn’t a question, and we felt it was our duty to continue being a leader in Napa Valley and to be an example of how our community takes care of its members,” says McCoy.

To support the community that the estate has grown with over the last 60 years, Heitz has joined forces with relief groups Abode Service Napa, The Table Napa and The Salvation Army to donate 500 pounds of beef from Angus cattle from their biodynamic farm to families in need. Two years ago, Heitz converted 500 acres of planted vineyard to breed cattle that assist in their biodynamic preparations and to supply local restaurants. “In these perilous times, we feel extremely fortunate to prove to our community that Heitz Cellar does not exist simply to produce and sell great wine, but to continue to offer what we believe defines genuine hospitality: selflessness, generosity and humanity,” says McCoy. I’ve included photos here for your reference.

 Please let me know if you have any questions regarding Heitz Cellar’s support for its team or community during this pandemic, or if you would like to speak with Carlton McCoy directly.

Thank you, and stay safe!


Heitz was sold in 2018 to Gaylon Lawrence, Jr., a billionaire who owns seven banks, including one in Tennessee he bought in 2015 for $85 million. He also owns one of the largest citrus groves in Florida, and agricultural land in four other states.

He wants public praise for donating 500 pounds of beef. OK! Whatever you want! Mr. Lawrence, it is SO GENEROUS of you to donate 500 pounds of beef! And you say that beef is worth $10,000, huh? Is that retail? Is that donation perhaps tax-deductible?

Heitz also wants public praise for continuing to "compensate all 40 employees" even though the winery and tasting room are "shuttered indefinitely." This email came out 2 DAYS after the Napa shelter-in-place order. Those salaries, such a burden, but Heitz will bear it! Thank you, Heitz! I went to the Heitz website -- which I encourage, because we should all buy the products from the generous Mr. Lawrence, because maybe he'll donate more beef! -- and it doesn't look shuttered. In fact, it looks like it's selling wine at $250 a bottle.Yeah! You're also providing wine, not for free, but so nice of you! Thank you Heitz!

Anyway. I ignored this email on Mar. 20. Never ignore a billionaire seeking publicity for his tremendous charity!

Four days later, I got the same email again, with this intro:

Hi W. Blake,

Politely following up on my email below to see if Heitz Cellar is a fit for any relief related coverage that you are working on during this time.

I appreciate you keeping this information in mind. Thank you, and stay safe.


"Relief related coverage?" You mean, am I writing a story about companies like the distillers that are converting their facilities to make hand sanitizer and donating it to first responders? And if I write that story, you want Heitz included because they haven't fired anybody for 6 DAYS now, plus they're donating 500 pounds of beef?

You got it! Thank you, Heitz! I realize now that's what I should have said.

I got this email while standing in line outside the bank, trying to get enough quarters to ensure that we can continue to do laundry during the lockdown, because our apartment building's machines only take quarters. It was nerve-wracking standing out on Mission Street because many people were not observing the six-foot rule. And it was heartbreaking being in the bank line, because I only needed quarters. I saw a man roll in an elderly woman in a wheelchair who was missing a leg and had an oxygen hose in her nose. I don't know why she needed to go to the bank but it must have been a more serious need than mine.

Anyway, instead of saying what we should all say -- Thank You, Heitz! -- I sent this email:

Doing good without publicity is charity. Doing good for publicity is marketing.

And later I tweeted it. I got in a conversation on Twitter about it with another wine journalist in which I quoted a portion of the email. My God, these were comments between two people on Twitter, not even original tweets, which means nobody would see them who didn't click on "Show this thread." You'd have to be really following me closely to have seen them.

To be clear, here are my Tweets:

I'm having difficulty sleeping these days. A lot of people are. I'm typing this at 4:53 a.m. as my wife sleeps in the next room. I really don't want to wake her. Sleep is valuable.

On Wednesday I woke at 5:45 am to see this email:

Heitz Cellar is one of our estates and I saw your feedback on Twitter after my colleague Shaneil outreached. Would love to explain further over phone. Are you available to connect in the morning? I know it’s getting late there. 

Thanks in advance. 


I should have just said Thank You Heitz and let it go. But I didn't. I wrote this back:

Hi Cassidy. Thank you but no thank you. This is the THIRD outreach from an agricultural billionaire who owns seven banks ... not to mention one of the largest orange groves in Florida and significant land in four states, and who wants public praise for donating 500 pounds of beef.
There are plenty of folks who have less, who are doing more.

And then Cassidy called me at 6:30 am! She left a message which I haven't listened to because I don't want this conversation to go on forever.

Because you win! Thank You Heitz, you are so generous! Please don't call me anymore!

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


Bob Rossi said...

If they didn't have so many PR people, maybe they wouldn't have to charge $250/bottle.
Actually, as I started to read this, my first thought was "Oh no, Blake is picking on poor Joe Heitz." Then I realized that I thought I had read some years ago that Heitz was taken over by someone outside the family. In any event, I've probably had a Heitz wine 2 or 3 times (if that) over my 40 years of wine drinking, and I hadn't planned on ever drinking it again. If it wasn't outside my budget in the past, it certainly is now.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Bob, I don't think Joe Heitz would have called me at 6:30 am, unless I was on his picking crew.

New ownership is different.

jo6pac said...


My brother and sister in law were Napa just before the shut down. They went to Heitz but the tasting room was closed for a major remodel.

I use to drink there wines but even I had money I wouldn't today. Sadly a Great Winery will become just PR company. Sad

"Hey Bob, I don't think Joe Heitz would have called me at 6:30 am, unless I was on his picking crew"


Stay safe WBG

Rhi said...

I am most offended about her calling at 6.30am after recognising the time difference in her last email. RUDE! I was always taught that you don’t call before 9am or after 7pm. Basic Manners!

Also I’m offended about the money grabbing billionaires and millionaires who will undoubtedly come out of this crisis richer than they went into it. But people keep shopping at Walmart, so whaddya gonna do?

Paul Franson said...


As a former pr person and long-time writer and editor, I think your comment should be posted on the wall at companies:

"Doing good without publicity is charity. Doing good for publicity is marketing."

On the other hand, it can encourage others and I don't have a problem when companies mention that they've donated money to good causes. To try to exploit it is crass and I believe most targets agree.

Ted said...

Amen, Paul.

Unknown said...

Great article, Blake. As a publicist, I surely understand the anxiety my clients (and everyone else!) is feeling, but during these times it's imperative to be judicious and sensitive when it comes to practicing commerce. Heitz is letting their desperation show. Considering the wealth and resources of the owner, they are also demonstrating greed, which is unfortunate. S. Anash

Unknown said...

I worked in the tasting room of Robert Mondavi Winery until the closure of all wineries in Napa County. I get no pay during the crisis because I am a temporary worker. The big corporations in Napa Valley use many temporary workers to avoid paying benefits. On March 26th Constellation, the owner of Mondavi, announced 2.5 million in relief efforts toward COVID-19 relief for bartenders and restaurant employees. Constellation is getting lots of publicity for this. They would get no publicity for paying the people that work in their tasting rooms during the crisis so I'm out of luck.

Bob Rossi said...

The comment from unknown illustrates very well what Blake's piece said.

Patrick Miner said...

It is, all the same, a very nice thing Heitz is doing for their employees. As a recently laid off hospitality restaurant worker (more specifically focused on wine as a Sommelier), it is hard not to look enviously at the situation of Heitz employees retaining their salaries and benefits. The future for my entire way of life is now in doubt. I'm not sure if I'll ever work in a restaurant again as it is unclear what will be left of the industry in the wake of COVID-19. As far as I can tell, Heitz' biggest mistake was bad timing as far as contacting you is concerned.--did they not know you were based on the West coast? They are absolutely right to take the step of publicizing their efforts on behalf of their employees and their community. Perhaps it will inspire others to take similar actions, or perhaps it will just show people that not every business views their employees as a set of numbers they would rather not pay.

W. Blake Gray said...

Patrick: I'm sorry about your job, and for all the many people in the restaurant community.

As a journalist, I am simply not going to report on a company pledging not to fire anyone after just 2 days. Many companies make promises they don't keep. You can't work in journalism for six months without learning that.

If Heitz actually does keep its employees on the payroll throughout the pandemic ... well, first, is it charity? Wine sales in the US were up 66% in March. Smart wineries are quickly tasking tasting-room staff with making sales calls to club members. But let's say Heitz, owned by an agricultural billionaire (look him up to see some of his extensive holdings) does pay some of its 40 employees for months even though there's no work. That would be nice.

Even if that becomes true, still, please don't call me anymore!

Patrick Miner said...


Of course we are all going through difficult times. I've had trouble sleeping as well. I am thankful for the little bit of short term security that I have after being laid off, and I am most likely in a slightly better position than many of my fellow restaurant workers, but overall things are clearly going to be very hard for everyone in the long run.

I don't really want to get in a back and forth in online forums. In the past, I've found it to be less than productive. I'd like to point out, however, that it was indicated that the tasting rooms and wineries were closed "temporarily," and that Heitz pledged to pay its workers "indefinitely." It also seems that you make quite a big deal of the owner of Heitz being a billionaire. I don't think that detracts from his generous actions towards his employees. I can think of other billionaires that would not do the same. Also, who is to say that he isn't engaging in other acts of generosity? It seems like a fairly straight forward gesture of good will on his part, and I don't see how you are finding fault with it enough to dedicate a whole post to it. Maybe the PR company should have used a different style of etiquette on approaching you with this information. It does seem a bit clumsy on their part, but I'm not involved in that industry and don't deal with PR companies at all, so I'm no expert. But they are just doing their job at the end of the day.

I've frequently enjoyed your writing in the past, Blake. You cut through a lot of snobbery and high falutin' pompousness in the wine industry. You are also unfailingly on the side of the consumer. I've learned a lot from that. (Your writing is one of many things that I look to to keep my grounded, and I think I've managed to avoid a lot of pitfalls in my wine career because of it.) You also pull back the curtain on how the wine industry interacts with media, which I find fascinating and very relevant. I just don't why you didn't just move on from Heitz reaching out to you, or maybe bring it up tangentially if it was relevant to another piece you were writing. People can use some good news right now, for sure. I know I can.

I look forward to reading more of your writing in the future. Be well.

jason Carey said...

I think Bill Hicks said it all...

jason Carey said...

P.S. I guess you won't be getting any free samples from Heitz or get invited to their shindigs anymore..