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.Best,Shaneil
"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:
Sent this after he “checked back in to see if this is a fit for any stories.” Please don’t check back in. It destroys any illusion of charity.— W. Blake Gray (@wblakegray) March 24, 2020
"(billionaire winery) 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 (CEO). I’ve included photos here for your reference. "— W. Blake Gray (@wblakegray) March 24, 2020
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.Best,Cassidy
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.Blake
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.