Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An Editorial On The Abuse of Money and Power

I don't normally get very serious in my posts. I try to be informative and inject a little humor, but I'm moved to go on a little rant.

In September, it was reported that Tony Rynders, the former winemaker at Domaine Serene, was being sued by his former employer. Why? Well, in addition to a bunch of extraneous and ridiculous "filler" claims, the bottom line was that Domaine Serene accused him of stealing "trade secrets", specifically their method for producing a white wine from pinot noir, a black grape that makes red wine under normal circumstances. 

Now, before I go too much farther, let me say that Domaine Serene doesn't rate highly on my dance card. Ken and Grace Evenstad, the owners, are the antithesis of everything that makes the Willamette Valley wine scene so appealing - at least to me. Their story is fairly well-chronicled, but the essence is that they bought a family pharmaceutical manufacturing company in Minnesota for the outrageous sum of $1,500 in the late sixties and built it into a major player in the generic drug market - allegedly grossing $250 million per year. They then used that money to fulfill a dream of owning a winery. So far so good, right? It's the American dream.

Well, what they built is not just a winery, it's a showplace and a monument to their own egos. It's a 50,000 square foot yellow Italianate villa on a hilltop, filled with art and statuary and floored in terrazo; a study in excess surrounded by part of the 300+ acres of vineyard land they own. It's even gotten its own nickname: "Domaine Obscene".

While it's said that Grace worked her tail off to build the winery business and even pruned the vineyards, they remain aloof and disconnected from the wine community and are viewed as arrogant outsiders who are the ultimate in "hobbyist" winery owners. After all, they don't even live here full time, dividing time among their residences in Minnesota, Florida and Oregon.

They like to give the impression that everyone in Oregon learned to grow quality fruit and make quality wine from them, conveniently ignoring those who came before them, from David Lett, David Adelsheim and Dick Ponzi to their first consulting winemaker, Ken Wright and their long-time vineyard manager, Joel Myers. By doing that they alienate most everyone else in what's a fairly closely-knit industry, but they don't seem to care. What's worse is that their wines are over-done, over-oaked and over-priced for my palate and pocketbook, reaching almost-unprecedented levels. But enough of that.

I'm not going to defend Tony here. I don't know Tony and I don't know his motives, but he's involved in a venture with Laurent Montalieu called Grand Cru Estates where interested individuals can pay some outrageous sum ($25,000 if memory serves) to have one barrel of wine made for them every year and access to a swank party facility. Especially in this economic environment, that speaks to his ego (and Laurent's) almost as much as the villa does to the Evenstads'.

Nonetheless, Tony wanted to do something on his own (understandable) and - according the the complaint, which I've read - planned it while working for the Evenstads. They evidently viewed this as disloyalty and a violation of their trust, if not his employment contract which doesn't seem to exist. Okay, I get it in part, but here's what I don't get. After what was apparently an acrimonious parting of the ways, they sued him several months later. In Federal Court. In Minnesota, not Oregon. For the grand sum of $75,000. WHAT?

Their big "secret" - how to make white wine from black grapes, which the Champenoise have been doing for centuries and which I could do in my sleep because the methods are common knowledge - is worth $75,000? Is that all? When the winery is grossing somewhere well north of $20 million per year (and reportedly just showed its first profit after 20 years - a clear indicator of just how much money the Evenstads have thrown at it)? When there are at least 4 other wineries in Oregon who have made the same thing? That's the sum total of how much Lord and Lady Evenstad feel they were damaged? Please.

To make matters worse, they allegedly scheduled depositions with people who allegedly had knowledge of Tony's "indiscretions" (I'm doing my Tiger Woods imitation here) during harvest when their attentions were justifiably on anything but a spiteful lawsuit, just to be . . . well . . . spiteful.

Well, here's the good news. The case has been settled. I don't know if any money changed hands and no one is talking, but the legal fees had to have been substantial and the gist of the settlement is that they all agree to disagree about whether white pinot noir is made through the use of trade secrets that are exclusive to Domaine Serene - the Champenoise be damned. Oh, and Tony can't make any white pinot for three years. Big deal. The stuff sells about as fast as sea water or ham-flavored Gatorade. It's an oddity . . . a curiosity.

What we have is a case where Ken and Grace Evenstad sued Tony Rynders, who served them admirably for more than ten years and helped multiply their business more than tenfold, for the same reason a male dog licks himself. Because they could. To be a nuisance and annoying. It's an abuse of all good reason and a clear case of using their considerable resources in an attempt to intimidate someone for whom $75,000 is a much more princely sum than it is to them.

They'll never see a nickel of my money and I hope they'll never see any of yours.


  1. Next time you're out and see a limo, bus, van or RV full of women in high heels, jeans, silk tops and too much makeup and hairspray, recommend they visit Domaine Serene. Just to taste, and tell them they love to give tours. We'll call it Karma!

  2. All those people already go to Domaine Obscene, Mike. We'll have to think of some other nefarious plot.

  3. I have read newspaper accounts of this legal activity, thank you for sorting it out!

  4. Didn't realize the wine biz was much akin to the thorough breed race horse biz.

  5. I spent an afternoon with Tony while researching a story for Swirl Wine News a few years ago - unfortunately, the story got sterile filtered by my editor.

    Nevertheless, I found Tony to be a little slick, but totally committed to his craft and determined to make the finest wines possible. I believe that any success the label enjoys is largely due to his efforts.

    Those wines are not my preferred style, but they are polished and smooth and I understand their appeal.