Robert Parker's Wine Advocate is suing its former California correspondent Antonio Galloni for breach of contract, fraud and defamation.
Parker: ‘We wish Antonio our very best’
Antonio Galloni, who was contracted by the influential wine journal for a reported US$300,000 a year to cover California wines, resigned earlier this year after a majority share in the Wine Advocate was bought by a group of Singaporean investors.
At the time he was in the middle of an extensive report on the wines of Sonoma, which he did not deliver, explaining to subscribers on his new website that he would not be able to do justice to the diversity of the region in time for the Wine Advocate’s February issue.
The Wine Advocate is now accusing Galloni of ‘fraud and breach of [his] contractual obligations and [his] intentional and unjustifiable withholding of tasting notes’.
The lawsuit goes a good deal further, accusing Galloni of fraud based on a ‘secret scheme to travel to wineries throughout the world, at Plaintiff’s expense and using Plaintiff’s reputation, when in fact, they intended to use these visits solely for their own benefit.’
It also accuses him of defamation, relating to comments he made to the New York Times in February this year suggesting his independence would be compromised under the new ownership of the Wine Advocate, and its new editor-in-chief Lisa Perotti-Brown.
Galloni, the lawsuit says, ‘stated that Plaintiff did not have the required level of independence and/or quality… These statements were false and were made with intent to damage the reputation of Plaintiff to Defendants’ benefit and Plaintiff’s detriment.
‘As a result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiff has suffered damages and irreparable harm, including loss of subscribers.’
Galloni, who joined the Wine Advocate in 2006, said on his website on 5 March that it had never been his desire ‘to intentionally withhold’ the Sonoma report.
‘Out of my deep respect for Bob [Parker], our joint readers, and in the spirit of collaboration, on February 15 I offered to make the Sonoma reviews available to TWA [The Wine Advocate] readers for free, on my new platform, once the article had been written and posted. TWA declined.’
Such claims were ‘met with derision’ by many in the wine world, according to Jeff Leve of the website Wine Cellar Insider, who suggests Galloni has ‘squandered’ his stock of good will by so openly trying to entice subscribers away from the Wine Advocate.
Honore Comfort, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, the trade organisation that hosted a large tasting for Galloni during the visit in question, said, ‘The wineries, and the public, will best be served if the reviews of the wines that were tasted by The Wine Advocate in January are published, and that this get resolved quickly so the information can get out in a timely manner.’
Commenting on the lawsuit, John Trinidad of Napa Valley law firm Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty, told Decanter.com that if proved, the allegation that Galloni had caused the Wine Advocate to lose subscribers was far more serious than any breach of contract claim.
‘A subscriber list may count as a trade secret, and the monetary damages for misappropriation of trade secrets can be much more significant than damages arising from the breach of contract claims related to of the Sonoma wine reviews.’
Trinidad also made the point that in order to prove defamation the onus would be on the Wine Advocate to prove it is truly independent.
The fact that Decanter.com reported in December that the major new shareholder, Soo Hoo Khoon Peng, still has close ties with Singapore wine merchant Hermitage Wine, will complicate this aspect of the case.
Although Robert Parker himself is not mentioned in the suit, he remains CEO and chairman of the board of the Wine Advocate and commented on its bulletin board, ‘Our actions are simply a matter of retrieving a service we paid for on your behalf. This is not an attempt to stop Antonio from moving on; we continue to wish him our very best.’
Written by Adam Lechmere, and Courtney Humiston in Sonoma