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Ouch! That knife in my back still stings

2012 October 21

You may have noticed (or maybe not) that I haven’t written about wine on my blog for quite a while now. Truth is, moving back to Seattle sort of took the wind out of my sails. My recent visit to the North Bay area a few weeks ago reminded me that many people who know me don’t know the real story behind how I “lost” my job at VWE (Vintage Wine Estates) in Santa Rosa. Even now, two years afterward, the acrimony from what happened still infuriates me. Not so much for the job itself, but rather for the betrayals and deceit of people I thought were my allies and my friends. People who continue to work in the industry and act as if no injustice ever happened. Well, I’m tired of others getting ahead at my expense. I think it’s about time this story was told and others know what kind of people they’re dealing with.

Let’s rewind to the summer of 2009. A certain someone garnered a coveted position with Murphy-Goode winery and subsequently, with his help, the winery faded into obscurity. Several other people from that contest received employment offers, some temporary, some permanent. Many have since moved on to bigger and better ventures. I went back to Seattle after the contest, satisfied that I did my best, and confident that I could have done so much more with that position had I won. But things happen for a reason, and I told myself that I didn’t get the gig because something better would come along. At least, that’s what I thought.

I wasn’t in Seattle long because I had to turn around and drive down for the Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC09) in Santa Rosa. For three days, my wife and I enjoyed connecting in real life with people whom I knew mostly from online interactions.Toward the end of my trip, I received an unexpected phone call from Pat *****, owner of VWE. He had watched the events unfold in the MG contest with keen interest and was picking through the remnants of the contestants hoping to benefit from another winery’s efforts. After all, why not let MG and Vintank narrow down the field and then pick up the scraps they don’t use. What I didn’t find out until later was that I wasn’t the first person from that contest that they talked to. Another blogger was also considered, but he didn’t get the job because they found it strange that he would bring his girlfriend with him into his interview. Admittedly, the story was laughable, but the fact that they shared it with me should have raised a red flag.

I had recently been laid off from my UI design job and the idea of working in the wine industry had an idyllic appeal. When they flew me back down about a week later, I was pretty sure I had the job, and even looked for an apartment. The offer came in at about 30% less than my previous position. The argument being the wine business was different from high tech—in other words, dream jobs don’t always pay well. I countered with the fact that I would be paying both a high sales tax and a state income tax, further reducing my actual salary. I negotiated a deal with ***** so that it was only a 25% cut and the salary agreement included a 20% bonus at the successful completion of one year. During my interview, we agreed that social media was hard to quantify and that the benefits were more long-term. This bonus wasn’t tied to any real sales numbers, but rather whether my work had a positive impact. I made it a point to keep track of every positive outcome resulting from my efforts.

Sheri didn’t move down with me. We owned a house and rental property in Seattle and with the burst of the housing bubble, selling our property wasn’t a viable option. We decided to give the job a year to see how things worked out. Even though Sheri did her job from a home office, she had to travel quite often and Seattle was more convenient than Santa Rosa or SFO for flying. Sheri stayed in our home and I rented a small apartment in Santa Rosa. That rent, in addition to house payments, reduced my net salary even further and my cut in pay became an even larger cut.

Those of you who followed me on social media know how much work I did during that year. My coworkers know the positive impact I made on sales of both wine and wine accessories. I produced over 50 videos in 11 months, tweeted and wrote numerous blog articles, and effectively eliminated the need for an in-house photographer. One of my videos has over 58,000 views, a real success in this industry. However, ***** discounted the effect my work had on sales, giving all of the credit to the sales team. Of course, he didn’t mention what I knew from talking to the sales manager. The sales people were using what I did—blogs, video and email—to help sell more wine, more wine cellars and more accessories improve *****‘s bottom line. Telling me my job was ineffective only made me work harder. I was already putting in lots of overtime and 60 hour weeks weren’t unusual. I got to know the nightly ritual of shutting down the office since I was often the last to leave. Unfortunately, work in social media doesn’t stop just because you leave the office.

The hours didn’t thrill me, but it was probably the micromanaging that really upset me most. VWE had a couple of more established brands. These were *****‘s babies and he had very old-fashioned ideas about how to market them. They had a certain image he wanted to maintain. Unfortunately, that image was old and stodgy, lacking the appeal needed to attract a younger consumer. Needless to say, we butted heads quite often and many great ideas were aborted. It wasn’t enough to simply agree to disagree. Sometimes, I just posted those videos on my own YouTube account, but they never got the exposure they would have on the company website.

My biggest mistake was naïveté and believing that all the people on the periphery of the wine industry were my friends. The Murphy-Goode experience—people scrambled to get a job with the Jackson Family—should have clued me in. A couple of these “friends” were looking in from the outside, envious and scheming to get their foot in the door…or maybe I should say, their name on a bottle. One of these people was Ed *******. [last name redacted for privacy]

Ed received VinTank’s endorsement during the Murphy-Goode ordeal because of his wine credentials, but didn’t make it to the final round. I got my endorsement because I spoke out against those endorsements. Funny how that happens. During the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference, I made the fatal mistake of drinking too much and complaining about my excessive hours and the micromanaging at VWE to Ed. He took that and ran with it, getting his name in front of ***** and others in the company, probably before the week was out. He would get in the door, regardless of who got hurt.

Around the same time, ***** hired a new VP of Marketing, Mark ******** [last name redacted for privacy], passing over more qualified people in the company. Mark came from a defunct brand of the Jackson Family and was responsible for killing it. For some unknown reason, ***** hired him. I remember that he gave his reports a couple of bottles of the wine that he marketed, and in all fairness, the death of those brands wasn’t really his fault. The wine sucked. It wouldn’t even make good vinegar and I ended up pouring it down the drain.

Mark was involved somehow with the whole Murphy-Goode thing, but didn’t have a clue about social media, didn’t understand my role, and subsequently thought I was overpaid. However, I think his reasons for disliking me were more basic. For him, wine was a rich white man’s world. I had no credibility in this world and had no business being there. Of course, I can’t prove this, but some of his comments in private hinted at his disdain for Latinos. I’m sure Asians weren’t far behind on his list. Purely speculation, as is what follows.

Lo and behold, a resume crosses his desk with a name he recognizes from the Murphy-Goode contest. At that point, Mark decided Ed would be cheaper and would fit his idea of who should be in the wine biz. But first, he had to find some legitimate way to get rid of me and he had to do it soon. My one year anniversary was coming up and saving the company from paying me a sizable bonus would be quite the feather in his cap. He made it his job to discredit me to ***** and went to great lengths to bait me. I bit.

About three weeks before my October job anniversary, VWE had a party at their new Healdsburg tasting room. I took photos of that party and posted them the same night. The next morning, I was called into a meeting with Mark and my boss. I was informed that my position was eliminated and they would be letting me go. It wasn’t a complete surprise to me. Sheri and I had just talked about that scenario a few days earlier. Obviously, they knew this was coming, but allowed me to work the night before, totally unaware. I was given some papers that they wanted me to sign. These papers included a statement that would sign away all my rights to sue them and a non-defamation clause so I couldn’t write about what happened. In exchange, I would receive two weeks severance. Needless to say, I was *overwhelmed* by their generosity and didn’t sign any of their documents.

By the end of September, I had moved back to Seattle and in the beginning of October, I went on vacation to Italy. By the time I returned from vacation, VWE had hired Ed to fill the position that was “eliminated”. To add insult to injury, for several weeks after, I kept getting emails from Ed to help access some account to change things over for him. After a few of these, I decided I no longer worked there and Ed should start earning his pay.

I’ve always believed that if you worked hard, paid your dues and kept your nose clean, you would be rewarded. Not so. That old adage of, “cheaters never prosper,” just isn’t true anymore. Lance Armstrong got rich cheating. Do you really think becoming the poster boy of lying will make his riches disappear? Ed got into the wine industry by purposefully usurping me. Very few people know what happened, some speculated, most didn’t care. Knowing won’t change what happened, but knowing someone will stab another in the back to get ahead should give you pause before you associate with them. Who’s to say that knife won’t be in your back next.

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