When a small wine importer gets the opportunity to work with an online wine club that throws celebrity-studded parties and has been enthusiastically profiled in the consumer press, from Thrillist to Vogue, chances are they’re going to jump on it. That’s the scenario that confronted Gordon Little, co-founder of New York-based Little Peacock Imports, when he started working with Wine Awesomeness.
Little met Wine Awesomeness co-founder Logan Lee when they were separately profiled by Wine Enthusiast for its annual 40 Under 40 issue in 2014. Little Peacock imports wines to the U.S. from small-scale Australian producers. He has distribution in 15 states and sells about 15,000 cases per year. The company’s small staff is composed of himself, plus two other employees.
“Lee put in an order in 2014,” Little recalls. “They ordered 80 to 150 cases at a time and they were slow to pay, but we were scheduling future orders to entice payment of the previous one.”
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our newsletter—delivered to your inbox twice a week.
But two close orders, almost back-to-back in 2018, led to Little Peacock’s alleged nonpayment issue. “They owe me for two orders, worth just under $12,000,” says Little. “After they failed to pay us, I learned that other colleagues were having the same issue. It’s a small industry, and people talk.”
SevenFifty Daily interviewed five winemakers, importers, and lawyers on the record regarding their allegedly unpaid invoices. Additional suppliers reported nonpayment issues but asked to remain anonymous as they seek resolution to their complaints. These sources claim they are owed anywhere from several thousand dollars to well over $20,000, for invoices dating back more than a year.
A “Pattern” Emerges, Complainants Say
Wine Awesomeness was founded in 2013 in Charleston, South Carolina, has an office in New York City, and is licensed to sell wine online. Wine Awesomeness describes itself as a “modern, souped-up version of a wine club.” Each month, the club chooses a theme (e.g., A Return to South Africa), sends subscribers three or six bottles of wine, plus a mini-magazine called thebacklabel, which contains information on the wine, articles on the theme and its place in wine culture, a glossary of terms, recipes for meals to pair with the wines, and a suggested playlist. Memberships are $49 for three bottles, and $79 for six bottles. One-off purchases are also available.
Working with influencers like fashion photographer Ben Watts and posting images of models like Lily Aldridge posing with its products on social media, Wine Awesomeness appeared to be developing a successful lifestyle brand and company, according to complainants.
But behind the scenes, troubles mounted. Typically, payment for a transaction between a supplier and a retailer would be subject to 30-day payment terms. But for many of the people SevenFifty Daily spoke with, payments ranging from several thousand to more than $20,000 have been outstanding for a year or more.
Along with Little Peacock, suppliers who say they are owed money by Wine Awesomeness include Hobo Wine Company in Santa Rosa, California, Regal Wine Imports in Moorestown, New Jersey, and Union Wine Company and Christopher Michael Wines, both in Tualatin, Oregon. Some of these companies have sent their claims to collections or have taken legal action against the company.
Little says he is concerned that Wine Awesomeness’s actions appear to have targeted mostly smaller importers and distributors that do not necessarily have the leverage or resources to defend themselves when faced with nonpayment. “Learning what I have about their pattern of behavior, I can only conclude that they knew they couldn’t pay when they made the order,” says Little. “I’ve talked to people from multiple companies who’ve had issues getting paid by them, some of whom have eventually managed to garner payment from them, and others, like me, who have not.”
Kenny Likitprakong, the founder of Hobo Wine Company, produces about 30,000 cases of wine per year. He has two full-time employees, and one part-time employee. He tells SevenFifty Daily that he started working with Wine Awesomeness in December 2014. “The last order we shipped to them was for $27,000,” says Likitprakong. “Before that, we had trouble getting paid, but they eventually paid. The first orders were smaller,” he adds, “and I believe they were designed to get our trust.”
After reaching out about the $27,000 unpaid invoice from February 2018 with follow-up invoices, emails, and phone calls, Likitprakong “hired a lawyer who sent demand letters. We were going to file a lawsuit,” he says, “but [our lawyer] recommended against it because she estimated that her billable hours would exceed whatever payment we got if we won a judgment.”
Charlie Trivinia, the cofounder of Regal Wine Imports, which has been in business since 1980 and is projected to sell almost 500,000 cases this year in 33 states, says that as with Little Peacock, Wine Awesomeness placed two back-to-back orders with Regal Wine. “They jumped in with a second order,” says Trivinia, “before the first one was due.” The first order, in the amount of $8,418, went out on March 20, 2018. The second, in the amount of $4,895, went out on April 12, 2018.
Regal Wine tried repeated invoice mailings, emails, and phone calls. “Then we gave it over to our collection attorneys, with no effect or result,” says Trivinia. “Speaking with other suppliers, I feel that it was their goal to find new suppliers for wine when they needed it, without any intention of paying the new suppliers’ bills.”
Meanwhile, a company representative from Union Wine Company, says Union Wine is owed $9,072 for orders made by Wine Awesomeness in 2018. Christopher Michael Wines, which was founded by Union’s owner Ryan Harms and his brother Eric Harms (who also serves as director of finance at Union), is also waiting on one unpaid invoice worth $10,230, according to the same representative. Union has not yet taken any legal action, but says that both bills were due in March 2018, and both remain outstanding.
Wine Awesomeness Responds
Wine Awesomeness’s cofounder Lee, admits his company has made false steps along the way, but that he and cofounder Dale Slear are determined to make things right with unpaid vendors.
Lee says that the company ran into trouble in 2018, when it came out of a “very solid holiday season,” and that its “forecasts were off and more importantly, the financing options we were promised all but disappeared.” Lee says these forces combined to nearly force the company out of business.
“We are not a Fyre Festival or a Trump family business that considers suppliers expendable, while paying ourselves handsomely,” says Lee, adding that he and Slear are the “least paid of our small team.”
Wine Awesomeness made the decision in September 2018, says Lee, to “draw a line in the sand between old debt and current obligations [so] we could start attacking debt.” The company hired Alex Eisemann, a New York-based lawyer, to help it tackle the past-due invoices, and has started purchasing wine on a cash-on-delivery basis from vendors with whom the company has outstanding invoices “to provide cash flow while we continue to work on fixing the old financial issues.” According to Lee, he and Slear “feel a deep responsibility to fix the unexpected problems that arose with some vendors, who are owed for orders.”
As for Little Peacock, the saga continues. After sending invoices and formal letters, Little hired a lawyer to file a claim in New York Civil Court for Breach of Contract. Wine Awesomeness did not formally answer the lawsuit and is currently in default. Little holds out hope for repayment by Wine Awesomeness.
“This won’t cause us to shut down,” says Little, “but we’re a small business and every dollar counts.”
Editor’s Note: Since this story broke, two other producers approached SevenFifty Daily with their own allegations against Wine Awesomeness. Adam Sager, the co-president of Winesellers Ltd. in Niles, Illinois, says that his company began working with Wine Awesomeness in February 2016. “From February 2016 to January 24, 2017, we sold them approximately 4,000 cases of wine in value of $180,000,” Sager says. “They always paid, but it was always very late—and after many attempts to collect. We now have $10,000 in open receivables over two years old from a Portuguese container we sold in January 2017.” Sager reports that Winesellers is taking action through its insurance company.
Alexia Pellegrini, the general manager of Pellegrini Wine Company, a producer in Santa Rosa, California, also reported problems with the online wine club. After first shipping a “small order in May 2015,” the $2,016 the Pellegrini Wine Company was owed went unpaid for four months, says Pellegrini. Following additional orders of $20,260 and a mutually agreed upon business plan, Pellegrini has ultimately been left with $6,087.60 in unpaid bills. “Too much for small claims,” says Pellegrini, “but not enough to make a stand for.”
Last updated: April 12, 2019
Kathleen Willcox is a journalist who writes about food, wine, beer, and popular culture; her work has appeared in VinePair, Edible Capital District, Bust magazine, and Gastronomica, and on United Stations Radio Networks, among other venues. She recently coauthored, with Tessa Edick, “Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir.” She lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.