Cuvaison Winery

Cuvaison Winery in Carneros.

J.L. Sousa/Register

A 58-year-old “whistleblower” is suing her former employer, Cuvaison Inc., owner of Cuvaison Estate Wines in Napa Valley, for age discrimination and wrongful termination after being fired from her longtime position last fall.

The Napa woman alleges that the Carneros winery refused to hire anyone over the age of 40 and believes that she was fired because of her age as well as her refusal to participate in fraud, according to the suit filed in Napa County Superior Court last month.

Randy Strauss of Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer in Oakland, the law firm representing former employee, Mary Pencek, said that the firm has not received a formal answer from either defendant yet. But, he said, the case is pretty clear cut.

“The fact is that the winery let our client go, she’s older, they replaced her with younger people, (and) she complained that older people were not being employed,” Strauss said.

Dan Zepponi, the president and CEO of Cuvaison Estate Wines, issued a statement on on Tuesday. “We are saddened by these untrue accusations," he said. "We are a company that believes deeply in fair hiring practices, and our team, including our direct-to-consumer staff, is made up of people of all ages and various backgrounds. This diversity is a valued part of our company culture, and any claims to the contrary are false."

Zepponi said that although the company couldn't say much about the pending litigation, they are eager to challenge the claims in court. 

According to the suit, almost immediately after taking over day-to-day operations in November 2016, Zepponi started a campaign to employ younger people in the Direct to Consumer department, which was referred to as “the face of the winery.” He wanted Cuvaison to appeal to a younger generation, so when the winery did a photo shoot of a wine tasting, only young employees were invited to participate, the suit asserts.

During this time, Pencek, the director of sales and marketing, felt like her role was being minimized, but continued to do her best to please Zepponi, according to the suit.

In May 2017, Pencek was tasked with interviewing candidates for a tasting room associate positioning and hiring someone. She then made an offer to a woman she thought had all the qualifications, but who was in her late 50s. After the woman was hired and put on the schedule, Pencek was informed that Zepponi wanted to meet all new hires in person before they were given an offer.

When Zepponi met Pencek’s new hire in person, he decided she was the “wrong fit” despite her extensive wine knowledge and experience, according to the suit. Pencek was later informed that the woman was scared away with a lower offer, the suit alleges.

In July, Zepponi ended up hiring two new employees, both of whom were in their 30s.

During that same month, there was shortage of tasting room staff and Pencek was again tasked with finding a qualified applicant. Noting one applicant’s graduation date, Pencek emailed the company CFO saying that the tasting room really needed new staff and the company should interview applicants regardless of age.

According to the suit, the CFO replied by saying that Zepponi had made it clear that he would not hire older individuals and not to waste anyone’s time.

The suit alleges that Zepponi continued to make his bias against older individuals evident by calling one woman he used to work with who was now in her 50s a “grandma,” allowing only people under the age of 40 to participate in photo shoots, and congratulating Pencek on her 20 years with the company by commenting on her appearance and age.

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In September, Zepponi decided to move forward with a plan to obtain a golf cart for the winery property. Pencek was tasked with finalizing the golf cart rental.

Pencek contacted a company that was willing to rent to the winery, but required that the renter be properly insured. Cuvaison’s insurers, though, required that the vehicle have seatbelts in order to be added to the company policy. The vehicle didn’t have any, so Pencek passed the information onto the CFO.

According to the suit, the CFO ignored Pencek’s concerns, and went ahead with the rental, misrepresenting to the insurers that the golf cart had seatbelts. In response, Pencek refused to sign any documents or participate in the golf cart tours.

Two days later, Pencek was fired.

Although just two weeks before her role was described as being critical to the company’s marketing plants, Pencek was told that her position was being eliminated. Much younger new hires have since taken over her former duties, the suit asserts.

Pencek is alleging age discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, wrongful termination, intentional infliction of emotional distress and failure to prevent discrimination. She is asking for damages, attorneys’ fees, costs of suit, and is demanding a jury trial.

Editor's note: This story was edited after its original posting to include Zepponi's response. 

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Public Safety Reporter

Maria Sestito is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She covers breaking news as well as crime and courts. Maria came to the Napa Valley Register in 2015 after working at as a reporter and photographer at The Daily News in Jacksonville, NC. S