The scion of a Napa Valley legend is claiming that winery executives are enriching themselves off his late father’s legacy.
Jeremy Nickel, son of the late vintner Gil Nickel, filed a suit in August accusing three boardmembers of his father’s wineries of paying themselves dividends and bonuses they aren’t entitled to.
The suit names boardmembers and executives Dirk Hampson of St. Helena, Larry Maguire of St. Helena and Laura Harwood, as well as four entities associated with the Nickel family: Nickel & Nickel Vineyards LLC, Far Niente Vineyards LLC, Far Niente Winery Inc., and Dolce LLC.
Nickel accuses Hampson, Maguire and Harwood of giving themselves annual bonuses of 5 percent of the net profits generated by the three wineries and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of perks and benefits — without a formal board resolution or shareholder approval.
The suit accuses Hampson and Maguire of receiving dividends on their 10 percent shares in the wineries, even though they’ve allegedly never paid for the stock.
Nickel also accuses the three executives of failing to cut “unnecessary costs and expenditures” at the wineries despite the economic downturn.
The suit seeks damages of at least $50 million, with the exact amount to be proven at trial. The defendants are expected to file an answer to the suit late this week.
“The suit filed by Jeremy Nickel is meritless,” said Mary Grace, the wineries’ vice president for communications and marketing. “He is acting alone, contrary to the interests and without the support of any other owner. The other four owners — Beth Nickel, Erik Nickel, Dirk Hampson and Larry Maguire — are disappointed in Jeremy’s action, but it will not distract them from their tradition of outstanding winemaking.”
Nickel, who’s represented by St. Helena attorney James Rose, owns a 35 percent share in the wineries, but doesn’t sit on the board and hasn’t been actively involved in running the businesses. His primary residence is in Oklahoma. The suit claims he only recently learned of the misconduct.
Hampson, Maguire and Harwood were business associates of Gil Nickel prior to his death of cancer in 2003, at the age of 64.
Nickel, a native Oklahoman, was part of a wave of wine enthusiasts who came to the Napa Valley in the 1970s. He studied wine at UC Davis and reopened the abandoned Far Niente winery in Oakville, which had been closed since Prohibition.
Nickel started Dolce, dedicated to production of a late-harvest sweet wine, in 1992. He launched his third major venture, Nickel & Nickel winery, in 1997. He was also known for his collection of race cars.
Jeremy Nickel is the son of Gil and his wife Beth, who is not named in the suit.