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Korbel family feud escalates over Web comments


When Korbel Champagne Cellars? owner Gary Heck sued to find out who was saying nasty things about him on the Internet, he might have been surprised to discover an answer so close to home.

The anonymous critic on Craigslist was his daughter Richie Ann, according to papers Korbel filed in Sonoma County Superior Court.

Heck and Richie Ann Samii are embroiled in a bitter legal fight over a multimillion-dollar stake in Korbel, America?s top seller of traditional sparkling wine.

Heck is now suing his daughter for defamation, alleging she?s the source of online diatribes that damaged the reputation of the century-old Guerneville winery.

Samii denies making the comments, although she admits they came from her Internet account.

?I did not write those posts,? she said. ?There are many people who have access, via wireless, to our Comcast connection.?

She said Korbel?s defamation suit is part of campaign to deny her a rightful share in the family business, which posted $165 million in sales last year.

?I just want what my grandmother left me,? said Samii, 40. ?This is a witch hunt.?

Korbel?s defamation suit has prompted criticism from advocates of free speech on the Internet, who say it could discourage people from posting anonymous comments online.

Web sites and Internet providers aren?t obligated to protect the identities of users who make potentially libelous statements, according to legal experts.

Comcast agreed to identify the customer account after Korbel obtained a court order seeking the information.

The posts on a Craigslist forum last year accused Korbel of punishing employees who reported sexual harassment and of plotting to cut down ancient redwoods on its property.

They also accused Heck of holding Samii?s pet zebras hostage after he evicted her from a family-owned ranch next door to the winery. Heck has bribed judges to get his way in court, according to the online comments.

All of the statements are false, said Korbel spokesman Terry Fahn. The winery has no plans to cut down redwoods and has not retaliated against employees who reported sexual harassment, he said.

The Internet posts hurt Korbel?s reputation and are clearly libelous, according to the lawsuit. It asks for unspecified damages and a court injunction to stop them.

In March, Judge Gary Nadler ordered Comcast to reveal the source of the comments, but gave time for the Internet provider to notify its customer so they could challenge the disclosure in court.

In May, Samii filed an objection, saying the records are private and protected by the state constitution.

Last month, Judge Rene Chouteau overruled Samii?s objection.

On Friday, Samii said she didn?t post the comments but she believes they?re true.

?The truth is the truth, no matter what Gary Heck says,? she said. ?If he doesn?t like it, that?s his problem.?

She said Korbel sought the disclosure to access e-mail correspondence with her attorney. Korbel denies that charge, saying it asked only for the identity of the Comcast subscriber who made the damaging comments.

The legal feud between Samii and her father began in 2006 after she and her then-fiance, Christopher Samii, were arrested on suspicion of sexual assault.

Two 23-year-old women who worked at Korbel told sheriff?s investigators that the couple sexually assaulted them after a night of drinking at a winery pool house.

After an eight-week investigation, the Sonoma County District Attorney?s Office decided not to file charges, citing a lack of evidence.

The two women have since filed a personal injury suit against the couple.

In a deposition in 2007, Gary Heck said the incident put Korbel in serious legal jeopardy. His daughter was fired from her job managing Korbel?s Guerneville ranch and evicted from the property.

Richie Ann Samii now is suing her father and Korbel associates for allegedly mismanaging her trust fund. She inherited about 5 percent of the winery, but won?t control the shares until she is 45 years old.

On Friday, Samii said she?s out of cash and soon will be homeless.

Last week, Judge Elaine Rushing upheld some issues revolving around Heck?s handling of Samii?s trust, saying she wasn?t misled about its terms. But other issues have yet to be resolved.

?We are very happy with this ruling and we believe that it demonstrates that there is no merit to this case,? Fahn said.

Korbel was founded by Bohemian immigrant Francis Korbel and his brothers in 1882 and incorporated in 1903. The Heck family acquired the business in 1954 and expanded it to include Kenwood Vineyards, Valley of the Moon Winery and Lake Sonoma Winery.