s
s
Sections
You've read 3 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 6 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

While the Foppianos can't match those families in profile or star quality, they are proving to be equals in intensity.

"Italian families live operatically," said Bo Simons, head of the Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg. "I know it's a gross generalization, but it seems some go crazy about things. They have huge fights."

Both sides were in court Friday to confirm the trial. Valera declined to comment outside the hearing. Her brother's lawyer, Mike Senneff, said efforts to resolve the lawsuit amicably have failed.

"We're locked into this," Senneff said. "It's really unfortunate."

The winery dates to 1896 with its founding by Giovanni Foppiano. The business was passed to his son, Louis J. Foppiano, who ran it until handing it over to his son, Louis M. Foppiano, eight years ago.

The father, who turned 101 in November, created a trust that controls 49 percent of Foppiano Corporations, which includes the winery and vineyards. In 2009, he relinquished his rights, naming his son and daughter as co-trustees.

Valera said since her brother took over business operations in 2005, finances deteriorated dramatically. In part because of the economic downturn, the company went from selling nearly 100,000 cases a year to fewer than 20,000 cases. And for the first time ever, it took on debt.

A consultant in 2008 recommended changes to make the company more profitable. Todd Arterburn took over operations from Louis M. Foppiano, who remains the public face of the company. Improvements were suggested for the tasting room and grounds. And a new marketing plan was developed.

To finance it all, Foppiano took loans, first from the family trust and later from the bank, secured by the trust. In two years, he created $4.1 million in debt, Valera alleges.

One of the loans required a signature from the aging father, which Valera alleges her brother forged. Both sides hired handwriting experts to analyze the document.

Valera said in court documents she was misled by her brother into going along with the borrowing because he insisted the company couldn't meet payroll and was on the brink of closure.

About that time, she said she learned her brother and Arterburn had used some of the money to give themselves "sizable bonuses."

Valera said she began looking more closely at the corporation's finances, but her brother and Arterburn blocked her.

Instead of turning over records she requested, Arterburn fired her and four other employees, she said. Her brother also threatened to sell company property where she had lived for 25 years, she said.

"By taking away petitioner's income and health benefits, Louis M. has attempted to quiet her through economic coercion," Valera's lawyer said in court papers.

Foppiano disagrees. He said in court documents that he decided to "revitalize" the brand with a series of improvements when he took over from his father, who had been reluctant to make investments in the winery for many years.

With the support of family members, including Valera, he hired the consultant who suggested sweeping changes. He brought in Arterburn, a professional manager, and began capital projects that were estimated to require $2.5 million in loans.

Temporary "bridge loans" were needed, so Foppiano turned to the trust. He paid the trust back after getting a larger loan from Summit State bank, he said.

At the same time, the wine industry was suffering record losses because of the economy and severe weather. Revenue was 35percent less than expected in 2009-2010, he said.

His lawyer said turning a company around is a slow process.

"I've heard it described as turning a tanker in an ocean," he said. "You don't just do it on a dime."

Valera and her husband, Tony, were impatient, according to the documents. They began demanding financial records, which Foppiano said he gave them. Tension between brother and sister grew, and family lawyers tried to intervene.

According to the lawsuit, Valera lashed out at her brother and his wife, saying in an email that the family should "just sell the winery so we can all go out with a little dignity and have the same opportunity that you (Louis) have had."

She said her father "told me and Tony to get rid of you over a year ago," according to Foppiano's papers.

To remedy the situation, Foppiano offered to buy out his sister but she walked away from the bargaining table, he said.

Then in January, after Valera's position was eliminated as a cost-cutting measure, Foppiano said his sister asked to borrow $150,000 from the trust, which she used to hire a lawyer and sue him.

Foppiano denied any coercion connected to earlier loans. He said only corporation money was used for payroll, including year-end bonuses that were shared by Valera.

Foppiano has asked to remain a trustee. If he's removed, it's unclear if his position in the company would be in jeopardy. But such a change would hand the company's purse strings to his sister.

The trial is expected to last up to five days. A total of 15 witnesses will testify, including Valera, Louis M. Foppiano and numerous other family members.

There is no jury. The judge will decide the case.

Simons, the county wine library director, said the winery's image remains strong despite the spectacle of the lawsuit, but described the losses mentioned in it as significant.

Simons said it's not unusual for heirs to slug it out. Robert and Peter Mondavi famously came to blows before going their own ways in the 1970s. The Sebastianis quarreled when brother Sam tried to reshape the family business. He was ousted in a coup led by his brother and mother.

"Usually they wait until there is an estate to divide it," Simons said. "Trying to do it in trust is heart-breaking."