“This place is beautiful,” Layla Fanucci says about her boutique winery. “We have four acres, beautiful houses, gardens and the vineyards. It is absolutely not a toilet. So what does one do when you’re called a toilet for the whole world to hear, and you’re not a toilet?”
What does one do? One sues Google, for starters.
Fanucci and her husband own Charter Oak Winery in St. Helena, California, and have for the past thirty years. “Although it’s been in the family for 70,” she told MUNCHIES. When she isn’t painting in her on-site art studio, she leads appointment-only tours of the winery, which produces around 1,000 cases of wine every year. “We’re the smallest winery in the Napa Valley,” she beamed. “People call this the hidden gem.”
A lot of people do call it a hidden gem—or they use pleasant sounding synonyms to describe the winery and studio—but lately, Fanucci has been enduring “a troll”—her word—who seems determined to drag her online reputation down by a star or two. The person (or persons) have left several unflattering reviews on Google, including one that did describe it as “a toilet.”
“He wrote horrific things. One of them says ‘Stay away from this winery, the wines taste like geriatric vagina,’” Fanucci said. “It’s insults, all insults. There’s nothing about the product or the experience, because they didn’t have one.”
In an attempt to counteract what she says are fake one-star reviews, she asked her friends, family and members of the Charter Oak wine club to share their own five-star experiences, which they did—and that just made her online haters work harder. (“How many friends and other family members can you get to chime in?” one swiftly responded. “Our experience with this winery was so bad.”)
That’s when she contacted Google, and told them that she believed those reviews violated the company’s own terms and conditions for user-contributed content. According to Google’s guidelines, fake reviews, those containing “obscene or offensive language,” reviews posted “just to manipulate a place’s ratings” or to attack someone are all prohibited. Fanucci thought her troll met a lot of those criteria, especially because she says she has a guest register proving that no one with the names of her harassers have ever visited Charter Oak.
"What does one do when you’re called a toilet for the whole world to hear, and you’re not a toilet?”
“I called someone at Google and I said ‘Do you think geriatric vagina is appropriate to describe a beautiful artisan handmade wine,’ and he said yes,” she sighed. “I said, ‘Do you think toilet is appropriate to describe a beautiful winery and art studio, where we take so much time to create beautiful products,’ and he said yes.” That employee told her that the reviews would not be removed, so she said fine, she’d see them in court. (MUNCHIES has reached out to Google for comment).
Fanucci has not hired an attorney and will be representing herself in small claims court later this summer. “Because of free speech, I probably won’t win, but I’ll keep taking them back to court,” she said. “You can go up to five or six times and after that, I’m done. If after that, the judge says ‘They can be dishonest about your business,’ then I’ll say ‘OK, I did what I could.’”
Fanelli is beyond frustrated, both because Google has allowed the reviews to stand and because she doesn’t know who is so determined to damage her business, or why. “We always wonder who it is. I’m not saying this is what it is, but we’ve been thinking,” she said, before naming her main suspects, which include the owners of a similarly named restaurant (“When it opened, I made my voice known and said this isn’t going to work”), the videographer at her daughter’s wedding (“He was horrible, rude and so psychotic that I wanted to warn the public to stay away from him”) and a neighbour with a disputed property line.
“Who knows,” she said. “The point is, that they’re given a platform to lie and to be dishonest. [Google] needs to come out, look around and see that it isn’t a toilet, or look at the guest register and see that no one with those names have been here. They need to represent the small business owner, not just the crazy people.”
Yeesh. Good luck with that.