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by Cyril Penn | March 12, 2013 | 5:30 PM

If you don’t already subscribe to our daily news email, it’s a great way to keep up on the most relevant wine trade news. We often include press releases, when they seem pertinent. I’m not so sure about the release we recently sent out regarding Breakthroughs with Martin Sheen, though. Any time wineries are portrayed favorably on public television, I tend to take notice. In this case, however, there looks to be less than meets the eye.

Check out the “fraud alert” we received from Carol Reber, chief marketing and business development officer at Duckhorn Wine Company. Reber suggested we share the feedback she recently sent to her local vintner’s association:

Good Morning, NVV:

I want to alert you to a scam attempt that just came our way and one that I’d encountered about five years ago at a Sonoma wine company. NVV members should be aware. A woman who called herself Liz Mellman or Liz Newman called us from Boca Raton, FL from phone number 561-826-0456 about featuring us on Breakthrough TV hosted by Martin Sheen. For a $25-$30K production fee 100% payable up front and a 60-90 day production schedule commitment, Breakthrough TV will create a corporate video hosted by Martin and an interstitial 3-4 minute advertisement that will be featured multiple times on PBS, the Food Network, CNBC and the like. It is a complete scam targeted at multiple industries for the reasons and back-up outlined below.

Things that smelled fishy:

• She did not want our PR or Marketing arm involved – only our CEO

• There are no person names on the website – just an address with a suite number

• There was no breakthrough at our winery that she could articulate

• She was very specific in asking what decision makers needed to sign off and how quickly this could happen

• The air schedule looks ridiculous – CNBC & Food Network are not going to run anything for free. There is 100K of advertising reflected and all we pay is production…

• The insistence that she gets all of her money up front – I haven’t known producers to insist for everything up front. So suddenly a light bulb went off. I remember about 5-6 years ago at my last job getting a very similar “producer” phone call and it was a total scam so I did some digging…

• The only Liz Mellman who lives in Boca Raton was born in 1926 and is 86 years old. She’s married to Marvin Mellman who’s 87 years old.

•, a site that tracks tele-stalkers and scam artists, showed several entries for Breakthroughs TV – see very bottom – and mentioned this Washington Post article

• The business address given and on their site is a Regus office which specializes in part giving home-based businesses a legit business address. Not surprisingly several businesses claim the same small space as their office address

Before anyone jumps at this, check this Washington Post article out.

They are operating as both Breakthroughs with Martin Sheen, and InFocus with Martin Sheen. If you have any doubt about their authenticity, or lack thereof, check out who they claim to use as a distributor: "Public Television Distributors, Inc.". They claim that this company has distributed shows like National Geographic, going back 56 years. If you go the website for that company, you will find a beautiful, high production quality website, and a beautiful picture of a building supposedly in Burbank. However, if you look up their address in Google and do a street view, you will find what appears to be a rundown abandoned store front in an warehouse district. The phone number gives you two choices: Choice 1 "Distribution" takes you to a timed loop and then leave a message; Choice 2 "Accounting" takes you to an invalid choice message. The website's domain "" was only created and first registered in 2011 (odd for a 56 year old established company in the media business). And there is no record of such a corporation in California, New York, Florida, Illinois, Delaware, or Arizona. It is clearly a front set up to cover a loose end for the scammers in Boca Raton.

One of their promises is that they will get your "show" on public television stations. However public television station policy is generally to run any program that is "pay to play". Their so called airing schedule is completely bogus, and out of date. Ask them when they have actually run a program on a public television station in a major market.

They also promise your program will run 400 times on cable television in major markets on channels like CNBC, MSNBC, CNN or channels of your choice. Think about it though. They could not possibly do that for less than hundreds of thousands of dollars of air time. Those cable channels are not giving away their air time. Selling ad time is how they make money.

Also, think about their pitch: I'll bet they told you they were in a hurry because they were closing out their program on this subject, which just happens to be in your area of expertise. (They may not have called you saying they wanted sell you on the idea of you paying for a program. Instead they probably said they were looking for experts in the subject. Then, after they get you turned around to thinking you want to do this, for about $25,000 to $30,000, they need all their money up front. Let me assure you, no legitimate producer in the video industry gets all their money up front. There is almost always a payment schedule, with payments due at successive steps (on signing, script completion, shooting, etc.) with a holdback for final delivery.

I am sure they will produce you a quick knock it out production. But they want to make sure they have all your money before you realize that the rest of their promises were a total sham. And then good luck getting your money back.

I do not know why Martin Sheen has apparently not tried to stop them. I think he is more reputable than that. My guess is that he got snookered into some quick production deal, including the use of his name, and is now afraid of a lawsuit for breaking the contract. Who knows.
Advice: Say "Thanks, but NO THANKS", and then tell them to never contact anyone at your organization again.

I haven't had a chance to call the staff at Breakthroughs to get their side of this story. I did check out their Facebook page, and it included a link to this video about Bonterra.

I did check in with some folks at Bonterra to see if they knew about Breakthroughs. They didn't because there's been a change of ownership and Bonterra isn't part of Brown Forman anymore. It's owned by Concha Toro  - It's safe to say, though, that there are no immediate plans to feature this video on pulbic televsion.

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