Vicki's Vodka Gear

Robert Williamson III and the Vicki’s Vodka War

vickis-vodka-gearRobert Williamson III has put himself in the news in recent days, courtesy of a curious press release and a legal battle launched against a long-time reality show cast member, Vicki Gunvalson.  Gunvalson is not only the last remaining original cast member of the minor Bravo Network hit, “Real Housewives of Orange County,” she’s lent her name and persona to a startup hooch-making enterprise called Vicki’s Vodka, which was featured prominently in later episodes of Season Eight of the “Real Housewives” broadcasts.

Gunvalson bought into the existing vodka-distilling operation of a Calistoga, CA distiller named Michael Nicholson, who had been producing a small line of homegrown flavored vodkas called “Cougar Juice,” which, yeah, well was more than fitting for this story.  And there was a third, silent partner as well.  That’d be RW3, the veteran poker pro was was apparently a long-time friend of Gunvalson’s.

Williamson is one of those long-time grinders on the West Coast poker scene, more known as a cash-game player than a tourney pro, though every summer around WSOP time you can be sure to find him in a few events.  He’s among dozens of former Full Tilt Poker “red pros,” was noted for being one of the most famous players ripped off by Russ Hamilton and friends in the UltimateBet online cheating scandal, and has even been accused of shooting an angle or two himself, all sort of typical for such a well-known veteran of the poker scene.

Williamson’s actually one of the first poker veterans I got to know enough to chat with on a regular basis, way back in 2006 when I made my first working trip to the WSOP.  He was newly skinny back then, being one of several prominent players back in those days (a la the late Chip Reese), who’d undergone stomach stapling to lose some of the considerable girth acquired from years of sitting at the tables.  And knowing Robert makes this tale that much more interesting.

Sometime between Gunvalson’s seeming Season Eight pimping of the newly-christened “Vicki’s Vodka” on “Real Housewives,” and perhaps during filming of the show’s upcoming ninth season, it all went wrong.  Don’t ask me where, why or how — I’m highly allergic to faked reality shows like that, and all the anecdotal evidence on the web indicates that Gunvalson had little interest in Vicki’s Vodka as a liquor product, but only as a way to continue marketing herself.  (That’s her in the Vicki’s gear, top right.)

At some point she’s apparently announced her intentions to step away from the brand and the investment, stating that she’s “pulling the plug.”  This just after helping convince Williamson to invest a little bit more in the company to help out Nicholson, who looks awfully chummy with Gunvalson in the photo from the Napa Valley Register piece, and who according to Williamson, wasn’t able to account for a good chunk of the company’s liquid funds and was forced out in 2012.

At that point the company belonged 50-50 to Gunvalson and Williamson, but Gunvalson then transferred one third of her half to “on-again-off-again boyfriend Brooks Ayers.”  And then Williamson was talked into reinvesting and buying Ayers’ one-sixth (16.67%) of the company to help out Ayers, who was facing back child-support and IRS tax-lien threats and “was imminently facing jail time.”

Or at least that’s the story Williamson tells, in a soap-opera style paid press release sourced to an independent PR person that also includes quotes from Williamson’s lawyer, Stan Johnson.

Johnson and Williamson claim to have filed a federal lawsuit against Gunvalson in an attempt to recover the more than $300,000 Williamson claims to have invested in Vicki’s Vodka, compared to a paltry $12,500 for Gunvalson herself.  Gunvalson acquired additional equity in the company due to the use of her persona, but according to the presser, Williamson became the majority owner after agreeing to buy Nicholson out of the company.

That’s the serious part of the story; the comic relief comes from the actual press release issued by Williamson’s hired gun.  The amazing part is there have been one or two small news outlets which have run the thing as an actual news story, which speaks to nothing so much as the sad state of editorial judgment in the online age.  Whether or not Williamson’s story is true, that release is a laugher, beginning with its subheader: “Robert Williamson III’s Lawsuit Explains How He was Set up.” 

Hmmm, do you wonder what direction this press release will go?

To be fair, there are some factual inclusions after that, including the statement that Williamson has sued Gunvalson and “sometimes boyfriend” Brooks Ayers for “fraud, civil conspiracy and breach of contract in addition to other serious claims.”

According to Williamson’s lawyer, Johnson, “Her latest public statement is nothing more than an obvious charade.  It is absolutely clear who owns Vicki’s Vodka and who is supposed to have operational control over the project. Gunvalson has stated in a written, signed, and notarized agreement that Williamson owns 66.7% of the project, she owns the remaining equity. She also agreed not to interfere in day-to-day operations. She doesn’t have the ability to ‘pull the plug’ and it’s pretty clear she knows that.”

Somehow, it all fits in with what I imagine “Real Housewives of Orange County” to be.  I still won’t watch the show, though.

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