Turley wins Bryant court case

  • Friday 12 March 2004

After an arduous 12-day trial, Helen Turley – perhaps the most well-known winemaker in America – was awarded $255,000 in her breach of contract case against vintner Don Bryant.

The eight-woman, four-man jury, after deliberating for 7 ½ hours, found for the plaintiff and her viticulturalist husband John Wetlaufer. The jury in Napa Superior Court voted 10-2 on all eight of the questions placed in front of it.

Though the same two jurists were aligned across the board, the others determined that indeed there existed a contract of some sort, whether written or oral -- between Turley-Wetlaufer and Bryant Family Vineyard (BFV).

However, the jury decided that the winemaking couple was entitled to only a little more than a quarter-million dollars –half the amount they had originally sought.

Ironically, the $255,241 award was very close to the figure that Turley and Wetlaufer asked Bryant in a settlement back in September of 2002. It was also close to the yearly salary Turley and Wetlaufer said they had contracted with Bryant.

Bryant said he spent more than $1 million in attorney’s fees and travel costs.

‘I spent more money on legal fees than what they [Turley-Wetlaufer] asked for,’ he acknowledged. ‘But it wasn’t about legal fees, it was about right and wrong.’

Bryant sat in the courtroom every day over the almost three-week ordeal, but he was in New York on business when the verdict was read Wednesday.

Bryant said he was disappointed at the outcome, but ‘the jury has spoken. It was totally wrong, but you know something, I’m so happy to have my new team. It’s that simple.’

The Missouri insurance man, who bought the Pritchard Hill property in 1985, was referring to the fact that he has a new winemaking team in place – Philippe Melka and Michel Rolland – instead of Turley and Wetlaufer.

‘I’m ecstatic,’ proclaimed Bryant saying he was glad his relationship with Turley and Wetlaufer was concluded.

A jurist, leaving the Napa Courthouse after rendering a verdict in the high-profile Napa Valley wine industry trial, said he believed that some of Bryant’s comments on the stand during the trial were ‘despicable.’

‘Most of the jurors disliked him right away,’ said Cristiano D’Adamo, ‘… but to me, his demeanor was fine. I have a strong feeling people went in [to deliberations] with their minds made up. There were references to Mr. Bryant being a millionaire. ‘He could afford it [the loss],’ they said, ‘but not being a likeable person went away and then they focused on the issues.’

During the trial, Bryant testified that Turley – who consulted for BFV for 10 years – demanded over the course of two decades, that two vineyard managers be fired and argued with him about the pricing of his wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon which sells for $210 a bottle. He intimated that she was ‘very difficult’ to work with.

‘Helen is a great winemaker but it was never about that,’ he said.

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