Turley accused of unreasonable demands and 'coercion'

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  • Tuesday 2 March 2004

Superstar winemaker Helen Turley demanded unfettered control over a cult Napa producer and tried to coerce a 20% share of the profits, Napa Superior Court has heard.

In one of the most captivating California wine industry trials in years Don Bryant’s defense council contended that Turley demanded ‘unfettered’ control and that she tried to ‘coerce’ a 20% share of the gross profits from his Bryant Family Vineyard.

That is why Bryant terminated his agreement with the wine consultant and her viticultural husband John Wetlaufer.

According to Bryant defense attorney Jack Musgrave, those demands were not part of the agreement that Turley and Wetlaufer might have had with Bryant and his winery.

Before a jury of nine women and three men, plaintiff’s attorney Jeff Terry asserted that it was Bryant who forced the severance of the relationship. With Calistoga vintner Bart Araujo – another of Napa’s highest-end producers - called as a witness by the plaintiff, Terry tried repeatedly but to no avail to establish proof that Bryant attempted to secure a new winemaker long before his clients were terminated on October 16, 2002.

Highly respected winemaker Philippe Melka was hired immediately after Turley’s relationship with Bryant ended.

But Araujo said he could only ‘speculate’ when a conversation he had with Bryant took place in which the latter apparently told Araujo about problems he was having with Turley and Wetlaufer.

‘Mr. Bryant told me that Mr. Wetlaufer had dramatically changed the terms of their deal and that he’d (Bryant) have to look for a new winemaker,’ Araujo testified. ‘… He (Bryant) was upset. I think I mentioned to him that they had a relationship for 10 years and even though there were some difficulties, they’ve accomplished some extraordinary things and that I hoped they could work it out.’

Under the guidance of Turley, the Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, of which there is less than 1,000 cases produced each vintage, sells for about US$210 a bottle.

Araujo further told the court that he ‘didn’t think I told him (Bryant) that the (20% profit-sharing plan requested by Turley-Wetlaufer) was too much, but I certainly thought it.’

When plaintiff’s attorney persisted in asking Araujo when that conversation took place, Bryant’s council Jack Musgrave kept objecting. Terry rephrased the question but could not get Araujo to establish a definitive date.

‘Mr. Bryant from, time to time, would moan and groan what was happening in his business, whether or not it was related to this situation,’ answered Araujo. ‘… He told me that a proposal had been made (to Turley-Wetlaufer), but he thought that things were going to deteriorate and that he might have to look for a new consulting winemaker.’

Turley and Wetlaufer are seeking ‘at least US$550,251, plus interest,’ for the breach charge alone, claiming they are owed their yearly salary of US$250,000 through the end of this year.

Turley, one of the most highly regarded winemakers in America, began her relationship with Bryant at his winery in 1993. On October 16 2002, according to Turley and Wetlaufer’s attorney, Bryant ‘told them they were terminated, and were ordered off the property.’

Under examination as the first witness to be called, in a sometimes contentious atmosphere, Bryant told Terry that he ‘wasn’t going to turn over complete control of my company … and I was going to control the checkbook.’

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