Cult winemaker Helen Turley is suing her former employers Bryant Family Vineyards for breach of contract and fraud.

Turley, who has worked for – and been responsible for the success of – some of the most exalted names in Californian wine, including Colgin Cellars and her own Marcassin label, is accusing Don Bryant of breach of written and oral contract, fraud and deceit and negligent misrepresentation.

Turley and her husband John Wetlaufer worked for Bryant Family since 1992. The winemaker is widely recognised as having transformed the fortunes of the vineyard on Pritchard Hill, which Bryant, an insurance company owner, bought in 1985.

The estate enjoyed small success until the arrival of Turley, when quality shot up. Bryant Family is now one of the acknowledged stars of the Californian cult wine scene, rivalling Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Araujo for international plaudits and stratospheric prices. A bottle of the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon fetched US$695 at auction last week.

Turley and Wetlaufer stopped working for Bryant in October 2002. It is not known exactly how the principle actors in the case fell out, though Turley is not renowned for compromise. ‘It’s Helen’s way or the highway,’ is a phrase sometimes used to describe vintners’ experience of working with the gifted but volatile winemaker.

‘Helen is famous for her low tolerance and lack of diplomacy,’ Napa A-lister Jason Pahlmeyer told Decanter magazine in 2000. ‘She’s burnt a lot of bridges storming out of vineyards telling growers they’re stupid. I just used to follow along in her trail picking up the dead bodies.’

The couple are accusing Bryant of reneging on written correspondence amounting to a contract.

According to American wine journal Wine Spectator, Bryant denies there having been a written contract, though it had been discussed. Neither party is currently available for comment.

The case was filed in Napa Superior Court in December last year. It comes up for review later this month.

Written by Adam Lechmere8 May 2003