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Helen Turley Testifies in Suit Against Bryant Family Vineyard

Napa judge concerned about threat of mistrial if hearings run much longer.

MaryAnn Worobiec
Posted: March 4, 2004

Consulting winemaker Helen Turley took the stand yesterday for the first time in the contentious trial in which she and her husband are suing Bryant Family Vineyards for breach of contract and fraud.

The first days of the trial, which started Feb. 24, had been devoted largely to testimony from Don Bryant, the owner of the renowned Napa Valley Cabernet winery. He asserted that Turley and viticulturist John Wetlaufer had voluntarily resigned, rather than being fired without cause, as they claim. They are seeking $550,251 in pay.

After Bryant's testimony concluded, the jury heard from Jeannie Beall, a former cellar master at Bryant Family and a current employee of HMT & Associates, Turley and Wetlaufer's consulting company. She testified that in June 2002, Bryant asked her to write down in detail everything Turley did in the winery and vineyard. This request, struck her as odd, she said, "because he didn't seem to have wine knowledge or be concerned with attaining winemaking knowledge." Beall said Bryant insisted he wanted to learn about winemaking, but when he visited the winery and she tried to point out winemaking aspects, he dismissed her, saying she was wasting his time. "He wanted Helen's winemaking information," Beall concluded.

Beall was followed by Turley, who was dressed entirely in black, except for silver sandals. She appeared nervous as her attorney questioned her and spoke slowly and methodically.

The prominent winemaker testified that on Dec. 28, 2001, she and Wetlaufer met with Bryant to discuss a three-year deal that would keep them as consultants for Bryant Family from 2002 to 2005. She said they broached the subject of profit sharing with Bryant; she added that he was open to the idea, but warned they would have to consider Bryant's private jet as an expense, which would cut significantly into the profits. Turley said that when she worked for Colgin, another prominent Napa Cabernet winery, she had an arrangement to split the profits 50-50.

Addressing the issue of who made the decisions at Bryant Family, Turley maintained she had made it clear when she was hired in 1993 that she insisted on authoritative control over grapegrowing and winemaking. "He wanted me to run the project as my own," Turley said. This was important to her, she said, because, "My name is all that I have, except for John. … If my authority was undermined, and the wine received bad scores, my reputation would be damaged."

But as owner, Bryant had discretion in marketing and business decisions. "Don could price the wine the way he wanted to, and he did," Turley said.

Turley added that she was responsible for all decisions on purchases, and that the Bryant Group's office in St. Louis, where Bryant runs an insurance company, would ask her for approval to pay invoices. Turley also said that HMT & Associates would pay certain consultants directly and then bill Bryant Family for reimbursement.

It was then "completely unexpected" to Turley when she received a memo dated Sept. 19, 2002, in which an invoice for a cellar worker was deemed "unacceptable" for payment by Bryant Family Vineyards. Turley said that Bryant had "never questioned anything -- it was a complete departure from the way we'd conducted business for 10 years."

Turley's attorney, Philip Terry, mentioned this memo in his opening argument as integral to the alleged breach of contract, as Turley believed that Bryant was changing the agreement about her role as consulting winemaker. Turley said she and Wetlaufer responded with a memo back, asking to discuss what was happening. "We wrote it together," she said, "to make sure Don Bryant knew we could not guarantee wine quality if he wanted to change everything."

The Turley-Bryant relationship deteriorated after this memo. Turley testified that Bryant called on Oct. 14, 2002, to meet with her and Wetlaufer when she was up to her "ears in grapes" during harvest. The next day, Turley and Wetlaufer suggested to Bryant they meet the following week. Bryant responded by writing a letter, sent to them via Federal Express, saying he accepted their resignation.

Turley was most emotional when talking about this period. "We had put our heart and soul into the project. It represented days, weeks and weekends into getting the winery ready. We wanted to go into retirement with this project," she said in a shaky voice. As Turley spoke, Bryant looked at her and shook his head.

Under questioning by Bryant's attorney, John Musgrave, Turley was more defensive. She refused to look Musgrave in the eye, often asked him to repeat his questions or challenged his wording, and at times refused to answer his questions. When Musgrave asked how many cases she made of Bryant wine, she insisted she didn't recall. "I'm over 60," she said. "I'm allowed to forget things."

At one point, Musgrave asked Turley if she was in business to make money. "No, primarily for love and passion," she said. Musgrave shot back, "But you do make money." Turley responded with a flippant "You betcha."

Musgrave quizzed Turley on the invoices she claims were unpaid by Bryant Family Vineyards, and she refused to give specifics on those.

Musgrave also questioned her claim that she put her heart and soul into Bryant Family Vineyard, citing the other winemaking projects with which she was involved. "Was there any more heart and soul in Bryant Family Vineyards than your other projects?" Musgrave asked. Turley responded, "It's a six-part soul," referring to the number of projects. She has her own brand, Marcassin, and consults for wineries such as Martinelli and Blankiet.

Some of the most contentious questioning occurred at the end of the day, when Musgrave asked Turley whether she had a right to object to Bryant's input in his winery. "As owner, he had a right to do a lot of things, but I don't believe it was his right to interfere with winemaking and grapegrowing and we had so agreed," she said.

Musgrave painted a hypothetical scenario: Turley suggests to Bryant that some equipment was necessary to ensure the quality of wine and Bryant refuses to buy it. What would happen? The question was worded many ways, but Turley kept refusing to answer. Finally, she said that if that scenario occurred before Dec. 28, 2001 (when they had allegedly agreed to a three-year contract), she would have left Bryant Family. If that scenario occurred after Dec. 28, 2001, Turley said, "I had broad power … to make a great wine. If Don interfered with my authority to do that, I would have considered him in breach of contract."

At the start of the day, Napa Superior Court Judge Raymond Guadagni again raised concerns about a mistrial. He said the trial, which started Feb. 24, is taking longer than expected, and he was worried jurors would not be able to continue serving. One juror has surgery scheduled on March 9.

Guadagni again asked the attorneys to consider accepting a jury of 10, nine or even eight members. He said he would consider a jury of less than eight members a mistrial. Neither attorney was able to say with certainty how long they expected the testimony to continue, nor if they would consider this stipulation. If one side does not agree to a smaller jury, a mistrial would be called.

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Check our recent ratings of Bryant Family Vineyard wines.

Read more about Helen Turley and Bryant Family and their legal dispute:

  • March 03, 2004
    In Tense Napa Trial, Bryant Discusses Winery Disputes With Turley

  • Feb. 25, 2004
    Turley v. Bryant Trial Begins With Testimony From Don Bryant

  • Feb. 23, 2004
    Turley V. Bryant Headed to Trial

  • May 6, 2003
    Helen Turley Sues Bryant Family Vineyard Over Her Departure

  • Nov. 11, 2002
    Don Bryant's Big Gamble

  • Oct. 30, 2002
    Helen Turley Leaves Napa's Bryant Family Vineyard

  • Nov. 15, 2000
    Bryant's Next Test

  • April 30, 2000
    California's Cult Wines, Bryant Family and Helen's Way

  • Aug, 31, 1995
    Ms. Finesse: Through her own label, Marcassin, and as a consultant, Helen Turley is quietly setting a new course for California wine
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