Dominating the first few days of Napa Valley's trial-of-the-moment, winery owner Don Bryant testified that he has been intimately involved with running Bryant Family Vineyards, contrary to the claims of his former consulting winemaker. Helen Turley, who begins testifying today, intends to show that she had unquestioned authority over the operations of the winery, which is renowned for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
Turley and her husband, viticulturist John Wetlaufer, are suing Bryant for breach of contract, alleging that the winery owner fired the couple without cause in October 2002. Bryant, who is countersuing the two plaintiffs, claims he accepted their offer to resign. He also noted that when he hired Turley in 1993, he did not expect Wetlaufer to be involved with his project; he said Wetlaufer first appeared in the vineyard around 1998.
Tension boiled to the surface yesterday afternoon when Turley's attorney, Santa Rosa-based Philip Terry, cast doubt on Bryant's professed ignorance about employment contracts, pointing out that Bryant has a law degree. "Don't paint me with your tribe," snapped Bryant, who has repeated during testimony that, despite the degree, he is not a practicing lawyer.
The exchange exasperated Napa Superior Court Judge Raymond Guadagni, who interjected. "Listen," he said to Bryant, "he [Terry] is going to ask the questions and you're going to answer them. I don't want you to volunteer information."
This was not the first time Guadagni objected to the acerbic tone of the trial, which started on Feb. 24. He has admonished the lawyers to avoid getting personal during the proceedings. And he has rebuked Bryant's attorney, John Musgrave of St. Louis, for interrupting Terry's examination of Bryant with a lengthy speaking objection.
Turley and Wetlaufer, both 59, are seeking $550,251 in pay, with interest, from Bryant. Alleging fraud, they contend that Bryant did not act in good faith and intended to fire them well before he sent a notice of termination to them, via Federal Express, on Oct. 16, 2002.
To support that claim, Terry questioned Bart Araujo, owner of Araujo Estate in Calistoga, about the timing of conversations he had had with Bryant about his business. Araujo, who testified on Feb. 26, was reluctant to be in court, repeating several times that he did not want to be involved in the dispute between Bryant and Turley. Araujo said Bryant had indicated he was having troubles with Turley and expressed concern that he might need another winemaker, but he did not cite a specific date for those discussions.
Terry also questioned Bryant about his efforts to find a replacement for Turley, including conversations with John Kongsgaard, who produces wines under his own label and the Arietta brand. Bryant said Kongsgaard told him that he no longer took on consulting clients.
Upon recommendation from Park Smith, a Connecticut wine collector and an owner of Veritas restaurant in Manhattan, Bryant tried to contact winemaker Philippe Melka on or about Oct. 10. They met for the first time on Oct. 17 in St. Helena, and after speaking for a few hours and visiting the Bryant winery, Melka accepted the job. He requested $100,000 per year, and Bryant, who says he wanted to foster a long-term relationship, agreed to pay him $120,000. One week later, Bryant also hired Bordeaux-based consultant Michel Rolland, who makes $95,000 a year.
Melka, who wore jeans and work shoes during his testimony yesterday, could not specify when Bryant first left him a phone message, despite Terry's efforts to pin down a date.
Much of Bryant's testimony, under questioning by his attorney, was aimed at establishing his day-to-day involvement in the winery. Dozens of documents were submitted to establish a paper trail of memos, faxes, budgets, contracts and reports that were sent to and from Bryant.
While Bryant testified that he participated in decisions from label design to cork selection, he also said that Turley approved many of the invoices for payment, as he was often in St. Louis, where he owns an insurance company. "It's one of the things I paid her for," Bryant said. Turley and Wetlaufer contend that Bryant's questioning of a September 2002 invoice violated the parameters of their working relationship.
To challenge Turley's assertions of absolute authority, Bryant cited, as one example, his decision to charge higher prices, despite the winemaker's opposition. Turley suggested in 1994 that the Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet, whose first release was the 1992 vintage, initially be priced at $25 and then raised to $30. Bryant decided to start selling the wine for $36, raising it to $60 for the '94 vintage and $100 for the '95. A fax from Bryant to Turley dated Jan. 26, 1998, states, "I believe we could sell 10,000 cases at $100 a bottle." Current releases sell out at $200 per bottle.
Bryant also said he was frustrated by selling his wine to wholesalers at 50 percent of the suggested retail price -- a standard practice in the wine industry -- only to find his wine marked up to $500 in restaurants. He changed his practice to sell the Cabernet to wholesalers for only $10 less than retail. "Helen fought me tooth and nail on this," Bryant claimed.
Elaborating on a dispute over the plaintiffs' desire for profit sharing, evidence was introduced showing that Turley brought up the matter as early as 1998. In a fax dated June 30, 1998, Turley wrote to Bryant: "I'm getting offered so many projects that I need to be at my minimum for BFW, which is 100k/year. There would be a modest increase when winery construction begins and I'd want profit sharing at full production." Bryant claimed he was never interested in profit sharing and that he told Turley in 1998 that he was not interested in having any partners.
Bryant's testimony, which concluded today, went longer than the judge had expected. In addition, the trial had been put on hold from the afternoon of Feb. 25 until Feb. 29, after one of the defense attorneys, Napa-based Malcom Mackenzie, was struck by a car outside of the courthouse during the Thursday lunch break and suffered minor injuries.
Guadagni asked the lawyers today to "streamline the process," because some jurors may not be able to continue past this week. If the trial cannot be accelerated, the judge warned that the litigants might need to accept a verdict rendered by a 10- or 11-person jury, or face the prospect of a mistrial.
Check our recent ratings of Bryant Family Vineyard wines.
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