Testimony has concluded in the high-profile Napa Valley trial pitting winemaker Helen Turley against winery owner Don Bryant, and their attorneys are expected to make their closing arguments Tuesday. A mistrial appears to have been averted as the lawyers scrambled to finish making their cases on Friday, wrapping up questioning of Turley's husband and business partner, viticulturist John Wetlaufer.
Also on March 5, the jury watched a video of wine critic Robert Parker's deposition and heard testimony from winery owner Claude Blankiet, a client of Turley and Wetlaufer.
The prominent winemaking couple is suing Bryant, who owns Cabernet producer Bryant Family Vineyards, for breach of contract and fraud, claiming he fired them without cause and violated the terms of their consulting agreement. They are seeking $550,251 in pay, with interest, that they claim Bryant still owes them.
After days of testimony about the winery operations and the nature of the working relationship between the couple and Bryant, the trial got into the nitty-gritty details of the terms of the two parties' agreement.
Turley and Wetlaufer, who both testified on March 4, said that after a meeting with Bryant on Dec. 28, 2001, they believed an agreement had been reached to continue their work as consultants at Bryant Family Vineyard until 2005. Turley had first been hired in 1993.
Negotiations over their future working terms began on Sept. 1, 2001, Wetlaufer said, with a meeting at St. Helena restaurant Pinot Blanc. Wetlaufer said Bryant proposed a large sum of money "to only do our project and his project" -- their Marcassin winery and Bryant Family. Bryant presented them with a written proposal, which had a schedule of compensation, including bonuses based on production.
Wetlaufer said he sent Bryant his own written proposal on Oct. 29, 2001, a move that appeared to "agitate" Bryant.
On Dec. 28, 2001, Turley and Wetlaufer met with Don and Barbara Bryant in St. Helena. Wetlaufer said he proposed that, once Bryant Family had reached full production potential in about seven to eight years, Wetlaufer and Turley would receive 20 percent of earnings before interest and tax (EBIT). Wetlaufer said that EBIT at a steady state would mean a figure of $7.5 million -- $6 million for the Bryants and $1.5 million for Turley and Wetlaufer. According to Wetlaufer, when Bryant heard these figures, he responded, "Too rich for my blood."
Wetlaufer said that, on Dec. 28, they also discussed compensation for the short term. Both Bryant and Wetlaufer's original written proposals cited a figure of $250,000 year for three years. Wetlaufer said they agreed to have a handshake deal for this salary for 2002, 2003 and 2004, and that both he and Bryant said, "We have a deal." They also agreed to meet in December 2002 to discuss the terms for 2005 onward.
On Jan. 2, 2002, Wetlaufer said, he and Turley sent a fax to confirm the terms of the three-year agreement and the December 2002 meeting.
The couple turned away potential new clients after the December 2001 meeting, Wetlaufer said. "The number of these kinds of projects we can do are very limited … we ended up turning down some work that we wouldn't have turned down."
The turning point in the relationship appears to have come in fall 2002 in a dispute over paying a cellar worker. Wetlaufer recalled that on Sept. 15, 2002, he overheard Bryant complaining about the worker's $35-an-hour rate. Wetlaufer defended the employee and his compensation.
Wetlaufer said Bryant responded by exploding, "You're calling me cheap, cheap, cheap. When you build your own f'ing winery, I hope you have the same f'ing overrun costs I have. Then you can call me f'ing cheap."
That incident was followed by a letter from Bryant Family Vineyards, dated Sept. 19, 2002, disputing an invoice that Turley had approved for payment of that cellar worker. In her testimony, Turley claimed this was the first time Bryant had ever questioned her on an invoice. She said she considered Bryant in breach of contract for not adhering to the terms of their relationship as she understood them. Turley claims she had complete authority over matters concerning winemaking and grapegrowing. Bryant claims that, as owner, he had final say on all aspects of the business.
Turley and Wetlaufer responded with a letter to Bryant dated Sept. 30, 2002, that read in part, "We find this letter [of Sept. 19] offensive in tone, mistaken in content, and most importantly, a complete departure from our previous mode of operation."
The letter also read, "As you know, we have an oral agreement, supported by writing, to continue our association through 2004 at $250k/yr. It is our intention to honor that agreement. If, however, you wish to change the essential terms of our agreement in ways outlined above, and in open, implicit ways, both of which compromise our ability to make wine of the highest possible quality, we have no intent of continuing our association."
Bryant requested that they meet to resolve the matter in October 2002. Turley said she was in the middle of harvest and asked to meet him later in the month, but a meeting never happened.
On Oct. 16, 2002, Bryant sent a letter terminating the relationship and ordering them off of his property. Turley and Wetlaufer sent a response, dated Oct. 21, that read, "We are saddened that you have chose to destroy such a productive and long-standing relationship." This letter also said that they had a "minimum" payment under the terms of the contract of $250,000 a year. "We also had the expectation of additional income based on the sale of the wine in the future," referring to their proposal for profit sharing.
Wetlaufer defended the couple's need for absolute authority concerning winemaking and grapegrowing. "Our reputation is at stake. It's what our entire business is predicated on." He said they were in their business for glory. "We do make money … but that's not our primary purpose. We do it for love." Looking at Bryant, he added, "Making a profit is a desirable goal for an owner, that's for sure." Bryant nodded heartily.
Wetlaufer continued on the stand on March 5. In a line of questioning that appeared to attempt to paint Wetlaufer and Turley as greedy, Bryant's attorney, John Musgrave, asked him about the compensation the couple was seeking and pointed out that HMT & Associates was "prosperous."
Following Wetlaufer's testimony was a video deposition from wine critic Robert Parker. In November 2003, Parker testified that he had recommended in October 2002 that Bryant consider Napa-based winemaker Philippe Melka and Bordeaux-based consulting enologist Michel Rolland as replacements for Turley and Wetlaufer. "I don't think he [Melka] is at the level of Helen and John, but he's good," said Parker. Bryant did hire both Melka and Rolland.
This testimony could hurt Turley and Wetlaufer's case, as they have been trying to establish that Bryant sought a new winemaker well before he ended his relationship with them.
The jury is now made up of eight women and four men, after the judge had to excuse a juror with surgery scheduled for March 9, calling up the last alternate juror.
Check our recent ratings of Bryant Family Vineyard wines.
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