It has all the makings of a made-for-TV drama: big money, mammoth egos and enough hard feelings to overflow a jeroboam.
Renowned Napa winemaker Helen Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer, both 57, are suing their former employer, Bryant Family Vineyard, for breach of contract and fraud. The case stems from their departure last year as the Napa estate's winemaking and viticultural team. Bryant is now countersuing the couple.
Among the matters in dispute in the case, which was filed in Napa Superior Court on Dec. 18, 2002, are whether Turley and Wetlaufer had a written contract with estate owner Don Bryant, whether they quit, and whether they were misled about their future dealings with the winery.
Turley and Wetlaufer, who started working for Bryant in 1992, are suing the 60-year-old owner of a St. Louis insurance company, alleging breach of written and oral contract; fraud -- promise made without intent to perform; fraud and deceit; and negligent misrepresentation. According to legal documents, they've requested "at least $550,251 plus interest" for the breach of contract charge alone, claiming they are owed their yearly $250,000 salary through 2004. Damages for the other charges will be determined as the case develops.
The fraud charge stems from Turley and Wetlaufer's claim that Bryant deliberately misled them, instilling a belief that their contract would continue until 2004. All the while, they say, Bryant sought to hire another winemaker. He ended up replacing them in October with Philippe Melka, a Bordeaux transplant who has been making wine in Napa, and the internationally renowned consulting enologist Michel Rolland, based in Bordeaux.
Bryant, whose Cabernet Sauvignon rose to prominence in the 1990s under Turley's guidance, had a rocky introduction to the wine business. In 1985, he bought a rundown vineyard on Pritchard Hill and sold his grapes to another vintner with the understanding, according to him, that the wine would be labeled with a vineyard designation. Bryant ended that arrangement after learning that the producer had no intention of honoring that agreement.
Then he decided to launch his own estate-grown wine and hired someone to make the 1990 and 1991 vintages, both of which were failures, marked by offensive leathery flavors, according to Bryant.
But with Turley's arrival, quality skyrocketed, and Bryant Family became one of the "cult" stars of the 1990s. Since hitting its stride in the 1994 vintage, the Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet has ranked among the world's greatest wines, typically earning scores in the mid to high 90s. The current vintage, 2000, is selling for $200 per bottle.
In addition to making the wine, Turley and Wetlaufer helped with the replanting of the vineyard. Bryant also constructed a $9 million gravity-flow winery, designed according to Turley's concepts.
The facts surrounding the breakup are murky. On Oct. 16, 2002, during harvest, Turley and Wetlaufer stopped working for Bryant. They say they were fired. He says he accepted their offer to quit. Turley and Wetlaufer, in documents submitted by their lawyer to Napa Superior Court, claim that their work agreement "was memorialized in written correspondence." Bryant, in an interview with Wine Spectator, said that no written contract existed.
Bryant said they had discussed a contract, but that nothing was ever completed. He added that they couldn't agree on salary or the duration of the contract. According to Bryant, Turley wanted a long-term arrangement, while he wouldn't commit to anything longer than one year.
Despite what was an ongoing dispute, Bryant said the three had arranged to meet last October to discuss the situation, but that meeting never took place. "The day before [the scheduled meeting], they said they were too busy," explained Bryant. "When they said they were too busy -- I was only paying them $5,000 a week -- I sent them a Federal Express check for [the balance] of what I owed them."
Bryant is clearly upset about Turley and Wetlaufer's abrupt departure. "In the middle of harvest, Helen threatened to terminate, and I accepted," he said. "Right in the middle of harvest."
The discovery phase of the suit is not yet complete, which means that both parties are still compiling and submitting evidence. Most cases get settled before trial, according to attorneys, saving both parties the costs of litigation and the embarrassment of airing their disagreement in public.
But if both litigants are unwilling to compromise, it's possible the case could go to trial before the end of this year. So Turley and Wetlaufer v. Bryant may soon be garnering more publicity than its protagonists desire.
Check our recent ratings of Bryant Family Vineyard wines.
Read more about Helen Turley and Bryant Family