Helen Turley, America’s most famous "consulting winemaker", is again facing a lawsuit involving a client. This doesn’t really surprise me, for a number of reasons. What is interesting however is the mindset that would allow a person to agree to Ms. Turley’s terms for her participation as a consulting winemaker:

-Agree to spend a huge, top-end sum of money on both vineyard development and building
a winery to Turley’s exact specifications

(vineyard development I can understand…But why spend huge amounts on a brand new winery when you could spend less or custom crush and augment the leased operation with your own contributions of equipment?)

-Pay Turley a consulting fee beginning at $150K and rising to $550K by year seven.

-Agreeing to give Turley a percentage of the "earnings" after year seven.

What do you get in return?

-"oversight" of vineyard development.
-"Turley’s "consulting" on winemaking procedures
-Access to Turley’s list of customers
-Turley’s influence with the wine media

Whether or not you think you actually need Helen Turley to make beautiful wine from Napa grown grapes, you have to ask yourself what the winery owner really hoped to gain by agreeing to these, well, these amazingly lopsided terms. Did they want to make the best wine they could? Did they hope to present a wine that was a lovely representation of the vineyards? Did they hope to start a business selling wine? Or, did they hope to simply be a big shot?

Clearly the client in question was willing to give over his vision and his cash to Ms. Turley in exchange for potential fame that would come not from the quality of the wine but from producing a wine that was given a high score by Robert Parker. That’s what you get when you buy Helen Turley. Oh, you also get ultra-ripe, over the top, dense wines that rarely reflect the source of the grapes.

Let’s be clear. I’m not criticizing Turley or Robert Parker. Both have demonstated their talent, commitment and influence. I’m just questioning the cost and return on ego-stroking.

4 Responses

  1. Jack - June 1, 2006

    I don’t get the “ego-stroking” part at all.
    And if you’re not “criticizing Turley”, what exactly IS this post about?
    The very top winemakers are control-freaks; they feel they have to be in order to make the best possible wine. And there’s no reason they can’t set any conditions they want if you want them to be your consultant and/or winemaker. And there’s no reason a top consultant can’t have what you think are unreasonable conditions of employment. No one forces a client to hire a person who makes such conditions.
    With regards to this particular court case, we don’t know what the whole story is and the way you’re reporting it seems more like Turley bashing than anything else.
    You say, “That’s what you get when you buy Helen Turley. Oh, you also get ultra-ripe, over the top, dense wines that rarely reflect the source of the grapes.” Are you saying that Jackass Hill Zin doesn’t reflect its terroir? What about the Marcassin chardonnays? Frankly, I almost wonder if you realize that Helen Turley’s winery is Marcassin, and not Turley in St. Helena. And that the only other winery she’s very deeply involved with is Martinelli.
    Finally, if you think it’s all about the money, it’s not. Because Marcassin sells their wines to their mailing list customers for just $60-$90 a bottle! (They sell on the open market for $200-$300!) Meaning, she (and John Wetlaufer) could easily be charging double the price they do now and have zero problems selling it all. Maybe even triple! So, no, it’s not about money as they have not been jacking their prices into the stratosphere like some wineries in Napa.

  2. tom - June 1, 2006

    I’m not questioning Ms. Turley’s commitment to winemaking. I’m questioning the reasons the winery would agree to her demands and hire her under those circunstance. Surely it isn’t necessary to pay out millions of dollars to in fees to get yourself to making really fine wine in Napa Valley. So clearly that’s not what he was in this for. What else could it be? Ego? Probably. And “so what” might be the correct response to seeing this. But it makes you wonder.

  3. Alder - June 5, 2006

    I’m not rich, but everyone I know who could actually afford to hire Turley is far too shrewd to do it simply for “ego” reasons, Tom.
    People hire her because they think she is going to make the best wine possible from their grapes. You can argue all day long about whether that wine is actually any good (plenty of people think it is) but you can’t argue with the rationale, nor Turley’s contract requirements. As Jack said, when you’re one of the best in the business you get to decide how you work.

  4. cellar rat - November 25, 2007

    well… i worked as a “cellar rat” for the infamous Helen during the 2004 harvest and all i will say is yes, you don’t know the story but just think….. Helen has been in a lawsuit with practically ALL of her former projects including Blankiet Estate, Bryant Family and now Roy Estate… you should also notice that that same year she made Kapscandy and they parted ways as well (not nicely either). Hmmm, maybe something more is going on here…

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