On April 4, 1970 when Walter S. Taylor got up to address members of the Wine, Spirits, and Whiskey Wholesalers of America at a luncheon reception in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, he was near the summit of his profession. He was the grandson of Walter Taylor, who had founded the well-known Taylor Wine Co. of Hammondsport, N.Y. He was an executive vice-president of the company's Great Western Division. He had just returned from a three-month fact-finding tour of some of the finest wineries and vineyards in the world. The San Francisco Examiner called him "one of the nation's more important executive champagne producers."
A month later, the Taylor Wine Co. fired him. His wife left him. "I didn't even have a car," he says. "It was a tough time."
Seven years later, in July of 1977, shortly after it had merged with Coca-Cola Co., the Taylor Wine Co. sued Walter Taylor to stop him from using his last name. U.S. District Court Judge Harold P. Burke agreed with the complaint. Suddenly Walter had lost even his name.
His firing and the later two-year legal battle changed Walter. When he had spoken at the wholesalers reception in 1970, he looked like a solid, duty-bound company man in his charcoal-gray slacks, salt-and-pepper tweed sports coat, white shirt, and narrow, dark tie. His blond hair was cut short and smoothed down with pomade. His light-blue eyes sparkled as he watched the crowd slurp samples of his company's champagne.
Years later, Walter had taken to calling himself "a prisoner of the court... born into crime." As part of his company's promotional literature, he included a self-portrait. The man in this picture wore a rumpled felt hat. He had a wide mustache and his eyes seemed slightly sinister. The background was aggressively black. Anywhere his name appeared, the last name had been inked out in felt-tip marker.
What had Walter done?
At the reception in San Francisco in 1970, Walter blasted the wine industry for being dishonest with the consuming public because chemicals and other ingredients were being added to the wines and the public wasn't being told. "If we don't start being absolutely honest with the public about what is in the bottle, we will be in a Ralph Nader situation," he told the crowd.
Although he didn't name names, Walter said he knew that some wineries in New York State were misleading the public by using the smallest amount of wine distilled from native grapes allowed by federal law and making up the difference with so-called tank-car wines, that is, out-of-state or foreign wines, and then calling the end product a "New York State wine." "I was telling the whole industry," Walter says, "to cleanse itself before somebody else did."
A month later, Walter says, the board of directors of the Taylor Wine Co. decided at a "secret meeting" to fire him while his father, Greyton H. Taylor, then president of the company, was out of town. Even today, the incident is lost in a murky backwash of remors and recriminations. "Oh, I know," Walter says, "people say I was flying in prostitutes from Paris at company expense." It would be fair to say, however, that Walter's performance in San Francisco offended Taylor officials.
Walter was determined to carry on the Taylor family's winemaking tradition. Even though he had been cast out by the very company his grandfather founded, there were other ways to keep the tradition alive. In 1958, when he was 27, Walter bought 70 acres of land on Bully Hill on the outskirts of Hammondsport, N.Y. This land meant a lot to Walter. It was hallowed ground. His grandfather had first owned it in 1886 and worked it for 31 years until the property changed hands. Walter claims this fertile acreage as the site of the original Taylor family winery. Throughout the 1960s, Walter had used his spare time to experiment with French-American grape varieties on Bully Hill and gradually develop a small winery owned jointly by him and his father. By 1967, Walter's experiments had begun to pay off and the winery bottled its first vintage in very limited quantities. In January 1970, Walter and his father decided to incorporate their hobby vineyard as Bully Hill Vineyards Inc. After he was fired, the fledgling winery, once Walter's part-time pleasure, became his consuming passion.
Walter fashioned tiny Bully Hill Vineyards Inc. to conform with his outlook on life. It would be the antithesis of the corporate world he had just left. In that world, as Walter saw it, decisions and actions were based on greed for profits, but in Walter's world greed would be replaced by honesty in winemaking.
In a world grown increasingly anonymous, Walter would keep things very personal. He put his suits and ties in mothballs and took to wearing denim, bib-overalls, down vests, and floppy hats. His winery became a protected enclave where Walter could feel himself grow.
To commemorate the birth of Bully Hill, he captured his thoughts and emotions in a four-foot by four-foot redwood woodcut that became the symbol of his vineyard.It shows an open human palm with fingers extended, and grapes and grapevines growing out of the fingertips. Underneath the woodcarving, Walter wrote: "A product is an extension of a person's soul."
In 1971, Greyton H. Taylor died. Walter lost his closest friend when he lost his father. "He was the only one who ever understood me and what I was trying to do." Walter says. He inherited "maybe three or four hundred thousand dollars in cash" and Greyton's shares in Bully Hill. His inheritance, Walter says, was used to pay off debts he incurred to start the vineyard. "Reports that I became an instant millionaire," he says, "are wildly exaggerated.I still haven't finished repaying all my debts."
Greyton's death occurred just as the first vintage from the freshly incorporated vineyard was being bottled for market. "It was a dream we shared," Walter says, "to produce a 100% New York State wine from French-American grapes developed here. I'm glad he saw it come true."
According to Walter's numbers, Bully Hill sold 300 cases of wine that year and grossed $6,000. "It was extremely difficult to sell a product that had never been made before. We sold it anywhere we could. Not many people wanted to take it." Fortunately, Walter had one thing in his favor; he was turning out some extraordinary wine. Many experts agreed that his reds were equal to, if not better than, any others produced in America. His whites, particularly the Aurora Blanc and Seyval Blanc, were said to be among the best available anywhere.
Soon, Bully Hill was selling all the wine it could produce. In the meantime, Walter kept up his steady pressure for reform in the wine industry, particularly within New York State. In 1967, he had founded, on Bully Hill, the first wine museum in America.And in 1972, he hung a picture in the museum that he claims outraged New York State winemakers, and graphically summarized his contempt for tank-car wine. Done by Walter in pen and ink, it shows night-marish representations of New York grape growers bizarrely contorted as they strain to support a tank car rolling over the tracks above them on its way to New York State wineries. The tank car leaves crucified bodies in its wake.
Walter says he received death threats as a result of this drawing. It is an unexpected and dark chapter in his story that even Walter has difficulty recounting. He seems to stumble and stutters when he encounters it; then he blurts out, "I was told by friends that unless I stopped those drawings, I was going to be shut up." Walter also claims that rumors were circulating that he had been put away in a "nut house" and that these rumors got back to his mother and upset her greatly.
He decided that his best defense against such allegations of insanity was to increase his visibility, to get a little press. So he hit the road. And, like everything else about Walter, he did it in style.
He was a feature writer's dream. He was a sideshow, a one-man carnival, a gross exaggeration of America's love of hyperbole. Ostensibly, he was off on some kind of jaunt to promote his wines and to crusade for fair labeling of all wines. Mostly, he was a folk hero in the making, and the facts didn't matter.
Still, participants in the daily miracle managed to keep their wits long enough to get the essential truth straight. Said a Boston Herald American reporter: "He's every inch a showman! The former protennis player carried a backpack and bulging portfolio held together with string from which he produced, like a magician out of a hat, a seemingly endless assortment of objects including a sketch pad, oil paints, a couple of tennis racquets, a bunch of grapevines, and a few bottles of his own wine. An accomplished musician, he also totes around a guitar slung across his back and a harmonica tucked in his pocket."
Walter recalls this period as the "travels of Johnny Grapeseed," a humorous but accurate assessment. Walter was becoming a folk hero. In his travels, he was testing the durability of his charisma; he was refining his personal style to capture just the right mixture of selfrighteous histrionics, shocking sincerity, and Laurel-and-Hardy buffoonery.
After the 1975 romp, Walter settled back on Bully Hill with his newspaper clippings and testimonials. He was an acknowledged mouthpiece of winemaking -- somebody to be quoted. Naturally, when the merger between Coca-Cola and the Taylor Wine Co. was proposed, Walter had to be consulted. On September 14, 1976, he told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: "I think it's going to be one of the best things that could happen to Hammondsport. Coca-Cola is one of the best-managed companies in the United States." And then the axe fell.
"Up until 1976," says Michael J. Doyle, who was then general counsel and is now president of the Taylor Wine Co., "our feelings had been to leave the issue alone, but when Walter announced he was coming out with a special line of Walter S. Taylor wines, we decided it couldn't be ignored."
Doyle explains that the front and back labels Walter intended to use on these new wines were radically different from any Walter had used in the past. Although Walter had often signed his name on labels in the past and called himself "owner of the estate," the name of Bully Hill Vineyards was always given greater prominence.
On the new labels, Bully Hill Vineyards was of decidedly secondary importance compared to the prominence of the Taylor name. On the labels for the Seyval Blanc, vintage 1976, for example, the Taylor name appears nine times. Walter was no longer just the "owner of the estate"; he was the "owner of the Taylor Family Estate." On the back label, Walter claimed that Bully Hill was the original Taylor vineyard and called it the Taylor Family Vineyard Estate.
In addition, Walter included on some of the labels portraits he had drawn of himself, his father, and his grandfather. He identified his ancestors and gave their life spans in years. "It's a question of when do you say enough is enough," Doyle says. "When Walter came out with the special line of wines, it was clearly enough." When asked why he decided to change his labels, Walter says, "What the hell? I had put my name on my wine bottles before and nobody ever bothered me."
On July 8, 1977, the Taylor Wine Co. filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York that contained eight claims for relief from trademark infringement and unfair competition. Taylor Wine also asked the court for a preliminary injunction to stop Bully Hill from using the new labeling.
Among other things, Taylor Wine attorneys pointed out that some of the statements on Walter's labels were incorrect. The home of the original Taylor family wines, they said, was the Taylor Wine Co. and not Bully Hill Vineyards, which had been founded only recently. Moreover, they said that although Walter Taylor had once owned the 70-acre site on Bully Hill now occupied by his grandson's vineyard, the first piece of land Walter's grandfather ever acquired for a vineyard was a 7-acre parcel purchased several years earlier. And that acreage was still owned by the Taylor Wine Co.
Judge Harold P. Burke agreed with Taylor Wine's complaints and on August 10, 1977, issue a preliminary injunction. His instructions were severe. Bully Hill was enjoined from "using the word Taylor or any colorable imitation thereof in connection with any labeling, packaging materials, advertising, or promotional material for any of defendant's products."
If Walter's campaign against tank-car wines was potent, his new cause was many times more powerful. On the face of it, the case was extraordinary. Taylor Wine had merged with Coca-Cola seven months earlier, so this court battle was obviously a David-and-Goliath tussle. Here was a tiny vineyard being victimized by a giant, worldwide corporation whose sales numbered in the billions. You can put junk in wine, but steal a man's name? The press went nuts and fanned a running brushfire of features and editorials from coast to coast.
"I've always been amazed," Doyle says, "that with all the attention this story got in the press, hardly anyone came to interview us. It's as if we were wrong simply because we were big. I can tell you we didn't even get the approval of the Coca-Cola Co. to go ahead with this. We would've done the same thing, merger or not. Frankly, most of the people at Coca-Cola don't have any position at all on Walter. They don't even know who he is."
Unfortunately, Doyle was right. Most people could've cared less what Taylor Wine or Coca-Cola had to say. The company had been completely upstaged by the irrepressible Walter, folk hero in the making. Even while his appeal of the preliminary injunction was being considered by the court, Walter was busy orchestrating a series of defensive flourishes that he claimed followed Judge Burke's ruling.
Walter blotted out his last name wherever it appeared. He painted over or covered with gray tape the name Taylor on every sign at the winery. He even scratched it out on a road sign identifying Greyton H. Taylor Memorial Drive, which runs up Bully Hill in front of the winery. He stood by the counter in the winery's retail store and asked every customer to help him in his cause and gave them black felt-tip markers so they could obliterate his name from the wine bottle label. "We went through thousands of bottles like that," Walter recalls. "It was an incredible scene."
Then he drew Lone Ranger masks onto the portraits of his ancestors that also appeared on his labels. The mask idea intrigued him, and he frequently wore one himself as he greeted vineyard visitors. He took to calling himself Walter S. or Walter S. Blank, and even toyed with the idea of changing his name permanently to Walter St. Bully. He said he was "unknown, but not unloved." There were Polaroid snapshots of himself on the walls of the retail store and Walter's handwritten question underneath asking, "Who is this man?"
When Taylor Wine attorneys objected to the masked ancestors, Walter drew "Mr. Cyclops," a one-eyed man wearing a coat and tie in an otherwise formal pose. And, if that wasn't enough, he put fanciful animals on his labels: Raccoons doffing their hates, a bulldog in a bow-tie at the wheel of a car with the inscription "Stiff upper lip, Walter S.," and horses, and baboons.
Some people thought he had finally flipped, that poor Walter was rowing through life with only one oar. Many others called him a marketing genius. During the court battle, sales at Bully Hill Vineyards climbed from $650,000 in 1977 to more than $2 million in 1980. The number of visitors to his vineyard store increased more than 25%.
One thing is certain: Walter understood human nature. "The more you try to hide something," Walter says, "the more people want to learn the truth." What was under those black marks, people were wondering, and why is it hidden? The Bully Hill Vineyard became a celebrated stop along the tourist trail weaving through the Finger Lake wineries. Everybody thought Walter was a riot; everybody that is, except Taylor Wine Co. and the judge.
The Court of Appeals decided that although an injunction was necessary, the provisions of Judge Burke's ruling were "too broad." The court said Walter could use his signature "on a Bully Hill label or advertisement if he chooses, but only with appropriate disclaimer that he is not connected with, or a successor to, the Taylor Wine Co."
But Walter's antics in the meantime convinced Taylor attorneys that one way or another, Walter intended to violate the spirit of the injunction itself. They urged Judge Burke to make the injunction permanent and to find Walter in contempt. On October 5, 1979, Judge Burke did just that. Bully Hill's actions, the judge wrote, "are all part of a purposefully integrated marketing scheme designed to appropriate the goodwill associated with the Taylor trademark. The labels, promotional materials, advertising, and packaging materials violate nearly every provision of the preliminary injunction."
Judge Burke then ordered Bully Hill to adhere to a list of 11 stipulations detailing what Walter could say, and how and when he could use his name. For example, the judge said that the lettering and size of Walter's signature could be "no larger than one-fourth the size of the lettering of the Bully Hill Vineyards Inc. trademark on the same label, advertisement, side, surface, or page." He also ordered that within 30 days of his decision, Bully Hill had to deliver to Taylor Wine all prohibited labeling and advertising "for destruction."
On Thursday, November 8, 1979, Walter drove the four miles from Bully Hill to Taylor Wine to fork the stuff over. He was dressed in his bib-overalls and quilted vest. He rode a 750cc BMW motorcycle. There followed behind him a tractor pulling a Bully Hill truck with a manure spreader attached, and some 20 cars and vans full of Bully Hill employees and well-wishers. A large banner on the side of the truck proclaimed: "We love Bully Hill and America."
Walter had planned a rally in the town square in the middle of Hammondsport, but it was canceled for lack of a parade permit. Still, Bully Hill employees had enough time to pass out a few signs saying: "Give Walter a name," and "Choke on Coke." Walter and his entourage wandered around the Taylor complex for awhile because Walter claimed he had forgotten where the main office was. As Walter handed over the labels to waiting Taylor employees, some of his groupies went through a cheer by spelling out Walter's forbidden last name. When they were done, the cheerleader screamed, "What does it spell?" And the group screamed back, "Nothing!"
After the parade, Walter threw a party back at his winery. But Walter wasn't very happy. "Everybody was laughing and thought the parade was the greatest thing," he says, "but to me, it was one of the biggest pains I've ever experienced. I was very depressed. I mean here I was building a company on honesty and I couldn't tell people who I was. I didn't know if I was ever going to get out of this nightmare."
Sometime later, however, Walter found his own form of salvation. "I remembered when all those farmers demonstrated in Washington, they let loose a bunch of goats, and all the guards were running around after them. So I got a goat and it saved my life. That's when I decided to laugh at the whole thing, to laugh at life."
Walter christened his goat Guilt Free and keeps it in a pen at the winery for all to see. If was the inspiration for his famous statement: "They took my name and heritage, but they didn't get my goat."
Much of Walter's story has passed into history, or legend, but the goat lives on. In July 1981, Walter drove Guilt Free down to Taylor Wine as a symbolic act. Walter rode in an ancient Army ambulance bedecked with flags. He pulled the goat behind in a cart. When he got back to his winery, there were some 1,600 people spilling down the slope of Bully Hill. Walter's whimsical 101st birthday party "for lovers of the family" was in full swing. (Taylor Wine Co. was founded in 1880.) Most of the people had paid $12 a ticket to attend the festivities that included a country rock bank, sky divers, 1,600 pounds of barbecued beef, and a flood of Bully Hill wine. The bash ended at midnight with fireworks.
For the most part, Walter's party was a convincing demonstration of his folkhero status. Walter moved regally through the adoring crowd, conspicuous by his black shirt buttoned to the throat, and black pants. One couple rushed up to him and presented him with a framed collection of his own wine corks, which they had made especially for the occasion. Then a man cornered Walter while hollering over his shoulder to his wife, "Hey, Irene, here's Walter, he'll give you a kiss."
The next day, Walter decided to rev up his video player with a few cassettes of himself in action. The set crackled to life and there was Walter in an opening scene from Evening Magazine. He was strolling down the road in his denim bib-overalls occasionally trying to hitch a ride from passing cars, but mostly strumming a guitar and singing about laughter, and how he's just a happy winemaker. More images, some static, another Evening Magazine. Seems Walter's been done up three or four times. Here's a shot of Walter haranguing a grinning mob of vineyard visitors. "Just call me Walter S. Blank," he is saying. "Yes, I'm the owner of Bully Hill, but I can't tell you where I came from." Walter guffaws.
Now here's a long shot of Walter strolling up another road. There's snow on the ground. He's leading his goat behind him, and the voice over has Walter saying, "They've stolen my name and heritage, but they didn't get my goat." By this time, Walter's yowling with laughter.
The scene shifts and Walter's being interviewed in his office. He's twirling a glass of wine between his fingers and talking calmly about the ebb and flow of his life. Then, unexpectedly, he blurts out, "I wish my father were still here. I miss him."
On screen, it's obvious that he's about to cry. There, in his living room, Walter sits up on the couch. His face is grave. He stares intently at the lingering image, or maybe past it.
"Sometimes," Walter says, "I get very depressed because the courts still won't let me use my heritage. I mean it's the worst form of being a hostage. But then I remember that while I'm alive, Coca-Cola's a hostage, too. I mean what if Coke gets tired of the wine business somehow and they decide to sell Taylor Wine? Then somebody comes along who wants to buy it and they ask Coke, 'Does the company have any liabilities?' And then Coke says, 'Well, there's this guy Walter Taylor...' Can't you just see it? I'm a clouded issue." Then, Walter guffaws once more and goes to bed