Torbreck owner defends departure

Dave Powell, founder of Barossa Valley-based wine estate Torbreck, has hit out at claims that his “volatile” management style led him to be ousted from the company he started up in 1994.

Torbeck's founder Dave Powell

Torbeck’s founder Dave Powell has admitted to being “distressed and saddened” at parting ways with the company he created

Powell parted ways with Torbreck and its current owner Pete Kight last month.

According to a story broken by the Wine Spectator, Powell chose not to accept Kight’s offer to stay on at the company in a marketing capacity, with the magazine citing “personality clashes” and Powell’s “volatility as a manager” as the reason for the split.

Powell released an impassioned statement yesterday in which he described himself as being “deeply distressed and saddened” by the split

“It was never my intention to leave Torbreck. I was offered a deal five years ago when I had my back to the wall financially, which my lawyer told me not to sign.

The Laird

“In extremis and under the illusion of goodwill I signed it anyway and that one stupid mistake has cost me my life’s work,” he said in the statement.

“I have been accused of playing the victim, of being dishonest, of being reckless with company money. If I’m a victim it’s of my own stupidity in signing that deal in the first place.

“They can take the company I built, but they can’t take my passion,” he added.

He also hit out at claims that he has not been responsible for winemaking since 2006, calling them “complete bullshit”.

“I’ve been in the Barossa alongside the troops every single harvest since 1994, and I take full responsibility for the quality of every wine with a Torbreck label on it,” he said.

He finally went on to claim that the 2009 vintage of top wine The Laird is “unsalable at the high price (we) command for it,” due to high levels of volatile acidity.

The 2008 vintage currently has a market value of over £500 a bottle.

Torbreck had to be financially bailed out a decade ago and was taken over by Pete Knight, the American owner of California’s Quivira Vineyards, five years ago for a reported US$20.5m.

“It’s a classic example of a business that has outgrown its original founder,” Kight told the Wine Spectator of the split.

Powell spent 19 years sourcing unique plots of old vine Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier to go into wines such as RunRig and The Laird.

He also did much to put Torbreck’s fleet on the fine wine map in Asia.

Hired by Powell two years before Knight took over the company, chief winemaker Craig Isbel plans to stay on at the estate.

Powell meanwhile is planning a new venture in the Barossa with his son Callum, who is currently studying winemaking in the Rhône with Jean-Louis Chave.

One Response to “Torbreck owner defends departure”

  1. Alex says:

    I find it interesting that an investor with so much money in the business would get rid of its biggest asset.

    One thing I’ve learned about the Australian wine business is that it’s a tight industry. Everyone (winemakers, distributors, retailers, restaurants, bars, etc) wants to see the industry as a whole do well, including their direct competitors (with the exception of the big supermarket retail chains). Those in the industry don’t tend to put up with people who have a bad attitude, so the fact that Dave Powell was in the industry for so long, and so successful, speaks volumes. I’ve started to see people already move away from buying and recommending Torbreck because of the foul taste this move has left in their mouths. It might be temporary, but who knows. If Dave’s attitude and management style are problematic, then he’ll only receive limited support from the rest of the industry. Let’s see what happens.

    I’ve met Dave a couple of times when I was down in the Barossa. One night I had dinner with a few winemakers and he was a few tables away, eating with some clients from Asia. At the end of his meal, he brought over what was left in the top-shelf bottles he had open for us to have with our dinner, rather than take them back to the tasting room or finish them off himself. I thought that was really generous. It said a lot about the camaraderie in the industry.

    There’s no denying he made a bad mistake by signing the contract before ensuring that the offending clause was removed, despite alleged assurances from the investor that it would never be an issue. But still, the idea of a foreign investor swooping in and taking the man’s life’s work that he intended to pass onto his kids is quite shocking, especially to an Australian. Sure, the investor helped when the winery was in trouble, but I’m also sure that he has seen a return on his investment during the last few years, too. I think you’ll find that many will avoid Torbreck from now on, which is sad.

    One thing is for sure; everyone in the industry is going to be very excited when Dave and Callum release wines in their next venture.

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