Dave Powell out of Torbreck

The bitter split between Dave Powell and the owner of the winery he founded, Torbreck Vintners, is the talking-point of the moment. Torbreck (tastings) is an iconic Barossa Valley winery Powell founded in 1994. He built Torbreck from nothing to a world-renowned brand, selling blockbuster Barossa reds with prices at the highest end, crowned by The Laird (tastings), which commands $900 for the 2008 vintage, exceeding the likes of Penfolds Grange (tastings) and Henschke Hill of Grace (tastings). It has scored a perfect 100 points from some critics (not me). Torbreck’s other top-priced wines Runrig, Les Amis, The Gask and The Steading have big red lovers queuing around the world.

Powell will no longer be associated with Torbreck, whose owner since 2008 is American investor Pete Kight. The way Powell tells it, he did not exercise his option to buy back shares in time, and found himself without any value in the company. Kight then offered him a job selling Torbreck wine as a commissioned employee, and Powell declined the offer. Powell says he’s been left with nothing, and is driving a borrowed car and living in a friend’s house rent-free. He may have to file for bankruptcy.

In fact, Powell – whose name and face are synonymous with Torbreck – has not had a holding in the business for several years. Following Powell’s divorce, the company went into receivership in 2002 and Sydney businessman Jack Cowin (of Hungry Jack’s fame) took a majority shareholding. In 2008, when Cowin sold out, American billionaire Pete Kight, who also owns a winery in the US, came in with a $20 million capital injection. Powell refers to Kight as a friend but the relationship seems to have soured. As Powell tells it, his fatal mistake was to sign a deal five years ago that he didn’t realize could result in him losing the company he’d spent nearly 20 years building. The story is complex and Kight’s version differs markedly from Powell’s.

A side-issue which could turn out to be critical to Torbreck’s future is the story of the 2009 The Laird. Somehow, the wine in the barrels gradually became spoilt, according to Powell. He says the volatile acidity crept up to unacceptable levels, and he pronounced the wine unfit to be sold as The Laird, a $900-a-bottle wine. That this could have happened to such a valuable wine is incredible, but the upshot is that Powell believes the Torbreck business is unprofitable without a Laird to sell. The Laird is sold at five years of age, so the ’09 would have been due out next year. Although there are good wines from 2010 and 2012 waiting in the wings, the intervening 2011 vintage was so poor in the Barossa that no Laird was made. This could further compromise the business, which will have another year without a Laird to sell in 2016. The Laird in a good year runs to 400 dozen. “No Laird, no profit,” says Powell.

Powell also believes – as do many others – Torbreck without him is not really Torbreck, and the fortunes of the winery hinge on his personal following. Time will tell if he is correct. Time will also tell if grapegrowers will go with Powell to his next venture, or remain with Torbreck. For Powell means to start up again, with his son Callum, who is studying winemaking at university – and is currently working the French vintage with Jean-Louis Chave in the Rhone Valley.

“The hardest thing in all of this mess has been telling my two sons their inheritance is gone,” says a sadder but wiser Powell.

A statement from Torbeck’s board said that winemaker Craig Isbel is staying on and that the business will continue without any operational changes.

For more insights into this bitter break-up, click here.

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